Revisiting `Ezuversity' in two new biographies of Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound, The Solitary Volcano, by John Tytell. New York: Anchor/Doubleday. 368 pp. $19.95. Pound As Wuz, by James Laughlin. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press. 224 pp. $17 hard-cover. $9.50 paperback. Ezra Pound is a problem. He was romantic hero and monster, troubadour poet and malicious misanthrope, sublime artist and calculating opportunist. Certainly he is not easily explained or, as John Tytell aims, interpreted. There have been many competent biographies, yet always, it seems, room for another view of the contentious, controversial Ezra Pound.

When Tytell approached James Laughlin, Pound's literary executor and, in many ways, his champion, about the possibility of writing a biography, Laughlin was encouraging about ``an interpretative biography that could explore the myths behind the man rather than merely debunking them.'' Tytell decided to present the facts of Pound's life ``in a honed and chiseled manner,'' and the result is a comprehensive, competent, and lucid account of the troubled and troubling poet, although it is only minimally ``interpretative.'' It is a fair and cleareyed look at Pound's poetry and politics by a biographer who is sympathetic but not starry-eyed, respectful but not adoring of his subject.

Pound's youth in Idaho; his aborted career as a teacher; his emigration to London, Paris, and Italy; his relationship with Yeats, Eliot, Ford, Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, and Hilda Doolittle, among others; his odd marriage to Dorothy Pound and his romantic liaisons; his noisy support of Mussolini; his arrest, incarceration, and decline all are chronicled here. But the motivations behind Pound's often erratic behavior, his abrasiveness, his lack of empathy, his exasperating bravado - these are hardly explored.

Pound emerges no more palpable from Tytell's efforts than he did from the work of Charles Norman, Noel Stock, C. David Heymann, or Hugh Kenner. Tytell has had the benefit of a decade of new research and archival material since Heymann's 1976 biography; but ``The Solitary Volcano'' supplements rather than supplants any previous book, including Stock's more detailed 1970 biography, which was recently updated.

Laughlin himself does better by his former mentor and friend. ``Pound As Wuz'' (to be published in November) has an immediacy that the more objective approaches necessarily lack. Here Laughlin remembers his time at ``Ezuversity'' in 1934-35, when he spent a few months with Pound in Rapallo, and he reflects on the friendship that lasted until Pound's death.

Readers familiar with books about Pound may recall material from some of these essays, since all were previously published and have been used as sources by Pound's biographers. Still, they have a refreshing intimacy. Here, for example, is Pound typing:

``He would assault his typewriter with an incredible vigor. In fact, he had to have two typewriters, because one was always at the repair shop. His typing, which was extremely eccentric, had, I think, a good deal to do with the visual arrangement of the pages in the `Cantos' because, in the fury of composition, he couldn't always take time to go all the way back to the left margin; he would slap the carriage and wherever it stopped that determined the indent.'' Here he is watching insipid Italian movies, ``his feet on the railing, wearing his cowboy hat, eating popcorn, and roaring with laughter.''

Laughlin's affection does not lead him to apologize for Pound or invent excuses for his anti-Semitism, paranoia, or fascism. He prefers to believe that this behavior was symptomatic of mental illness, but when that illness began (other writers have demonstrated racism and anti-Semitism in Pound's writing before 1910) and why are not illuminated by either Tytell or Laughlin.

Pound's is a tragic story, full of ironic twists (the editor who pushed for the American publication of ``A Draft of XXX Cantos'' was none other than Ogden Nash) and dashed hopes. It is a story that will, no doubt, be told again, and the cumulative efforts may serve to enlighten as no single work can. Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.

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