Penn conference on Ezra Pound: Homecoming for a bad-boy genius

Philadelphia is famous for a lot of things. And here’s another, perhaps unexpected: It was one of the most important centers of the modernist revolution in American literature.

The center of that vortex – University of Pennsylvania grad Ezra Pound – is the focus of the 27th Ezra Pound International Conference at Penn this week (June 19-23), titled “Ezra Pound, Philadelphia Genius and Modern American Poetry.” It holds forth at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts on the sixth floor of  the  Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. David McKnight, director of Penn’s rare book and manuscript library, and a big Pound fan, is co-convener of the seminar, along with Pound scholar Emily Mitchell Wallace of Bryn Mawr College.

“I first read Pound back in the early 1970s,” McKnight says, “and when we were first asked whether we could have the conference here — by people who’d been working several years to make it happen — I knew we had to do it.”

It’s a breathtaking claim: Philly as center of the modernist explosion. “Not only was Pound a genius,” Wallace says, “the city itself is a genius city, an amazing city many of its residents don’t understand. William Penn wanted to include all walks of life, wanted all literatures to be part of his life, and Pound caught that spirit. Benjamin Franklin, the Constitution – there’s a tradition of boldness, inclusiveness, and innovation. And Pound, a descendant of Quakers, was very responsive to this city; it encouraged him to be both kind with other poets, with Williams, H.D., and Moore, and be revolutionary. ”

About 100 Pound scholars and poets from all over will come to deliver about 60 papers, do readings, and take walking tours of the Penn and Wyncote (where he grew up, at 166 Fernbrook) that Pound knew. They’ll speak of his poetry, his politics, his connections with other poets, Pound and Pennsylvania, Pound and China, Pound and Penn, even the sound of his verse and that of his friends.

Public registration is invited here. A public lecture by the wonderful classics scholar Edith Hall on Tuesday will discuss the play Iphigenia at Taurus by Euripides, performed in 1903 and including Pound in a fetching wig as a member of the chorus. H.D. and Williams were in the audience.

John Gery, a research professor in poetry at the University of New Orleans, became, as he puts it, “preoccupied with Pound from the first time I read a complete poem by him.” Gery is founding director of the Ezra Pound Center for Literature, Brunnenburg, Italy; he gives summer seminars on Pound and will help give guided tours of the Penn campus as Pound knew it. “I’ll be reading poetry more than guidebooks,” he says. “I do the same thing when I give walking tours of Pound’s Venice.” He says “people encounter him in so many different ways. It’s astonishing the links that lead people to Pound. And he has such a personality — once you know him, he’s hard to forget.”

This is the first time the conference has come to Penn. Why the long wait? Answer: Pound was a literary enfant terrible if there ever was one, from the very start an icon-smasher and a troublemaker. He came to Penn in 1901 as an undergraduate, but he left to finish his bachelor’s degree at Hamilton College in New York. He was back at Penn in 1905-6 for a master’s degree in Romance languages.

While at Penn, he met three other crucial modernist poets-to-be: William Carlos Williams (who earned his medical degree at Penn in 1906), Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle (a Bryn Mawr dropout and student in Penn’s college courses for teachers), and Marianne Moore (who graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1909). Pound played a big role in all their careers.

But then he went for his Ph.D., rubbed at least one of his advisers the wrong way, it seems, and left. Thereby hangs a tale.

The folks throwing this week’s conference applied to a committee at Penn to have Pound’s doctorate recognized as a gesture to his daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, now 91. He’s one of the literary greats, a greater scholar than most professors ever get to be, with a greater influence on literary history than anyone who ever studied at Penn. Easy call? Not. The Penn board said no: Too hard to give credit based on work of 110 years ago.

Wallace and many others are not pleased. “Disallowing Pound’s Ph.D. is like flunking Mozart in musical composition,” she says. “It’s remarkable that a university founded by Ben Franklin, responsible for so many firsts in this city, would refuse to recognize Pound’s work.”

He left for England and became an all-time taste-setter, prodigy of learning and poetic art, starter of movements, maker of careers. Like haiku? Thank Pound: He helped bring Japanese and Chinese forms into our poetry; one of the most famous poems of his century is much influenced by the way Japanese and Chinese poetry work:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Like Robert Frost? When the then-unknown teacher from New Hampshire lived briefly in England, Pound got Frost’s first book published and started his great career. Like W.B. Yeats? Pound helped him become a modern poet. Did you read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in school? Pound ripped Eliot’s manuscript to shreds, producing the modern masterpiece we know; many people think the poem should be co-credited.

“I often walk around campus and realize I’m seeing what he saw and feeling the same atmosphere,” McKnight says. “I hope we can all do that together this week.”

27th Ezra Pound International Conference at Penn: Ezra Pound, Philadelphia Genius and Modern American Poetry. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and ManuscriptsVan Pelt-Dietrich Library, sixth floor. Registration: $250; public keynote lecture June 20, free. Information: 215-898-7555,