Literary daybook, Jan. 30

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 30, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 30, 1981: Jim Dana's funeral.
-- "Voyage" (1997)
By Stephen Baxter

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1933 Ezra Pound met with Benito Mussolini. This was a brief, one-time talk, but it would bring out the worst in Pound's personality and lead to personal disaster; it would also inspire some of the best of modern poetry.

Pound had lived in Italy since 1924, and become increasingly political. Like many in the '20s, he had come to look upon Mussolini as Italy's salvation and a great man; when granted an audience with him he took along not just some of his poems but an 18-point summary of his Social Credit monetary policies. Mussolini ignored Pound's politics and thought his poems divertente (entertaining), but Pound came away impressed: He had seen the new Thomas Jefferson, and "never met anyone who seemed to GET my ideas so quickly as the boss." When Mussolini went his own dictatorial way, Pound went with him, or far enough to make a weekly series of radio broadcasts from Rome during WWII singing Mussolini's praises and denouncing American policy. The broadcasts often became rambling diatribes -- on economic or Jewish conspiracies, for example -- but they were slanderous and offensive enough to get Pound charged with treason, arrested at the end of the war, and confined for weeks in a wire cage at a detention center in Pisa. Pound was 60 here, and if something had not snapped before, it did under these conditions -- or so enough psychiatrists believed that he was judged paranoid, unfit for trial and hanging, and confined on the criminally insane ward of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C., for the next 12 years.

While incarcerated in Italy Pound wrote some of his best poetry, and when "The Pisan Cantos" were published in 1948, during his second year in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, it won the Bollingen Prize. This was the inaugural year for the Bollingen, a literary award set up with great fanfare, administered by the Library of Congress, and decided by a panel of prestigious writers and academics; that it should go to a man regarded as a traitor and a lunatic brought not just debate but cartooning. The popular press had a field day: "He started out to be a bard and ended up barred" and "Pound went from bad to verse and won $1000" and "Ezra was so unbalanced he wouldn't even hang straight."

The Pisan Cantos are fragmented and allusive in style, references to mythology and Mussolini mixing freely with personal memories of

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

or 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.

The American military censor in Pisa in 1945 eyed such lines suspiciously, thinking that the incarcerated Pound was in coded communication with those who might be up to something. When he received notice that his manuscript might have to be confiscated, Pound replied with 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:

"'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," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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