Attainted: The Life and Afterlife of Ezra Pound in Italy

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Niccolo and Donkey
Attainted: The Life and Afterlife of Ezra Pound in Italy

Open Letters Monthly

Luciano Mangiafico

September 2012


On May 24 1945, distinguished U.S. poet Ezra Loomis Pound found himself locked in a special cell – a cage, really – in the United States Army Disciplinary Training Center in Metato, a few miles north of Pisa, Italy.

The USDTC stockade, which stateside newspapers had dubbed the repository of “the dirty sediments of our troops in the Mediterranean theater” was used to incarcerate U.S. military personnel who had committed serious criminal offenses and were awaiting either court martial, transfer to a penal institution in the United States, or execution. Most prisoners were housed in tents, but those suspected of suicidal tendencies, considered a danger to others, likely to make escape attempts, or condemned to death, were housed in so-called “observation cells,” commonly known to inmates as “death cells.” The 7103rd Disciplinary Training Company, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele, a graduate of Harvard University, manned the camp.

Pound was the only civilian in the stockade. Instructions from higher-ups stated that Pound was to be put under “special and permanent surveillance to prevent escape or suicide. No contacts with the press. No privileged treatment.”

Pursuant to those orders, Pound was placed in one of the camp’s “death cells.” These were outdoor steel-mesh cages, about 6 ft. by 6 ft., which were open to view on all four sides and covered on top with a metal plate. Spotlights lighted the cages all night, and the occupants were kept in isolation, with guards forbidden to speak to them. Pound’s cage had been reinforced with the type of steel mesh used to lay down aircraft runways in temporary war zone airfields. The reason was later given that this had been done to thwart Fascists from attempting to free him.

To prevent suicide attempts, the prisoners had no belts or shoelaces, and no bed, sleeping, as they could, on the concrete slab floor with only blankets. They were fed once a day and they used a can in a corner of the enclosures to relieve themselves. Once every three days, Pound was let out of the cage for a while to go and take a shower and exercise by walking to the shower’s enclosure. No books or other reading material was allowed, except for the Bible. One of Pound’s cell neighbors was a soldier who apparently had been tried and condemned to death and who in his despair kept cursing aloud. Of course, Pound did not know why his neighbor was so agitated.

The guards, not knowing the details of why Pound, then close to sixty, was held like a hardened criminal, were puzzled, particularly since Pound’s behavior, although erratic and sometimes bizarre, was peaceful, courteous, and non-threatening.

After about two weeks in such environment, on or about June 7, Pound apparently suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. The heat during the day, about 75-90F in Tuscany in June, the comparatively cold nights, the dust, the lack of privacy, and the social isolation had gotten to him. Some years later, Pound made light of his Pisa detention:
In fact, he was more a sad figure than a dangerous one. From the bars of his cage, he could see in the distance through the shimmering hot air the low-slung hills near Pisa with their coverings of umbrella pine trees. Pound had seen these same hills in 1898, when, at the age of thirteen, he had accompanied his aunt on a tour of Italy; later, in 1923, he had been in the area again with Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the three on a long trek through the Italian peninsula.

His isolation now made him more observant of his immediate environment and he lost some of his energetic swagger and optimistic self-confidence. As he wrote in one of the Cantos,

Yet, while living in such harsh conditions, the poet continued to write, scribbling some of the poems known collectively as The Pisan Cantos on a few sheets of toilet paper.

He was kept in this steel-mesh cage for about three weeks until his deteriorating condition became unavoidably evident. He had became apathetic, ate but little, and seldom rose from his blanket.
On June 14 and 15, the camp’s psychiatrists examined him, finding signs of memory loss, depression, and general imbalance. Pound had in past shown little regard for psychiatry, and he had called its major theorist “Sigmund the quack,” adding at another time that, “Thanks to Freud and Dostoevsky we have now an army of nervous nellies who are worried sick about their insignificant emotional life…” But it was thanks to the psychiatrists that he was transferred to a pyramidal tent (the type in which officers charged with crimes were housed), allowed reading material, visits from his wife, and even occasional use of the infirmary typewriter. In the tent, he continued to write The Pisan Cantos and to translate from Chinese the works of Confucius.

