A petition to free Ezra Pound

In 1955, American poet Ezra Pound turned 70 confined in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington for the criminally insane. He had been there for almost a decade, since pleading insanity in November 1945, to avoid facing treason charges for his activities as pro-Axis propagandist on Rome Radio during the Second World War – charges that could very likely have led to the death penalty. Many writers, such as Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost, sought to mobilise public opinion, lobbying for the poet’s release. Yale Broadcasting Company recorded ‘A Tribute to Ezra Pound’, a radio programme that collected testimonials by, amongst others, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings. Though some of these writers admitted to having no first-hand knowledge of Pound’s broadcasts, such was their devotion to Pound that they agreed to take part nonetheless. Their contributions were collected in Ezra Pound at Seventy, and the broadcast can be listened to here: https://library.harvard.edu/poetry/listeningbooth/poets/pound.html

Similar campaigns were also underway in Italy, where Pound had lived for over twenty years until his arrest. In 1954, his son-in-law had helped arrange a series of broadcasts on Vatican radio, with José V. de Piña Martins, professor of Portuguese at Rome University, launching an appeal to free Pound. Also in 1955, poet Giovanni Papini collected signatures for a petition addressed to the American ambassador in Rome, Clare Boothe Luce, demanding Pound’s release. Co-ordinating many of these efforts was Pound’s Italian publisher, Vanni Scheiwiller, who worked ceaselessly to enlist the support of writers, poets and intellectuals, on both sides of the political spectrum. Scheiwiller offered to act as ‘postman’ for Papini’s petition, which was signed by a long list of writers, including Alberto Moravia, Ignazio Silone, Umberto Saba and Giuseppe Ungaretti. Though poets Vittorio Sereni and Salvatore Quasimodo and translator Fernanda Pivano agreed to sign Papini’s petition, their writings and correspondence with Scheiwiller reveal their enduring reservations about Pound’s wartime activities. I wrote this poem, which revisits their writings on the subject, to reflect the ambivalence of their responses.

 

Not ideas but ties

a united front

of many factions

bind poets, critics, left & right.

 

All, perhaps, agree on compassion,

incline to ask for grace –

less so to endorse action

committed in poetry’s name,

to clear responsibility

that does exist

that needs

examination.

 

Take Lorca – his position

in the order of civilisation;

Pound’s in a limbo, slightly strange –

civilisation yes, but which?

If you write the ambassador,

you must to Franco too. Find

the lost bones a proper spot,

better than the red rag

or Santa Ana. We’ll call it

negotiation.

 

Today in my heart

I feel a tremor of stars

but my path is lost

in the soul of the mist.

 

Spoon River seized, so far

from the jargon – words

made to mean the same,

Leone Ginzburg dead

in the Queen of Heaven.

And what of the meathooks

and the bloody branches?

 

How could we sing

with hearts under

foreign foot, with the dead

that crowd the square

on ice-hard grass,

the children’s lamb-lament,

the black cry

of mother seeking son

hung on the telegraph pole?

 

A war of many wars,

some with histories

still there in the street names –

some cried out too loud

others quiet in defeat: on the

green lawns of the ward

so far from the noise,

was the first silence sown

to build and accrete?

 

On the willow fronds, by vow,

a tree amid the wood

the poets had hung their lyres

of Daphne and the laurel bough

which swung lightly in the wind.

 

Sean Mark (Rome Fellow 2018-19)