The critic Hugh Kenner said of Pound upon meeting him: "I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism.
During his studies at Penn, he met and befriended William Carlos Williams and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), to whom he was engaged for a time. Afterward, Pound taught at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, but when he allowed a stranded actress to spend the night in his room, the resulting scandal caused him to leave his teaching post after only four months, "all accusations," he later claimed, "having been ultimately refuted except that of being 'the Latin Quarter type.'" He had been taken to Europe by relatives in 1898 and again traveled to Europe and Morocco in 1902. In 1908 he moved to Europe, settling in London after spending a brief stint working as a tour guide in Gibraltar, and several months in Venice, where he self-published A Lume Spento.
Pound's early poetry was inspired by his reading of the pre-Raphaelites and other 19th century poets and medieval Romance literature, as well as much neo-Romantic and occult/mystical philosophy. After moving to London, the influence of Ford Madox Ford and T. E. Hulme encouraged Pound to cast off overtly archaic poetic language and forms and begin to remake himself as a poet. Pound believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest living poet, and befriended him in England. Pound eventually became Yeats' secretary, and soon became interested in Yeats's occult beliefs. During World War I Pound and Yeats lived together at Stone Cottage in Sussex, England, studying Japanese, especially Noh plays. They paid particular attention to the works of Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor in Japan, whose work on Chinese characters fascinated Pound. Eventually, Pound used Fenollosa's work as a starting point for what he called the Ideogrammic Method. In 1914, Pound married Dorothy Shakespear, an artist, and the daughter of Olivia Shakespear, a novelist and former lover of W. B. Yeats.
In the years before the First World War, Pound was largely responsible for the appearance of Imagism, and coined the name of the movement Vorticism, which was led by Wyndham Lewis of whom Pound was also a friend. Pound contributed to Lewis' short-lived literary magazine BLAST whose two numbers appeared in 1914 and 1915. These two movements, Imagism and Vorticism, can be seen as central events in the birth of English-language modernism. They helped bring to notice the work of poets and artists like James Joyce, Lewis, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Jacob Epstein, Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Frost, Rebecca West and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Later, Pound also edited his friend T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the poem that was to force the new poetic sensibility into public attention.
In 1915, Pound published Cathay, a small volume of poems that he described as "For the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku (Li Po), from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga. The volume includes works such as The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter and A Ballad of the Mulberry Road. Unlike previous American translators of Chinese poetry, who tended to work with strict metrical and stanzaic patterns, Pound offered readers free verse translations celebrated for their ease of diction and conversationality. Many critics consider the poems in Cathay to be the most successful realization of Pound's Imagist poetics. Whether the poems are valuable as translations continues to be a source of controversy. Neither Pound nor Fenollosa spoke or read Chinese proficiently, and Pound has been criticized for omitting or adding sections to his poems which have no basis in the original texts, though many critics argue that the fidelity of Cathay to the original Chinese is beside the point. Hugh Kenner, in a chapter "The Invention of China" from The Pound Era contends that Cathay should be read primarily as a work about World War I, not as an attempt at accurately translating ancient Eastern poems. The real achievement of the book, Kenner argues, is in how it combines meditations on violence and friendship with an effort to "rethink the nature of an English poem". These ostensible translations of ancient Eastern texts, Kenner argues, are actually experiments in English poetics and compelling elegies for a warring West.
The war shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilization and he abandoned London soon after, but not before he published Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). If these poems together form a farewell to Pound's London career, The Cantos, which he began in 1915, pointed his way forward.
On 10 October 1924, Pound left Paris permanently and moved to Rapallo, Italy. He and Dorothy stayed there briefly, moving on to Sicily, and then returning to settle in Rapallo in January 1925. In Italy he continued to be a creative catalyst. The young sculptor Heinz Henghes came to see Pound, arriving penniless. He was given lodging and marble to carve, and quickly learned to work in stone. The poet James Laughlin was also inspired at this time to start the publishing company New Directions which would become a vehicle for many new authors.
At this time Pound also organized an annual series of concerts in Rapallo, where a wide range of classical and contemporary music was performed. In particular this musical activity contributed to the 20th century revival of interest in Vivaldi, who had been neglected since his death. Pound made his first trip back home to the U.S. in many years in 1939, on the eve of World War II, and considered moving back permanently, but in the end he chose to return to Italy. Aside from his political sympathy with the Mussolini regime (he had a personal audience with Il Duce in 1933), Pound had personal reasons for staying. His elderly parents had retired to Italy to be with him, and were in poor health and would have difficulty making the trip back to America even under peacetime conditions. He also had an Italian-born daughter by his mistress Olga Rudge: Mary (or Maria) Rudge was a young woman in her late teens who had lived in Italy her whole life and who might have had difficulty relocating to America (even though she had American as well as Italian citizenship).
