BOOK IN FOCUS
Daniel Swift. The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound. London: Harvill Secker, 2017. 299 pp.
review by Alec Marsh
This is a book I hoped to enjoy and learn from. I had read Daniel Swift’s previous prose work, Bomber County (FSG 2010) with great interest. It is the story of a search along with Swift’s father, for his grandfather, Acting Squadron Leader J.E. Swift, D.F.C., lost with his Lancaster and crew in the English Channel returning from a bombing raid on Munster in the summer of 1943. The search for Capt. Swift’s grave in Holland burgeons to a fascinating reading of air war and air raid poetry of the Second World War. But what works for family memoir with its built-in pathos, does not work at all for this essentially journalistic exercise ‘in search of’ a notorious figure Swift finds contemptible and ultimately, mad. The result makes Swift look small and ill-informed; a mouse busily squeaking at a mountain.
Despite its academic sub-title, Daniel Swift’s The Bughouse is not a work of scholarship. If the writing were more assured, we could call it belles letters, which is, I think, what Swift aspires to, but his writing—though occasionally resonant—is more often empty, and his critical judgment is strangely obtuse. The title underwrites Swift’s perfunctory attempt to give a history of St. Elizabeths hospital itself and so to place Pound’s spectacular case into a larger context of the history of mental health treatment in the 20th c. I say perfunctory, because the host of trivia Swift chooses—in 1927 the vineyard produced 18,000 lbs of grapes, in 1946 60,000 cut flowers were brought into the wards from the greenhouses (101)—can’t substitute for the deeper analysis demanded. Bughouse greenhouses aside, the overall message is pretty clear; despite considering Pound “an emblem of what a poet is and should be” (3) and claiming to be fascinated by Pound’s evident contradictions, Swift has already decided that Pound is a poet gone wrong—he’s “bughouse,” so the fight feels fixed from the beginning. Swift isn’t interested in Pound, but rather in inscribing his own reactions to him, and thus establishing a spurious superiority. The book is about Daniel Swift—a writer weathering a personal crisis, as he hints, and in need of some intellectual distraction to make himself feel better.
Swift’s attitude of disenchanted knowingness is his biggest obstacle to conveying much about Pound. Swift believes that Pound is a fake—and what’s fake is the bulk of Pound’s poetry. The Cantos are, effectively a fraud. You can’t start a serious Pound book by stating:
It is hard to convey bad poetry in quotation. This is why Pound has tended to fare well in the hands of his critics. Anyone can find a good line or two, but the grand bad faith of the Cantos –its pomposity, its anger—is a constant, running line after line (9).
The pomposity and grand bad faith of The Cantos…wow... The Cantos have their faults but pomposity ain’t one of them: “Az ole man Cromley wd. say: Boys!../ Never cherr terbakker! Hrwwkke thh!” (28/136). Bad faith? Bad faith doesn’t keep a poet going for sixty years. Sincerity and, OK, a touch of mania, does. That, and a burning need to save what was salvageable in a world going to rack and ruin. Bad faith? “Hrwwkke thh!”
The whole book has the feel of a television special, even of “infotainment,” from the opening panning shot of the Pisan landscape where stood the DTC, to the closing shot of Swift himself, watching Pound in the 1959 BBC TV special in the Pound room at Brunnenburg. In between he visits archives and libraries, interviews a few folks, consults institutional files, walks what remains of the halls of St. Elizabeths, confers with CASAPOUND people in Rome. His method is supposed to imitate Pound’s periplum technique: Here, it is “the periplum of an entrapped man. He was kept in a narrow space, but he was various enough to appear different to each who looked upon him” (19). Swift wants to “permit rival telling to sing their discord” (18) in an ensemble of responses. Chapter by chapter, Swift is interested in showing Pound’s effects on various poets who visited him: Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, W. C. Williams, Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Frederick Seidel, the only one still living, who Swift interviews. Only one non-poet counts, Dr. Kavka, Pound’s young psychiatrist for a time, Altogether, Swift discovers a genre of reminiscences by visitors he calls “The Tale of the Bughouse Visit” positioning his own book as the last, very belated installment.
