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Ezra Pound and the Curse of Genius

3 min

Many individuals with immense potential fall prey to this psychological pattern.

I mentioned last week I've been reading about the life of Ezra Pound, which is somehow both inspiring and sobering.

His life contains many lessons, I think, but today I'll write you with just one:

The life of Pound is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of what we might call the curse of genius.

Here you have a genuinely gifted genius of the language arts, someone who decided in his teenage years that he would be the greatest poet of his generation; someone who said that he would learn everything there is to possibly know about poetry (in as many languages as possible); someone who developed clear, original, and compelling ideas about what poetry is and should be; and someone who had the discipline to execute on all of these stated goals and ambitions. He had the ability, he had the calling, he called his shots, and he even executed admirably, and yet, he never really produced an undeniably generational body of work himself. He never really produced a single masterpiece, as far as I can tell. His poetry is not read today as the poetry of Eliot or Yeats is read today. Pound is most famous as the perceptive promoter of poets such as Eliot, and most infamous for his explosive and highly public anti-semitic Fascism in the second half of his life.

The question is, then: How can such a genuinely gifted man, who had everything required, fail to fully actualize his calling? Where did he go wrong, and is it possible that his shortcomings represent a more general type of failure mode?

I think Pound was a writer whose innate talent and intellect were, at times, overshadowed by his preoccupations with power and recognition.

He possessed a keen awareness of the unspoken power structures that condition the cultural impact of intellectual work. This is one reason why he was so successful as an editor and promoter. However, this awareness seemed to come with a counterproductive paranoid streak, which limited the actualization of his own poetic potential.

One cannot help but draw parallels between Pound and some contemporary right-wing writers who, in my humble opinion, are similarly preoccupied with power.

Possessing genuine genius, and knowing it, Pound was so confident in his own potential that he was overly self-aware; he seemed always anxious at the possibility that his genius might not be recognized. This possibility became a paralyzing idée fixe. Instead of fully emptying himself into his poetic work—content to let the chips fall where they may—he could not help but grow bitter and paranoid.

ȘȈǤƝȘ 90: Kings of the Realm
“Most serious writers refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing. I’ve never been able to understand this sort of fear.” —William S. Burroughs
In this issue from Dec. 14, in my Precepts for 2023, I wrote: "Let the chips fall where they may, for wherever the chips fall after speaking the truth is where the chips are supposed to be..."

Many individuals with immense potential fall prey to this psychological pattern, I think. I've met a few people who, if they are being honest, might admit to this problem.

One can become so preoccupied with ensuring that one's potential genius gains acknowledgment that one loses sight of the very work that would actualize that potential, and, ironically, perhaps win that recognition one craves.

The life of Pound seems to serve as a cautionary tale about this unfortunate psychological pattern.

Just focus on producing the best possible work. In the words of Steve Martin, become "so good they can't ignore you." And if they do ignore you, who cares? You discharged your vital energies in the highest and most excellent manner available to you.

To try and do anything more than that, in order to achieve success, is like playing God; it's doomed to failure and ignominy. Cultivate the calm nobility to not just say who cares but, most importantly, to really mean it. For it is this calm nobility that is most likely to rise in the long term, and all you can do is maximize your chances. After that, it's out of your hands.


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