Pound remained in Italy after the outbreak of World War II, which began more than two years before his native United States formally entered the war in December 1941 after Pearl Harbor. He became a leading Axis propagandist, but also continued to be involved in scholarly publishing, and wrote many newspaper pieces. He disapproved of American involvement in the war and tried to use his political contacts in Washington D.C. to prevent it. He spoke on Italian radio and gave a series of talks on political and cultural matters. Pound believed that economics was the core issue at hand. Specifically, his talks were largely about usury and the notion that representative democracy has been usurped by bankers' infiltration of governments through the existence of central banks, which made governments pay interest to private banks for the use of their own money. He maintained that the central bank's ability to create money out of thin air allowed banking interests to buy up American and British media outlets to sway opinion in favor of the war and the banks. Pound was not the first prominent American to make this assertion; for example New York City Mayor John Hylan had publicly said the same thing back in 1922 when he said "these international bankers control the majority of the magazines and newspapers in this country." Pound believed that economic freedom was a prerequisite for a free country. Inevitably, he touched on political matters, and incorporated Antisemitism into his denunciations of the war.
It is not clear if anyone in the United States ever actually heard Pound's radio broadcasts, since Italian radio's shortwave transmitters were weak and unreliable, though obviously his writings for Italian newspapers (as well as a number of pamphlets) were read in Italy. The broadcasts were monitored by the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service of the United States government, and transcripts, now stored in the Library of Congress, were made of them. Pound was indicted for treason by the United States government in 1943.
On July 10, 1943, the Allied forces landed in Sicily and rapidly began to overrun the southern part of Italy. On July 25, 1943 King Victor Emmanuel III summoned Mussolini and dismissed him as the premier of the Kingdom of Italy. Upon leaving the palace, Mussolini was arrested and sent to Gran Sasso, a mountain resort in central Italy (Abruzzo). About two months after he was stripped of power, Mussolini was rescued by the Germans in Operation Oak and relocated to the north, where he declared himself the President of the new Salò Republic.
Pound played a minor role in cultural and propaganda activities in the new puppet republic, which lasted till the spring of 1945. On May 3, 1945, he was arrested by Italian partisans, and taken (according to Hugh Kenner) "to their HQ in Chiavari, where he was soon released as possessing no interest." At his request, he was then brought to the U.S. command in Lavagna, whence he was driven to the C.I.C. in Genoa. On May 24 he was transferred from Genoa to a United States Army detention camp north of Pisa. He spent 25 days in an open cage before being given a tent, and appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound's work, being a meditation on his own and Europe's ruin and on his place in the natural world. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1949.
Following his release, Pound was asked his opinions on his home country. He famously quipped: "America is a lunatic asylum." Subsequently he returned to Italy (first to Castle Brunnenburg near Meran, South Tyrol, later to Rapallo and Venice). He remained in Italy until his death in 1972.
E. Fuller Torrey believed that Pound was given special treatment by colluding authorities, specifically Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths. According to Torrey, Overholser admired Pound's poetry and allowed him to live in a private room at the hospital, where he wrote books, received visits from literary figures and enjoyed conjugal relations with his wife. The reliability of Torrey’s allegations has been questioned; other scholars have presented Overholser as behaving solely in a humane way to his famous patient, without allowing him special privileges. At St. Elizabeths, Pound was visited by poets and other admirers and continued working on The Cantos as well as translating the Confucian classics.
Pound was also frequently visited by his protegé, a Library of Congress researcher named Eustace Mullins. Pound commissioned Mullins to write a book about the history of the Federal Reserve and to tell it like a detective story. Pound believed that the bankers in charge of the Federal Reserve and their associates in the Bank of England were responsible for getting the United States into both World Wars, in an effort to drive up government debt beyond sustainable levels (the national debt indeed rose astronomically because of the wars). The book, Secrets Of The Federal Reserve, charges that bankers hide behind the screen of the central banks and pull political strings to drive countries into the war, creating immense profits for themselves as the principal beneficiaries of wartime debt. Pound advocated an abandonment of the current system of money being created by private bankers. He favored government issued currency with no interest to pay, preventing the need for an income tax and national debt, much like the system used by the Pennsylvania Colony from 1723 to 1764. Pound argued that his views on money aligned with those of Thomas Jefferson, as well as with Benjamin Franklin's Colonial Scrip.