We’ve heard most of these tales before, of course, though not assembled in the same place. Too bad Swift has a flair for missing the telling detail. Recounting Charles Olson’s report of first sighting Pound at his arraignment in Washington, Swift says Olson “catches the look in Pound’s eyes: dark, full of pain and tired” (32). Olson saw it a little differently: “That day his eyes crossed mine once, and they were full of pain, and hostile, cornered as he was in a court, with no one around him except his lawyer…” (CO & EP 35). Pound was tired, no doubt. But Olson makes the moment memorable because he presents Pound as hostile and cornered, very much a prisoner in the enemy’s camp. I don’t know why Swift would want to flatten this moment. Later, Swift retells W. C. Williams’ account of his visit to Pound in the Autobiography; how Williams fell into conversation with his taxi driver; “The driver was suffering from a bad back and Williams gives him medical advice. Careful phrase by phrase, for two pages, Williams reports each word that the driver says” (110). But Swift does not report as faithfully. He fails to note that the driver “was a colored man” – a detail vital to Williams (see A 339) – so we don’t get to hear the driver say after hearing from Williams about Pound’s Italian broadcasts “He ain’t crazy… He just talk too much” (A 340), which to Williams, coming from a well-informed African-American, was the whole point of the story.1
Swift shows no interest in Sheri Martinelli’s deep reaction to Pound, though her sexy, kooky presence and Pound’s love for her is, inevitably, exploited in a few late pages (240-4). Surprisingly, Swift does not interview Marcella Spann Booth. Perhaps he was refused the opportunity, but then you’d think he’d say so. In any case, neither woman is mentioned in his uninspired “Timeline” of the St. Elizabeth years (22-28). Despite his lack of interest in Pound’s women—the pages on Dorothy and Olga are also perfunctory—Swift finds a moment of sympathy for fatherless Omar Pound, Dorothy’s son, a “disinherited” outsider seeking vainly for Pound’s approval—when, as we now know, Dorothy was doing everything she could to disinherit Mary for Omar’s benefit. One senses a note of identification there, as though Swift himself had come offering his pale clutch of leaves, only to be snubbed.
Swift attended the 2013 EPIC conference in Dublin and gave a paper on Olson—probably a version of a chapter in this book, but he feels compelled to boast that he didn’t open his copy of The Cantos “not even once” (230) while there. He finds that we Pound scholars are, in the main, congenial, harmless eccentrics, a kind of bumbling family: “This is the academic world: balancing irrelevance and love, and believing the two to be equal” (238). The book is full of empty dicta like this. He suspects our pathetic interest in the man is a high-brow cover-up of Pound’s unsavory politics. Evidently, he didn’t attend David Moody’s controversial talk at Dublin, where he might have heard Fascism and anti-Semitism discussed. Almost incredibly, Swift failed to notice Seamus Heaney walking the Trinity hallways in one of his last public appearances. A bad miss for a name-dropping venture like this one.
As I’ve said, Swift imagines himself a personality ‘in search of’ Pound, about whom his readers are assumed to know next to nothing. Swift fills us in as best he can in the manner of an undergraduate teacher who gets the main story out in a general way but with slippages of detail that can’t help but irritate Pound scholars. He says Pound took his “first degree” at Penn and “then on to Hamilton College in upstate New York” (my emphasis, 63). Swift then tells us Pound “never completed either of his degrees” (63)! A glance at any biography would have told Swift that Pound graduated from Hamilton in June 1905 with a bachelor’s degree and two years later took his M.A. from Penn. “Mr. Edwards” who made Pound that table at Pisa was not a guard, but an inmate of the DTC (6). Another example bothered me: John Kasper did not begin the Square Dollar series in his Greenwich Village bookshop (203), nor did Square $ publish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When Kasper looked at Pound he did not see “a prose Pound: a man of hate, whose blood ran hot with the instinct of negation,” (203) but a benign father, worshiping him as “GREATEST GIVER, KNOWER, SEER, SAGEWATER, GRAIN RAIN and SUN” (JK to EP 10/30/52) as he gushed in a 1952 birthday greeting. Unlike Swift, Kasper said that he’d all but memorized The Cantos, finding in Pound’s work the greatest “body of value” he had ever encountered and a storehouse of “moral principle” (JK to EP 5/15/1951 Lilly).
