Ezra Pound's birthplace is a two-story white clapboard house in the little Idaho mountain town of Hailey. Pound, the poet and frontman for...
Ezra Pound’s birthplace is a two-story white clapboard house in the little Idaho mountain town of Hailey.
Pound, the poet and frontman for literary modernism, was born in what was then a frontier mining town in 1885. It’s a bit of history some residents wouldn’t mind having expunged due to Pound’s anti-U.S. radio broadcasts from fascist Italy during World War II. He was charged with 19 counts of treason in the United States and criticized for anti-Semitism.
Yet a dedicated few have renovated Pound’s house in Hailey, and recently opened it to the public as a cultural center with art exhibits and a writers’ workshop. Even before that, fans of his poetry — including some well-known poets — had been showing up on the doorstep.
“All along there has been a great deal of pilgrimages of poets to this house,” said Gary Hunt, owner of Iconoclast Books in nearby Ketchum, who helped preserve the house.
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They come to see the birthplace of the poet and writer who was among the earliest to cast off traditional restraints, wrote the book-length poem “Cantos” and whose enormous influence and talent helped others forge a new literary style that reflected shifting social mores at the start of the 20th century.
“He’s considered the forefather of modern poetry,” said Joy Passananpe, associate director of creative writing at the University of Idaho. “He’s a seminal influence on our culture today.”
Poet Allen Ginsberg arrived in 1993 when the house was privately owned and finagled an invitation to go inside. Novelist and poet Jim Harrison has visited and helped raise money for the house’s preservation. Others making the pilgrimage, said Hunt, include Lawrence Ferlinghetti and W.S. Merwin. Doubtless more came and went anonymously.
Pound only lived in the house for about 18 months while his father ran a government land office. The family moved east to Pennsylvania, and Pound never returned, though he sometimes referred to himself as the “Idaho Kid” and occasionally wrote informal letters punctuated with Wild West lingo.
The house was gifted to The Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 2005 after languishing for several years under ownership of another nonprofit initially called the Ezra Pound Association that couldn’t bring in enough money.
The Sun Valley Center simply calls the house The Center, Hailey, and makes little of the Pound connection; the arts organization’s main building is in nearby Ketchum.
“It’s a minor note for us,” said the center’s director of development, Sally Boettger. “But we’re pleased for anybody who has that interest.”
There isn’t much interest in this small, mainly working-class town where the Fourth of July rodeo is the main tourist draw, and most locals don’t even refer to the house as associated with Pound.
“You mean Roberta’s house?” is the common response.
The continued respect and adoration for Roberta McKercher, an active community member whose family owned the house for decades until she died in 1996 at age 85, is as strong as the disinterest and antipathy toward Pound.
But it was McKercher who in her will allowed the house to be purchased “as a memorial to Hailey’s native poet.”
Jennifer Wilson, who splits time between homes in Hailey and San Francisco, said she paid $240,000 to buy the home for the Ezra Pound Association in 1998 out of fear the house might be destroyed by some other buyer.
“I was just amazed that the town of Hailey hadn’t made more of his being born here,” said Wilson, who like many finds Pound’s poetry fairly inaccessible. “But Hailey is a very traditional town, with very patriotic people, who are still offended by him being accused of treason during World War II.”
Pound was indicted by a federal jury in absentia on charges of treason in 1943, taken into custody in 1945 and returned to the United States to stand trial and face a possible death penalty. In 1946, a federal jury found him “mentally unsound,” and he was placed in St. Elizabeth’s, a Washington, D.C., psychiatric hospital.
Literary giants, including Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, lobbied for Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s, saying his broadcasts were inexcusable but after years of being locked up he had paid for those mistakes.
In 1958, the charges of treason were dismissed on the basis that Pound had made his remarks while mentally unsound, would never become well enough to stand trial and that he was not a threat to other people. After his release that year, he returned to Italy, where he died in 1972 at age 87.