Pound was also befriended there by Hugh Kenner, whose The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951) was highly influential in causing a reassessment of Pound's poetry. Other scholars began to edit the Pound Newsletter, which eventually led to the publication of the first guide to The Cantos, Annotated Index to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (1957). Pound had many friends and admirers among his fellow poets, like Elizabeth Bishop, who recorded her response to Pound’s situation in the poem "Visits to St. Elizabeth's," and Robert Lowell, who visited and corresponded extensively with Pound. The artist Sheri Martinelli, meanwhile, is believed to have inspired the love poetry in Cantos XC–XCV. Both William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky were among Pound's visitors, as was Guy Davenport, who subsequently wrote his Harvard dissertation on Pound's poetry (published as Cities on Hills in 1983), and the Colonial French nonfigurative painter René Laubies, the first translator of the work of Pound into French (Cantos et poèmes choisis / Ezra Pound, Paris: P.J. Oswald, 1958. 77 pages). In his Portraits et Aphorismes (2001) Laubies writes that he did not remember having any "difficulties returning to visit Pound at the Asylum of St. Elisabeths." He asked Pound whether the surroundings obstructed him: "Not at all, they are the only acceptable Americans." When Laubies told Pound that he was born in Saigon: "Ah, that's why! Only Europeans with a master key to the Suez Canal are worth something...." Charles Olson was a frequent visitor (Pound wrote in a note to his attorney that "Olson saved my life" by providing sane conversation. Olson eventually became disgusted with Pound's anti-Semitic statements and stopped his visits. Pound was finally released after a concerted campaign by many of his fellow poets and artists, particularly Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish. He was still considered incurably insane, but not dangerous to others.
Rudd Fleming, a professor at the University of Maryland, visited Pound often. They collaborated on a translation of Sophocles' Electra, which was published by Princeton University Press in 1989. Fleming stated, when asked about Pound's anti-semitism, that Pound considered it a mistake. A statement from Pound's foreword to a collection of his prose writings (written on July 4th, 1972) would seem to support Fleming's assertion: "In sentences referring to groups or races 'they' should be used with great care. re USURY: I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE. Pound also declared in 1967, "The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism."
On his release, Pound returned to Italy continuing work on The Cantos. In 1972, two days after his 87th birthday, Pound died in Venice, where he is buried.
In his essays, Pound wrote of rhythm as "the hardest quality of a man's style to counterfeit." He challenged young poets to train their ear with translation work to learn how the choice of words and the movement of the words combined. But having translated texts from 10 different languages into English, Pound found that translation did not always serve the poetry: "The grand bogies for young men who want really to learn strophe writing are Catullus and François Villon. I personally have been reduced to setting them to music as I cannot translate them." While he habitually wrote out verse rhythms as musical lines, Pound did not set his own poetry to music.
In 1919, when he was 34, Pound began charting his path as a novice composer, writing privately that he intended a revolt against the impressionistic music of Claude Debussy. An autodidact, Pound described his working method as "improving a system by refraining from obedience to all its present 'laws'..." With only a few formal lessons in music composition, Pound produced a small body of work, including a setting of Dante's sestina, "Al poco giorno," for violin. His most important output is the pair of operas: Le Testament, a setting of François Villon's long poem of that name, written in 1461; and Cavalcanti, a setting of 11 poems by Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250–1300). Pound began composing the Villon with the help of Agnes Bedford, a London pianist and vocal coach. Though the work is notated in Bedford's hand, Pound scholar Robert Hughes has been able to determine that Pound was artistically responsible for the work's overall dramatic and acoustic design.
During his years in Paris (1921–1924), Pound formed close friendships with the American pianist and composer George Antheil, and Antheil's touring partner, the American concert violinist Olga Rudge. Pound championed Antheil's music and asked his help in devising a system of micro-rhythms that would more accurately render the vitalistic speech rhythms of Villon's Old French for Le Testament. The resulting collaboration of 1923 used irregular meters that were considerably more elaborate than Stravinsky's benchmarks of the period, Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and L'Histoire du Soldat (1918). For example, "Heaulmiere," one of the opera's key arias, at a tempo of quarter note = M.M. 88, moves from 2/8 to 25/32 to 3/8 to 2/4 meter (bars 25–28), making it difficult for performers to hear the current bar of music and anticipate the upcoming bar. Rudge performed in the 1924 and 1926 Paris preview concerts of Le Testament, but insisted to Pound that the meter was impractical.
