Earlier this week I was reading a 1997 piece by Eddie Dean–“Stalking Hinkley.”* In the article, Dean describes the relative ease of visiting Hinckley at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (for the Criminally Insane). Dean mentions, in passing, that Ezra Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s after he had a breakdown as a result of being held in a cage in Italy. This caught my interest, especially in a week with headlines like: “Senate Wants the Military to Lock You Up Without Trial” and “Ceding Liberty to Terror.”
Ezra Pound, player in the early modernist poetry club, fan of Hitler, fascist and anti-Semite, was charged with treason in 1943. His crime: accepting the request (and the cash) of the Italian government to make regular radio broadcasts attacking the U.S. and FDR. When the war ended, Italian partisans captured Pound and delivered him to the U.S. forces in Italy. There is pretty much full agreement that Pound was indeed treasonous, and also an unrepentant jerk.
Pound was delivered to Army Intelligence in Italy, and was interrogated by the FBI. During the interrogation, he did himself no favors by calling Hitler “a saint,” praising Mussolini, and offering to help Truman negotiate peace with Japan. When the interrogation was finished, Pound was delivered to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) in Pisa, which included a prison for soldiers being court-martialled.
While at the DTC (in May 1945), Pound spent 3 weeks in an outdoor steel cage (as shown in the photo to the left). His belt and shoelaces were confiscated (per standard procedure), and he was kept in isolation. Courtesy of the Internet, we have the temperature records for Pisa during Pound’s cage time. The highest daytime temperature recorded was 87 degrees Fahrenheit, the low was 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Not deadly temperatures, but a bit extreme for a poet in a cage.
The top of the cage was covered with tarpaper for shade, and Pound was given a few blankets. Apparently, Pound suffered most from the heat, dust and ceaseless glare; if you have spent time in the Mediterranean, you probably recognize those as accurate and real concerns. After a week or so, Pound’s physical and mental state became increasingly fragile. After three weeks he was removed to a tent and provided with a cot and a few other comforts, including reading material. During this incarceration Pound wrote a draft of The Pisan Cantos. The discovery of a few stanzas written on toilet paper suggest that he started writing while still in his cage.
Pound was taken from Pisa to Washington D.C., where he was found to be “unsound” and not competent to stand trial for treason. Pound remained was sent to St. Elizabeth’s, where he stayed for 12 years. At that point the indictment was dismissed, and Pound returned to Italy, where he lived as a recluse until his death in 1972.