Literary Daybook, Feb. 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 20, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 20: The (scheduled) date of the wedding of Lady Augusta and Mr. Moffat.
-- "Doctor Thorne" (1858)
by Anthony Trollope

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History

On this day in 1949 Ezra Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize for "The Pisan Cantos," poems written while he was incarcerated in Italy for treason and published during the second year of his 12-year confinement in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington on the ward for the criminally insane. This was the inaugural year for the Bollingen, and the prize was only $1,000, but the award was administered by the Library of Congress and decided by a panel of prestigious writers and academics; that it should go to a man some regarded as a traitor and a lunatic triggered a heated debate in the literary and political community. The popular press had a field day attacking Pound, and modern poetry in general, for having neither patriotism nor rhyme and reason: "He started out to be a bard and ended up barred" and "Pound went from bad to verse and won $1,000" and "Ezra was so unbalanced he wouldn't even hang straight." "The Pisan Cantos" are typically fragmented in style, allusions to Confucius or Mussolini mixing with details of Pound's encagement, with memories of

" ... Jim [James Joyce] the comedian singing:
'Blarrney castle me darlin'
you're nothing now but a StOWne'"

and with messages to T.S. Eliot:

"yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper,
with a bang not with a whimper,
To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars."

Many regard the best of the "Cantos" to be among the best of modern poetry, but such lines so alarmed the American military censor in Pisa in 1945 that he threatened to confiscate Pound's manuscript as an encoded cabal with his sympathizers. Pound sent a "NOTE TO BASE CENSOR" which attempted to explain his allusive technique, and to provide assurances that he had "nothing in the nature of cipher" up his poetic sleeve; it might also have provided those doubtful of his insanity with further evidence that he still had his wits and wit:

"'Mine eyes have' (given as mi-hine eyes hev) refers to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as heard from the loud speaker. There is not time or place in the narrative to give the further remarks on seeing the glory of the lord. In like manner citations from Homer or Sophokles or Confucius are brief, and serve to remind the ready reader that we were not born yesterday ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

the Salon Books Editors

MORE FROM the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal