The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

by Daniel Swift


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In 1945, the American poet Ezra Pound was due to stand trial for treason for his broadcasts in Fascist Italy during the Second World War.

Before the trial could take place, however, he was pronounced insane. Escaping a possible death sentence, he was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital near Washington, D.C., where he was held for more than a decade.

At the hospital, Pound was at his most infamous, and most contradictory. He was a genius and a traitor, a great poet and a madman. He was also an irresistible figure and, in his cell on Chestnut Ward and on the elegant hospital grounds, he was visited by the major poets and writers of his time. T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Charles Olson, and Frederick Seidel all went to sit with him. They listened to him speak and wrote of what they had seen. This was perhaps the world’s most unorthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum, with chocolate brownies and mayonnaise sandwiches served for tea.

Pound continues to divide all who read and think of him. At the hospital, the doctors who studied him and the poets who learned from him each had a different understanding of this wild and most difficult man. Tracing Pound through the eyes of his visitors, Daniel Swift’s The Bughouse tells a story of politics, madness, and modern art in the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538040
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/20/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 318
Sales rank: 535,241
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London. His first book, Bomber County, was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and his essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s Magazine.

Read an Excerpt



On the night before he first sees Pound he takes his words and cuts them up. They fall like ash, a storm.

It is Monday 26 November 1945 and an exceptionally tall and ruffled man somewhere between youth and middle age is at home in his small apartment in the outskirts of Washington, DC. He is so tall that he breaks beds and has to have his shirts made specially; so tall that he was exempt from military service during the war. His name is Charles Olson. Later, he will be celebrated as the father of postmodern American poetry, but this evening he is not quite yet a poet. Before him is the new issue of PM magazine, which includes an outspoken, perhaps foolish, interview with Ezra Pound. 'If a man isn't willing to take some risk for his opinion, either his opinions are no good or he's no good,' Pound declares in the interview and Olson notes this down. He copies out two phrases from his volume of Pound's Cantos, too, and he takes lines from the strange and rambling essay called Jefferson and/or Mussolini, which Pound wrote in early 1933 and which now, after the war, looks like his most incendiary book. 'Stand with the lovers of ORDER,' Pound instructs, and Olson notes it down, and then: 'a one-party system is bound to appear'. These are troubling phrases. It is a careful jumble, and at the top of the page, as if this were a legal proceeding, Olson adds a title: 'Your Witness'. The next day he goes into the centre of the city and in the pillared courthouse just after lunch he hears Pound described as a traitor, then as insane, and last of all as one of the greatest literary geniuses of the time. Olson watches as Pound stands silent, and he catches the look in Pound's eyes: dark, full of pain and tired. He thinks for a moment about reaching out to touch him.

At the end of 1945 St Elizabeths Hospital housed 7,031 patients. There were 4,109 men and 2,922 women; 4,835 were white and 2,196 were, in the language of the time, colored. In December 102 arrived, almost all of them servicemen who had come back from the war but stayed touched by it, and these numbers tell us two things. They suggest the overcrowding that had cursed the hospital since its first construction, and they reveal the huge scale of life here, how this is a place where one man might get lost. On 21 December the patients in occupational therapy finished wrapping 1,425 Christmas gifts in bright tissue paper. These were for the women but almost everybody got something for that afternoon the more mobile patients distributed through the wards 3,096 green and red rough muslin bags, each filled with an apple, salted nuts in cellophane and a pack of chewing gum. That evening, as the wards of Center Building were echoing with the laughter of humble gifts being handed out, Ezra Pound arrived at St Elizabeths.

Pound did not receive a gift because he was not on the wards. He was brought direct from the District Courthouse to Howard Hall, a separate and enclosed building to the west of the hospital grounds. This was the maximum security section, for the most dangerous patients, and it was designed to keep the criminally insane and the violent apart from the war-shocked soldiers who filled the rest of the hospital. It was three storeys, square and brick, with a tower at two corners; a low garden around it, and then a high wall. 'Howard Hall is totally inadequate,' notes the hospital's 1945 annual report: 'it lacks hydrotherapeutic, recreational, occupational and various other facilities.' Pound stopped his ears with paper and spent the night trying to escape the cries of the other patients.

In the morning he reported to his admission interview. 'This patient this morning strolled into the examining room, seated himself wearily in the chair offered him, sighed deeply, held his head, and immediately began to complain about his Howard Hall surroundings,' begins the lightly sardonic account kept by the doctor who conducted the interview. Dr Edgar Griffin was clinical director of Howard Hall and saw many patients in many states of various distress, but this patient insisted he was different. His shirt was untucked and his buttons were undone, and he talked about Confucius and the founding of the Bank of England. At one point he took out a small notebook and from it made a short speech about Italian politics and how he was not a traitor but a saviour. 'Delusions of persecution and grandeur,' noted the doctor and wrote it all down.

