Friday, January 21, 2011

In for a Penny

He was born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885 and raised in Philadelphia. He moved to London in 1908, aged 23, where he lived for sixteen years, and in 1924, he and his English painter wife, Dorothy, moved to Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera.

He was Ezra Loomis Pound, a leading figure in the modernist literature movement, who edited and promoted the work of many of his contemporaries: W.B.Yeats, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot… His astute but ruthless editing - and enthusiastic patronage - were key to the success of Eliot’s The Wasteland. In beautiful Rapallo, writing and producing plays and concerts, he became a much-loved but slightly nutty local character, even as an enemy alien during the Second Word War.

On May 3, 1945, two days before the end of the war in Europe, he was visited by two armed local ex-partisans, who, saying that the Americans had offered a reward of half a million lire for his capture, arrested him. On May 24, two weeks after Germany had surrendered unconditionally, Pound was taken, under heavy military police guard and handcuffed to a burly military policeman, to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Centre near the village of Metato, a few miles north of Pisa. The word “Training” in its title is a euphemism: the DTC was a punishment camp. Ezra Pound had had no trial, he had been given access to a lawyer, but the lawyer failed to mention that he was working for the US Army. The instructions from Washington were concise: “Afford no preferential treatment” – and they were carried out to the letter. Pound’s “cell” was one of those reserved for the most dangerous criminals or those under sentence of death by execution. It was a six-feet-by-six wire cage with a concrete floor, open to the elements on all sides - an early rehearsal for Guantanamo Bay. He was the only civilian out of almost 4,000 military prisoners; he had no bed and was allowed no exercise or verbal communication; he was fully exposed to the Tuscan sun by day, and by night watched under floodlights.

Pound’s crime was that he had criticised his own government: not only that, but he had done so on Italian State Radio. The content of his talks, which were monitored by the FBI, was both anti-war and anti-Semitic, and the fact that he had agreed to talk solely on condition that each broadcast would be preceded by a statement that he would not say anything “contrary to his own conscience or his duties as an American citizen” was not taken in mitigation.

After more than two weeks under these harsh conditions, he finally cracked: “the raft broke and the waters came over me”, as he later wrote. He was taken to Washington to be tried for treason, the penalty for which was execution. Pound’s breakdown was probably a blessing, because psychiatrists decided he was mentally unfit to stand trial and he was transferred to a medical compound and given a bed, table and writing materials, and allowed exercise. Five months later, before being committed to a Washington insane asylum, he was allowed a visit from his wife and daughter. He languished there for the next twelve years, during which time he completed his famous Pisan Cantos.

He was released in 1958, following a vigorous campaign by his fellow-writers, including Eliot and Hemingway – who, in accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, asked why Pound was still a prisoner. Pound returned to his beloved Rapallo, and later to Venice, where he died in 1972.

You might say that for speaking on a Fascist radio station, he should have been executed for treason. William (Lord Haw Haw) Joyce was. But try replacing Pound’s name with that of Gary McKinnon, the Asberger’s sufferer who hacked into the Pentagon computers from his bedroom just to see if he could; or that of Julian Assange, an Australian internet activist who thought Governments were too secretive. They and their ilk now face the self-righteous wrath of the land of the Free, but for what - eccentricity? During the same war, P. G. Wodehouse went to Berlin several times to speak on Fascist radio. He was knighted by the Queen.

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