In a way, Pound also became the camp’s resident character. He devised his own physical exercises, mock fencing and playing tennis using an old broom handle, and was courteous and friendly with the guards, who reciprocated his approachability by being kind to him. He told medical personnel that the government would never try him for treason, because he “had too much on several people in Washington,” and as he left the camp for Rome and transfer to Washington, he put his hand on his neck, making a pantomime of someone being hanged.

He stayed in detention in the camp until on November 15, when he was flown to Washington via Rome to face treason charges.

Who was this unrecognizable Ezra Pound, so far from the reputable poetry anthologies where we find him today? Why was he being kept in a cage in Tuscany, charged with the capital crime of treason by the United States?

* * * *
Despite his 1909 marriage to Dorothy Shakespear, Pound always had a keen eye for women, equating seduction with artistic creativity. Dorothy was aware of her husband’s philandering but chose to overlook it. In the fall of 1922, when he was 36, he spotted 26-year-old American violinist Olga Rudge, and later began a love affair with her that lasted until Pound died in 1972. Rudge was a well-known concert violinist working often with Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti and pianist Renata Borgatti. Pound, who occasionally worked as a music critic, wrote a review of one of her concerts, but the two didn’t meet formally until 1923 at the home of playwright and novelist Natalie Barney. Even though Pound and Rudge moved in different social circles, they hit it off sexually and intellectually, and Rudge even performed some music Pound had composed.

In 1924, the Pounds, unhappy in Paris, decided to move to Italy. In late 1924-early 1925 they were in Sicily, travelling with Irish poet W. B. Yeats and his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees but on Hemingway’s recommendation they headed north and chose to live in Rapallo, a town on the Ligurian Riviera to the east of Genoa. Rapallo, because of its mild climate and friendly atmosphere had long been a favorite place for writers and artists. Among those who at one time or another lived there in the 20th century, we count Hemingway, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Gerhardt Hauptmann, Max Beerbohm, and James Laughlin.

Pound, who had lived in Italy previously, told a friend, “Italy is my place for starting things.” Soon the Pounds rented an apartment in the attic of Palazzo Baratti, an imposing building along the seaside (the entrance to the apartment was from a back street, Via Marsala) and lived there until 1944. Yeats, who had moved to Rapallo in 1928, remembered:
Olga Rudge followed Pound to Rapallo and their affair continued, Pound visiting her frequently while living with his wife Dorothy. Olga was soon pregnant and on July 9, 1925, she gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Pound (later Mary de Rachewiltz). To give birth discreetly, she travelled to Bressanone in the South Tyrol and left the baby in the village of Gais with a German-speaking woman whose own child had died. The woman agreed to care for baby Mary for 200 lire a month, and Mary remained with her until she was about ten.

Finally piqued by her husband’s behavior, Dorothy left Pound for an extended spell, spending time with her mother in Siena and moving on to Egypt from December 1925 to March 1926. In Egypt, She must have had an affair with an unknown Egyptian, because she became pregnant. She rejoined Pound in Paris in June 1926 for the performance of an opera he had written, Le Testament de Villon , but stayed behind when Pound left France to return to Italy. When Dorothy was in labor, it was Hemingway who took her to the American Hospital in Paris, where her child, Omar Shakespear Pound, was born in September. Apparently Dorothy Pound, just as Olga Rudge, also lacked the motherly patience and stamina to care for the baby, who was put in the care of her mother Olivia, in England, until he was old enough to be packed off to boarding school.

Olga Rudge, while sentimentally involved with Pound, lived in Venice in a small house given to her by her father in 1928. Pound visited her there when he could get away from Rapallo, a trip of about 168 miles, one way, and he nicknamed the Venice house the “Hidden Nest.”

In 1930 Rudge also rented an apartment in the hilly neighborhood of Sant’Ambrogio above Rapallo, the so-called Casa 60, by the civic street number it had then. On and off Rudge lived there from 1930 to 1985, and was joined in it by Ezra and Dorothy during the period 1944-45. Her apartment was on the third floor, the first floor used for an olive oil press. While the house, now privately owned, is currently reachable even by public bus, then one could only get to it by walking uphill on a narrow path, a tiring half hour trek from seaside Rapallo. The house had no modern conveniences, not even electricity. Olga also continued her musical career.