In Le Testament there is no predictability of manner; no comfort zone for singer or listener; no rests or breath marks. Though Pound stays within the hexatonic scale to evoke the feel of troubadour melodies, modern invention runs throughout, from the stream of unrelenting dissonance in the mother's prayer to the grand shape of the work's aesthetic arc over a period of almost an hour. The rhythm carries the emotion. The music admits the corporeal rhythms (the score calls for human bones to be used in the percussion part); scratches, hiccoughs, and counter-rhythms lurch against each other—an offense to courtly etiquette. With "melody against ground tone and forced against another melody," as Pound puts it, the work spawns a polyphony in polyrhythms that ignores traditional laws of harmony. It was a test of Pound's ideal of an "absolute" and "uncounterfeitable" rhythm conducted in the laboratory of someone obsessed with the relationship between words and music.
After hearing a concert performance of Le Testament in 1926, Virgil Thomson praised Pound's accomplishment. "The music was not quite a musician's music," he wrote, "though it may well be the finest poet's music since Thomas Campion. . . . Its sound has remained in my memory."
Robert Hughes has remarked that where Le Testament explores a Webernesque pointillistic orchestration and derives its vitality from complex rhythms, Cavalcanti (1931) thrives on extensions of melody. Based on the lyric love poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, the opera's numbers are characterized by a challenging bel canto, into which Pound incorporates a number of tongue-in-cheek references to Verdi and a musical motive that gestures to Stravinsky's neo-classicism. By this time his relationship with Antheil had considerably cooled, and Pound, in his gradual acquisition of technical self-sufficiency, was free to emulate certain aspects of Stravinsky. Cavalcanti demands attention to its varying cadences, to a recurring leitmotif, and to a symbolic use of octaves. The play of octaves creates a surrealist straining against the limits of established laws of composition, history, physiology, reason, and love.
Pound's statement, "Rhythm is a FORM cut into TIME," distinguishes his 20th century medievalism from Antheil's SPACE/TIME theory of modern music, which sought pure abstraction. Antheil's system of time organization is inherently biased for complex, asymmetric, and fast tempi; it thrives on innovation and surprise. Pound's more open system allows for any sequence of pitches; it can accommodate older styles of music with their symmetry, repetition, and more uniform tempi, as well as newer methods, such as the asymmetrical micro-metrical divisions of rhythm created for Le Testament.
Because of his political views, his support of Mussolini, his opposition to central banking (The Federal Reserve, The Bank of England...) and his anti-Semitism, Pound acquired many enemies throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Historians and scholars generally agree, however, that he played a vital role in the modernist revolution in 20th century literature in English. The location of Pound—as opposed to other writers such as T. S. Eliot—at the center of the Anglo-American Modernist tradition was famously asserted by the critic Hugh Kenner, most fully in his account of the Modernist movement The Pound Era. The critic Marjorie Perloff has also insisted upon Pound's centrality to numerous traditions of 'experimental' poetry in the 20th century. As a poet, Pound was one of the first to successfully employ free verse in extended compositions. His Imagist poems influenced, among others, the Objectivists. The Cantos and many of Pound's shorter poems were a touchstone for Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets; Ginsberg made an intense study of Pound's use of parataxis which had a major influence on his poetry. Almost every 'experimental' poet in English since the early 20th century has been considered by some to be in his debt.
As critic, editor and promoter, Pound helped shape the careers of some of the 20th century's most influential writers including W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Marianne Moore, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, George Oppen, and Charles Olson. Immediately before the first world war Pound became interested in art when he was associated with the Vorticists, a term he coined. Pound did much to publicize the movement and was instrumental in bringing it to the attention of the wider public; he was particularly important in the artistic careers of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Wyndham Lewis.
As a translator, Pound did much to introduce Provençal and Chinese poetry to English-speaking audiences. For example, he helped popularize major poets such as Cavalcanti and Du Fu. He revived interest in the Confucian classics and introduced the West to classical Japanese poetry and drama (the Noh theatre). He also translated and championed Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon classics and helped keep these alive for poets at a time when classical education and knowledge of Anglo-Saxon was in decline. In the early 1920s in Paris, Pound became interested in music, and was probably the first serious writer in the 20th century to praise the work of the long-neglected Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi and to promote early music generally. He also helped the early career of George Antheil, and collaborated with him on various projects. Pound was also interested in mysticism and the occult, but biographers have only recently begun to document his work in those fields.
Readings of Ezra Pound's work by other than author