Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Madhouse
“This is the house of Bedlam,” begins Elizabeth Bishop’s lovely strange poem, “Visits to St. Elizabeths”: "This is the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam."
Ezra Pound was a patient at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., from December 21, 1945, to May 7, 1958. Here is a partial list of the poets who visited him: A. Alvarez, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, James Dickey, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, Marianne Moore, Charles Olson, Stephen Spender, William Carlos Williams. Visiting hours were from 2:00 to 4:00 PM every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and when the weather was fine he would sit in the garden. Often the memoirs and recollections of those who visited him mention that he was eating fruit, and that his shirt was loose. He talked about translations, gave rules for poetry. Perhaps there is nothing more charismatic than a poet in a madhouse.
The poem starts small and circles up in crazy accumulation. “This is a sailor / wearing the watch / that tells the time,” the fifth stanza describes, and the poem floats away to other characters, too. Here is “a Jew in a newspaper hat / that dances weeping down the ward,” and “a boy that pats the floor,” and “the soldier home from the war.” Each stanza grows upon the previous one; each ends with the man “that lies in the house of Bedlam”; and each allocates him one further adjective: he is “tragic,” “talkative,” “honored,” “brave,” “cranky,” “cruel,” “busy,” “tedious.” It is not until the penultimate stanza that we are told he is “the poet.” As we read, we approach through the hallways; the poem makes us wait for him and it never says his name. But the title gives the clue, and by the very end he is “wretched.”
Elizabeth Bishop wrote probably the second-most-famous poem-as-invitation in American literature (“From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying . . .”); the most famous is surely Eliot’s: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky . . .” But “Visits to St. Elizabeths” is, perhaps, the opposite: a visit poem, or a visits poem, for there were so many. This poem is the story of what it means to visit: to find the man inside the place, to think whether he belongs.
It’s a curio now, a footnote. The “house of Bedlam” is currently being renovated as the National Capital Region headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, and I will resist here the temptation to make the obvious joke. According to a “Frequently Asked Questions” handout, from a community meeting on February 9, 2011, their renovation does not have visitors in mind: “For the St. Elizabeths site . . . a 100-foot perimeter security barrier is required, exterior windows must provide sufficient ballistic glazing protection, agencies must protect building ventilation equipment and situate that equipment away from high-risk areas, and adjacent property parking must maintain a 100-foot distance between parked cars and the facility. In addition, there is no parking permitted below occupied facilities.”