Swift does not even appreciate The Cantos written in the Bughouse, which ought to be of special interest to him; they are scarcely even discussed. Swift thinks that “a work which so wholly disregards its reader becomes in the end not a poem but something more like a secret, constantly kept. The cantos in this volume [Rock-Drill] are marked by the same attitudes inside conspiracy theories, and within the clinical condition of paranoia” (191); the Rock-Drill cantos “are a document of madness” (191). Thrones, in demanding a philological approach, exposes “the practices of philology” as “no more than empty gestures and in the place of sober academic study Pound’s poem adopts a kind of somber clowning, as if he were only spoofing the scholars, only dressing up in their borrowed robes” (235). Reason enough to move on.
To be fair, Swift admires the Odes, finding them a kind of blues and he is taken by Pound’s very early poetry, “The Seafarer” for instance, which evidently caught his attention in an undergraduate class. But with The Cantos, Swift thinks a good poet lost his head. Canto 1 gets off to a shaky start, he claims, because despite the reference to Circe “the trim-coifed goddess” we are too dumb to know we’re reading a translation of The Odyssey. Swift suggests that the opening is “about the demands of the past which comes to overwhelm our present, which asks almost too much of us now, and which feels like a threat” (40-1). The sentence is murky, but Swift must mean the past, not the present, is the existential threat because he thinks Pound undermines it, by breaking the spell in citing Divus’ 1538 edition, the poetry’s source. For Swift, this moment is one of literal disillusion. “It’s just a book, held by pages” he realizes pettishly; “this is nothing but a bundle of documents…the poem is a magician’s trick cruelly pulled off; where you thought you were beginning something new, you are only reading a dead language” (40). OMG! Just a book.
And what’s cruel about it? Most readers, after an initial puzzlement, are thrilled by Pound’s summoning of the ghost of Divus—I was. But Swift has an uncertain grasp of modifiers. He calls the Anglo-Saxon swing of “The Seafarer” and Canto 1 “stuttery metres” (237); and in the same paragraph finds Richard Bentley’s hilarious transformation of Milton’s “Darkness visible” into “transpicuous gloom” banal when it is simply ridiculous.
The chapter of Bughouse that sticks with me is pure journalism: Swift’s visit to Casa Pound in Rome. “Whenever I interview people, I always dress up” he tells us, as though speaking to an invisible camera, “Usually, I play the absent-minded poetry professor, knitted tie and bright socks, but the night before I went to Rome I clipped short my hair, because I wanted to look like them and because I wanted them to like me” (211). Thus prepared, Swift is welcomed courteously. The representatives of the movement are unexpectedly sensible, decent and generous. To be sure, Swift is taken aback by the tortoise tattoo and the fascist handshake—a kind of he-man reciprocal wrist grip. But his instinctive liking for these people seeps through his need to reaffirm the anti-fascist pose Swift feels the age demands. His shallow judgment that Fascism’s “grand claims for eternity are founded upon squalor, and at its biggest it was always so small’ (218) is meant to reassure us of his decency, but ironically enough, in the context of CASAPOUND’s largesse, it seems mean.
I regret to conclude that the “bad faith” in Bughouse is all Swift’s. The book belongs to a sub-genre of Pound books–Meghnad Desai’s The Route of All Evil (FSG 2006) would be another--that are exercises in self-congratulation rather than the results of scholarly inquiry.
1. Actually, there is some important indirect discourse revealing that the driver is “au courant with public opinion” (A 340); this is Washington; the cabbie is well informed.
Marsh, Alec John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic. London. Bloomsbury. 2015
Pound, Ezra. Correspondence with John Kasper. Beinecke, YCAL 43, YCAL MSS 43 Box 26, Folder 1124.
Olson, Charles. Charles Olson & Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths. Ed. Catherine Seelye. New York: Grossman, 1975.
William Carlos Williams. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams . NY. New Directions. 1967.