- The Institutionalization of the Postwar Poet
All America is an insane asylum!Ezra Pound, quoted in the New York Times, July 10, 1958
Through the window of his first room in Center Building in St. Elizabeths Hospital, Ezra Pound could see the dome of the United States Capitol.1 When, over a century earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic, Shelley wrote that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he did not have in mind anything like the literal example of Pound, whose unmetaphorical attempts to be a political actor on the world stage had left him acknowledged by his own government as a traitor.2 Pound’s confinement within St. Elizabeths put him in more than merely literal, geographic proximity to the sources of official power that he had allegedly betrayed. From December 21, 1945, until his release on May 6, 1958, Ezra Pound, in a manner of speaking, held office in Washington, DC. Pound served as an unofficial poet laureate in the postwar period, both embodying and crucially helping to construct a powerful model of what a poet was—dangerous, dissenting, visionary, marginal, and, above all, mad.
Pound, though, was not the only poet living in Washington, DC in the postwar years who commanded a view of the Capitol. If Pound was the unofficial poet laureate of the United States, then the consultant in poetry in the English language at the Library of Congress was the nation’s official unofficial poet laureate.3 The consultant’s view confirmed this more official status; whereas Pound could make out the distant Washington skyline through the hemlocks outside his window, the Capitol dome filled the [End Page 113]
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window above the consultant’s desk, framing it as though in a picture in a museum (figs. 1 and 2).4 According to Karl Shapiro, who held the position from 1946 to 1947, “Classrooms of children came to peer in with their teachers because of the view of the Capitol across the way.”5 The consultantship, or “chair in poetry,” as it was originally called, had been created in 1936; in the years that followed, beginning especially with Allen Tate’s term in 1943–44, it took shape as a quasi-honorific and quasi-bureaucratic job with pay but without a description. Shapiro (writing about himself in the third person) describes just this ambiguity: “He was planted inside a museum room which should have had a red silk braided rope to keep the public out, but this was his office. And to go with the grandeur he was informed that he was to hire a secretary as soon as possible” (Reports, 15). What Randall Jarrell had ironically referred to as “the era of the poet in the Grey Flannel Suit,” the postwar period with its professionalization even of poetry, was nowhere more evident than in the office of the consultant—indeed it was from that office that Jarrell, in 1956, wrote the phrase in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop, herself consultant in 1949–50.6 The young institutional poet with the corner office and new secretary offered a stark contrast to the aging modernist giant, institutionalized in the madhouse some three miles across town. Taken together, Pound and the consultant suggest two competing versions of the poet in the years following the war.
The story, though, is not quite so simple. For just as, in Shapiro’s words, the consultant was “planted inside a museum room,” Pound in St. Elizabeths was himself a kind of museum piece, whose main source of contact with the outside world took...