In February 1927, Rudge met with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was also a fair violinist, and the two discussed the differences of music for violin and music for piano. Starting in 1931, she and Pound organized and played often in the Concerti Tigulliani , in Rapallo. The concerts allowed Rudge and Pound to promote the music of the then-almost-forgotten Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, introduce Bela Bartok’s String Quartets to Italian audiences, and to play publicly music written by Pound.

Since during the tough economic times of the 1930s, music performers also suffered, in 1933 Olga took a job in Siena as secretary in the Academia Musicale Chigiana, a center of advanced musical studies founded in 1931 by Count Guido Chigi Saracini. Rudge, with the occasional assistance of Pound, started and transcribed original manuscripts of Vivaldi’s music, identifying over 300 new pieces, and in 1938 founded the Centro Studi Vivaldiani within the Academia Chigiana .

Ezra Pound, then, was not only a superb poet and a superior literary critic, but a music scholar and composer – and he believed himself to be a political economist and monetarist, beliefs that led him to see conspiracies to control economic output and finances in the capitalist countries … and, fatefully, to side with Fascism as a political system that, theoretically, could put the brakes on the free market excesses.

He became obsessed about control of the money supply and interest rates and railed against the Wall Street elite who, in his judgment, had caused the Depression and were hindering economic recovery in the U.S. As many of the principal figures in the financial markets were of Jewish descent, Pound moved easily to anti-Semitism. After the end of World War II, Pound claimed that his intention had been to educate Mussolini in economic matters, and he later told poet Allen Ginsburg “My worst mistake, was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism – spoiled everything.” Giuseppe Prezzolini, an Italian writer who had lived in both in Fascist Italy and in the USA, believed that “uncle Ez” knew less about Fascism than the Fascists knew about the poet.

Pound’s economic views derived from the writings of German economist Silvio Gesell, who for a very brief period had been Finance Minister in the leftist Republic of Bavaria and from Major Clifford H. Douglas, an Englishman who popularized the ideas of an economic philosophy he called Social Credit. One of the major tenets of these beliefs was that money should be regularly taxed, so that incentives to hoard it would diminish. The only large-scale partial implementation of Social Credit monetary policies took place in the Province of Alberta, Canada, in 1932-35.

In his economic writings, ABC of Economics (1933) and Social Credit, What is Money for? (1935), Pound referred to bank executives as sharks, and accused them of causing the decline of American democracy; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was depicted as a Wall Street stooge and the nearest thing to a dictator the U.S. had ever had. As Pound explained:
Thus, Pound’s analysis decried the cooperation between government and financiers, which allowed them, he believed, to defraud the public – the “monetary monopoly.” Monopolies cannot exist without government approval, and financial monopolies are parasites, since they did not produce tangible goods.

In the Europe of the 1930s, with dictators installed in Germany and Italy, Pound noticed that with state guidance and often-outright control of banking and business activities, unemployment and inflation had declined and public spending in education, health, and other social services increased.

Although not a card-carrying Fascist, Pound sympathized with its theories and most of its practices. Having studied in the 1920s the cultural theories of German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, who believed that culture is the product of particular races, Pound concluded that Mussolini was the genuine embodiment of Italian culture: he had overthrown rapacious plutocrats, made politics into an art form, and supported a revival of culture. He stated: “Mussolini has told his people that poetry is a necessity of State, and in this displayed a higher state of civilization in Rome than in London or Washington.”

Pound had had his eye on Mussolini for a long time, hoping to use him as a conduit to make his economic ideas more well known and perhaps adopted. One month after Mussolini had assumed power, on April 23, 1923, Pound asked for an audience with the Duce, but his request was ignored.
Later, in February 1927, Olga Rudge played a concert at Mussolini’s residence. The Duce, as noted, was a competent violinist, and he enjoyed music. One contemporary report from Youngstown, Ohio, where Rudge was born, states, “Mussolini complemented [sic] Miss Rudge on her technique and musical feeling, saying that it was rare to see such depth and precision of tone, ‘especially in a woman.’” It was then that Pound got the grand idea that perhaps Mussolini could also be swayed to become a promoter of avant-garde writers and artists.

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Niccolo and Donkey