To the doctor that morning Pound told a colourful story. He recounted how he had moved to Italy because he and his wife Dorothy could afford to live there on their small income, and how when the war began he knew his ideas could help, so he sought out the microphone and started to broadcast. He told the doctor that he had been misunderstood, and how they had held him in a cage at Pisa. He slept on the floor there, he said, and then he suffered from 'great confusion and loss of memory'. At the start they treated him like a criminal, but later they were kind. When they brought him to America he was first held at the city jail, and then the old symptoms started to return, but he recovered once he was transferred to a public hospital in early December. Now he feared he would fall ill again, because of the noise and bright lights. 'What is wrong with you?' the doctor asked, and Pound replied: 'All of Europe upon my shoulders.' He was, he repeated, just so tired, and soon he became angry. 'I want quiet,' he said, raising his voice, and 'If this is a hospital, you have got to cure me.' Cure you of what? asked Dr Griffin, and Pound replied, 'Whatever the hell is the matter with me – you must decide whether I am to be cured or punished.'

Howard Hall was a place of both punishment and cure. The original plan of St Elizabeths, dating from the 1850s, had no separate, enclosed ward for the criminally insane. Howard Hall was added in 1891: 120 single rooms set in two L-shaped buildings, interlocking to frame a quadrangle. That year, the superintendent described this as 'a perfectly secure ground where the inmates can be at will in the open air and sunshine. Here they can grow plants, keep their pet birds and animals, and make it their home.' On the original plans the structure looks fine and elegant. There are walkways marked 'veranda', which suggests lemonade and civil afternoons in the Old South. It did not turn out this way. The verandas were iron-barred external walkways, while the courtyard was shadowed by the high buildings ringing it. All was tall and narrow. The doors were seven feet high and two feet ten inches wide, each a single plate of metal with three hinges, two locks and an anchor bolt at the top and bottom. On each window was a diamond-pattern iron lattice, as if the whole building were made from lopsided squares, each one locking into the next.

It was imagined as one thing, but soon became another. Howard Hall was built to house those patients whose insanity had turned to crime, but a second subset of the hospital population were soon moved here too: the violent patients. These required greater restriction. The original building had no perimeter wall but in 1915 one was added: twenty-two feet of reinforced concrete, sitting fifty feet from the building. Paradoxically, this permitted greater freedom to the patients, for now they could go out into what they called 'the Moat', the contained area running around the hall. There were cement benches and drinking fountains, concrete walkways and gardens. A photograph taken during the First World War shows the patients surrounded by growing crops, beneath the high wall. Cucumbers, cabbages and corn were grown here, as well as sorghum, whose stems were then turned into brooms in a workshop in the basement. In June 1946 the garden at Howard Hall produced 400 bunches of radishes and 12 bushels of green beans, and these were served to the patients at Thanksgiving in what the annual report called 'a tasteful and bountiful repast'.

The annual reports from Howard Hall record this curious double history: there are crops and there are spasms of violence; there is cruelty and care. In the first months of 1946 the doctors arrange weekly screenings of movies for the inmates, and in March the building is sprayed with DDT and a patient stabs an attendant between the eyes with a spike of wood torn from the floor. 'There are a great many patients in Howard Hall with extremely assaultive tendencies,' notes the annual report, which goes on to recommend replacing the old wooden floors with concrete or tile. In May the floors were tiled, and this was Pound's time here. He was held at Howard Hall for thirteen months, from the end of 1945 until the start of 1947.

Ezra Pound arrived at St Elizabeths with the following possessions: twenty-one stamps, a broken watch, a fifty-dollar cheque from PM magazine, a bone-handled cane, seven books and a hairbrush. The hospital inventory is dated 26 December 1945 and also mentions a 'briefcase with papers of unknown value', which were his manuscripts of translations from Confucius and new cantos. Inside the briefcase were his sunglasses, chequebook and a comb. $18.70 of his money was taken to the hospital's finance office, and he was issued with a receipt.

In addition, the following items were carried in an old mailbag:

1 bottle of instant coffee

1 box of cookies

8 pairs of underwear

4 towels

11 undershirts

2 facecloths

2 shirts

1 blue cardigan

2 pairs of slippers

2 pairs of pyjamas, one checked and the other blue

6 pairs of socks

1 pair of shoes

1 canvas knapsack

Unlisted toiletries.

The books – including a poetry anthology, two copies of the New Testament and an army-issue volume of Jewish Holy Scriptures – were locked in the hospital vault for the next eight months.

Although Pound was formally admitted to the hospital on Saturday 22 December, his possessions were not inventoried until the 26th, for he had arrived in the middle of the holiday season and the hospital was running with limited staff on duty. So they waited until the next full working day after Christmas, and this slight delay meant also a curious stutter in his check-in. On the 26th Pound sat for his arrival photograph. He had spent the last four days in the hospital in an untucked loose shirt but now he dressed up in the wide, double-breasted suit he had worn on his journey to America, a blue-checked white shirt with a soft collar and a dark wool tie. He brushed his hair. Four days after his arrival at the hospital, Ezra Pound put on a costume and began again.

There are two halves to his arrival mugshot. When they turned him to take his photograph in profile he closed his eyes and held his head straight, but when the camera was directly before him he opened his eyes and tilted his head, just a fraction to the right. The suit sits a little large on his shoulders. His hair is starting to stand up, again. In the eyes, something is missing. He looks as though he has been left behind.

