Hast thou 2 loaves of bread
Sell one + with the dole
Buy straightaway some hyacinths
To feed thy soul. —Ezra Pound
I found this short poem by Ezra Pound as I was researching a book about Pound’s years in Saint Elizabeths Hospital. It appears for the first time in my book The Bughouse and in the Fall issue of The Paris Review. Finding a previously unpublished poem by Ezra Pound sounds both adventurous and grittily archival, but really, this was neither. It was waiting in an obvious place: in the Schloss Brunnenburg, in the Tyrol, in Northern Italy, which is the fairy-tale castle where Pound lived late in his life, and where his daughter still lives today. The poem wasn’t lost, it just hadn’t been found; and perhaps this is because it doesn’t look quite right. It is too tender, too small. It isn’t hugely complicated. Everyone knows that Pound was the archetypal impossible modernist, austere and difficult. Yet here was a little poem, written on the back of an envelope, about flowers. It lacks, for better and for worse, the grandeur we expect.
It’s a trickier poem than it looks, of course. There are two objects, and the poem insists we trade one for the other, bread for hyacinths. They do not rhyme, for the poem has only one rhyme: “dole” and “soul.” “Dole” is an odd word, for it means both “money” and “grief.” We still have this double in the homophones dollar and dolor, and the slight tangle is explained simply. “Dole” is actually two words with different etymologies: one comes from the Old English, meaning “portion” or “share,” while the other comes from Latin, and this means “sorrow.” Two things become one; or one becomes two. The poem is halfway to an equation, and the exchange is carefully measured: in the figure “2” in the place of the word, in the mathematical symbol.
The great paradox of Ezra Pound is that the message of his politics was so often contradicted by the forms in which he wrote. He spent World War II broadcasting fascist propaganda from Italy, and then the following decade as a patient at Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C. In the broadcasts, he spoke against the mixing of races and preached anti-Semitic hate, and yet the method of his poetry insists that ideas can and must be translated across cultures. He mixes African myth with classical Greek epic, ancient Chinese poetry and the American blues. These were messages that got Pound into trouble: his idea that poets should be taken seriously, should be listened to on the topics of economics and politics and the running of the world. In this little poem, he offers a simple lesson: that the world of bread must have a place for hyacinths, too.
We shouldn’t take this spiritualism too seriously, however. You don’t give away your loaves but trade one of them carefully, while the other is held back, perhaps for lunch, just as the things of this world are balanced with the next. Reading the poem again, I realize: now he has all the ingredients for a hyacinth sandwich.
Daniel Swift’s book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November.