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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Ezra Pound's Wisconsin Roots


No one did more to create modern American poetry than Ezra Pound (1885-1972). At a time when poetry in English had more in common with greeting card verses than with the intimate insights of Anne Sexton, Pound and a small group of confederates demanded reform in their 1913 Imagist Manifesto. Pound was the first, or nearly the first, to discover, edit, publish, and review Robert Frost, H.D., T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway. His own Cantos, composed over half a century, won the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1949.

Although he grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and spent most of his adult life in Europe, Pound never fully outgrew his Midwestern roots. His Quaker grandfather Thaddeus came to Wisconsin in 1856, was head of a lumber company in Chippewa Falls; he also served in the Wisconsin Assembly during and after the Civil War and in Congress from 1877-1883. The poet's father, Homer Pound, was said to have been the first white child born in Chippewa Falls, where he worked in his father's lumber mills and delivered the mail. Homer Pound went west after his marriage and Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, where his Quaker father and the local pastor were the only men who didn't pack six-shooters. Finding the West uncongenial, the Pound family moved to Philadelphia when the poet was young.

When Homer Pound retired, he followed his then-famous son to Europe, and lived with him in his home in the seaport town of Rapallo, Italy, in an apartment once occupied by the poet W.B. Yeats. Here a reporter from the Eau Claire Telegram tracked him down in 1931, and extracted his story for this article which sheds much light on the poet's origins.

Besides being one of the 20th century's greatest literary figures, Ezra Pound was a bombastic egotist who allowed his obsessions to carry him over a fatal precipice. He believed that only gifted individuals could create a truly civilized world, and rejected both democracy and socialism. In the 1930s he embraced Italian fascism, as charismatically embodied by Mussolini, and, with reservations, sympathized with German Nazism. During World War Two he even urged American troops in Europe to lay down their weapons. His writings and radio broadcasts from this period contain some of our country's most virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric. For his actions during the war, he was confined in a Washington, D.C., psychiatric hospital for 12 years before being pardoned in 1958 and returning to Italy.

In old age Pound repudiated many of the views he'd expressed years before, especially his callous racism and his faith in brutal dictators. Mired in depression in his 70s, he often refused to speak at all when he considered the harm that some of his words had caused. But many of his other words formed some of the most penetrating and beautiful poems in the English language and opened the door for poetry as we know it to be born. Before Pound died in 1972, a new generation of American poets, including Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and Donald Hall, had beaten a path to his door to meet the man who more than anyone else had created their artistic world.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 22, 2008

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