Charles Olson is the first to visit Pound at St Elizabeths. He had been waiting for this. During the war he had worked at the Foreign Languages Division of the Office of War Information, and when that got dull he took up a post at the Democratic National Committee, encouraging Spanish-speaking Americans to vote for Roosevelt. His political opinions are pious and all-American. When he speaks, he sometimes uses teenage slang. He is bored by his years of work for the government and now he wants to be a poet, but he does not know, quite yet, what this might mean. He is thirty-five years old and has published two articles and four slight poems. It is Friday 4 January 1946 and on his way in to Howard Hall he notices the door: heavy black iron, with nine peepholes drilled into it, three by three.

In the visiting room on the first floor Pound is kind, uncertain, open. He talks about his children, the war and how he came to be at the hospital. He tells Olson about the day the soldiers came with guns and about the cage at Pisa. He is confused, too; he does not know the name of the current president. 'Who is this Truman?' he asks, and when he stumbles over his words Olson does not correct him. Instead, he takes notes: he notes how Pound worries at the frayed cuffs of his shirt, and how his jacket has no buttons. 'I wish only to offer him some personal comforts, do some chores for him,' writes Olson in his notebook, and he records how Pound had asked, 'Is it possible I have seen your name somewhere in print?' This pleases Olson and as he stands to leave he promises he will come again, and he suggests that next time he might bring his wife. Pound likes the idea and Olson writes it all down.

Modernist poems often pose an apparently simple question: how, and where, do we begin? Pound's Cantos open in a tangle of origins. Pound published three cantos in Poetry magazine during the summer of 1917, so this might be one starting point, but he soon abandoned the first of these and heavily rewrote the second and third; he published the first volume of cantos in 1927, under the almost apologetic title A Draft of XVI Cantos. Now, this first canto begins:

And then went down to the ship,
The opening denies us any once-upon-a-time certainties of context or character. Instead, the poem begins mid-scene, upon a journey already underway, just as it apparently begins mid-sentence, with an 'And'. This present moment is merely continuous with whatever came before. Something is missing – the pronouns, the people – and as readers we must deduce; try to see the relations between those few things we are given.

The scene continues. These are sailors, on a ship, and they sail on to the 'bounds of deepest water' and dark cities covered by mist, and beyond these to a place where the seas flow backwards. Here they perform a sacrificial rite and as the blood runs, the dead come to them with curses and pleas. Among the dead is Elpenor – 'our friend Elpenor' – and once we hear this name we know a little more of who they are: the crew of Odysseus, on their interrupted journey home from the Trojan War to Ithaca. Behind this new poem is an older one, perhaps the oldest of them all: Homer's Odyssey.

Now Elpenor recounts how he came to be here. He died a shameful death, drunk on Circe's island, and the sailors left him there, but he asks them to make a monument for him and to inscribe upon it: 'A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.' This is how the Cantos begin: with this doubling, recalled scene, with a journey and an encounter with someone strange yet familiar, a man changed by time and fate, but one whom we once knew. As an opening, it is about the demands of a past which comes to overwhelm our present, which asks almost too much of us now, and which feels like a threat.

Yet it is also – oddly, starkly – about the opposite of this, as the present telling comes to undermine any story of the past. For having conjured this rich scene, thick with poetry, Pound breaks the spell. From nowhere, the poem turns to Latin:

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
He gives the publisher and translator's names of a sixteenth-century Latin translation of the original Greek of the Odyssey, and in doing so Pound reminds us that he has only been retelling an old story. It's just a book, held on pages, shifted through languages, from Greek to Latin and here into English. This is nothing but a bundle of documents, each as frail as paper, and 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.

On 10 January, the week after Olson's first visit, Pound sat for a Rorschach test at Howard Hall. The methodology is simple: he was shown ten inkblots and told the doctor what each recalled to him. 'A brilliant but pedantic individual,' concluded Dr Kendig in his report, in possession of 'abstract and theoretical intelligence of a high order and unusual creative gifts', and so far, this sounds as though he is saying nothing more than that Pound is a poet. He goes on:

His whole responses, however, are cheap and popular and he gives no original interpretations at all, suggesting in part indifference and contempt for the test procedure (very apparent throughout) but probably also certain retrogressive changes accompanying his advancing years.

Perhaps once, when he was a young man, Pound's responses would have been richer and stranger, but now, the doctor finds, 'he gives no original interpretations at all'. This is a cruel judgement to pass upon a modernist whose most famous poem offers a ruthless assault upon the idea of originality, but this is the drama of Pound at St Elizabeths. You put the old man in a new context and now he looks different. He is lit up by their systems, and everything he says and does is noted down.


Excerpted from "The Bughouse"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Daniel Swift.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Liz Bish 1

Timeline of Pound's Years at St Elizabeths 22

Part 1 1946

1 Hell-Hole 31

2 Kafferty 61

Part 2 1947-53

3 Amurika 83

4 The Bughouse 122

Part 3 1954-58

5 The Same Cellar 153

6 CasaPound 195

7 Ezuversity 221

Epilogue: Trying to Write Paradise 255

Essay on Sources 263

Acknowledgements 285

Index 287

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