It is often said that Ezra Pound, the modernist poet, was a crank and a genius. But this is wrong. Pound was a crank of genius: he put his genius at the service of his crankiness. As he did this, developing a complicated and conspiratorial worldview predicated on an assertive and often inaccurate use of scholarship, Pound provided a distant model for many of the alt-right and alt-left conspiratorialists who have, over recent years, proliferated in internet culture.
Ezra Pound was born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho and taken to New York as a toddler. He later studied in Pennsylvania and New York, starting a doctorate which he abandoned after alienating his department by, among other things, winding up a large tin watch while the head was speaking. An early example of trolling, perhaps.
In 1908, he moved to Venice, then quickly to London. On to Paris in the 1920s, and then to Rapallo in northern Italy, where he remained for several decades. There his fascist tendencies were codified and expressed, most infamously in his pro-Axis broadcasts during World War II for the Italian Ministry of Culture.
The surviving broadcasts, perhaps several thousand in total, possess such charming subtitles as ‘Why Pick on the Jew?’ and ‘Big Jew’, in which he shares his vision of an Allied war effort corrupted by ‘Jewish slime’ and ‘high kikery’. They are largely unlistenable, and Pound himself, later facing charges of treason because of them, could not even remember what he had said. For the speeches Pound was paid a total of $12,500 (around $185,000 in today’s money) and offered reduced fare on the country’s railways.
Most critical discussion of Pound revolves around whether it is permissible to enjoy the poetry of a man who was a fascist and an anti-Semite. I am less interested in salvaging Pound’s poetry from his crankiness than his crankiness from his poetry, for Pound is one of the first authentically modern cranks. (The word ‘crank’, incidentally, first figures in the pejorative sense in 1833, and denotes someone with a mental ‘twist’.)
Pound the crank would be right at home in the present. How easily one can imagine him on his own YouTube channel, railing against George Soros and the ‘Zionists’ — goodness, with the latter, he wouldn’t even need to update the word — and plugging his latest premium content. All the while the donations would be flowing in and ‘Ez’ would be offering shout-outs to the students of what he used to call in conversation the Ezuversity. The show would have studio guests who should know better and, most importantly, a rotating and expanding cast of villains (Roosevelt, ‘usury’ and ‘The Jews’), condemned through the selective deployment of facts.
Social suicide was less lucrative in Pound’s day, however, and he paid a higher price for his speeches than just loss of income. In 1945, Pound was arrested for treason by the US army, held in a cage near Pisa and extradited to the States, where, fearing the death penalty, he pleaded insanity. He was then confined to St Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington DC, where he remained for 12 years, receiving regular visits from acolytes and even, in 1948, a literary prize.
After his release, Pound said that America itself was an insane asylum, a phrase which again anticipates the self-protecting, hermetic logic of an internet crank: ‘If you say I’m crazy, it proves I am right.’ His long incarceration also evokes another modern crank, Julian Assange, not least in the excuses that many highly educated people make for both of them. Ezra Pound did write some good poems, and Julian Assange did shed a little light, but those facts no more define these men than the occasions on which they behaved miserably.
As with many conspiratorialists, Pound’s sincerity is in question. One of his earliest collections was called ‘Personae’, in which he ventriloquized the voices of medieval poets. Perhaps the fascist, the lover of Mussolini — whom Pound called ‘The Boss’ and who claimed, after their one meeting, to understand his work — was another mask he wore, one which so grew into his face over time that he could no longer take it off. This is what happens with some cranks, I suspect. They start off with a quasi-ironic performance, an attraction to provocation and disruption — like Steve Bannon — but get caught in a feedback loop which ends with the performance becoming no longer recognizable as such even to themselves. Plus they’re getting paid for it. In this sense, the modern internet crank is just another self-employed hustler of our age, making the best use of what he or she has — normally an ability to talk quickly and an internet connection.
Pound eventually paid a heavy price and ended his days a harried, traumatized figure, regretting his anti-Semitism and retreating into the least cranky thing of all, silence. There were no more paydays for his brand of conspiracy theory. Yet whether cranks stick by their performance or not, their disciples do. People gather and assist in elaborating myths the cranks themselves may not be able to finesse. As Pound wrote before abandoning his epic poem ‘The Cantos’: ‘I cannot make it cohere.’
The effort to make his views cohere continues. Beneath the few videos of Pound reciting his poetry on YouTube you find stray comments admiring his legacy; one of the readings was even uploaded by an American white supremacist, Augustus Sol Invictus, currently facing trial on domestic violence and kidnapping charges. Meanwhile in Italy, a neo-fascist party, CasaPound, bears Pound’s name. That’s all a much more significant impact than reviving ancient poetic forms, and it reminds us that our lasting influence can be as much in our bad ideas as our good ones. We should watch what we say.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.