Hal Sieber’s report for the Library of Congress helped free poet Ezra Pound
Hal Sieber (second from right), then a member of the writing and research team at the Library of Congress, meets with poet Ezra Pound (left) and Rep. Usher Burdick (R-ND. (courtesy photo)
A child of the Depression and World War II growing up in western North Carolina, Hal Sieber was impressed by his parents’ reverence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
They credited the president with providing milk that sustained young Hal, helping his father get a job and inspiring his mother, a German immigrant with Jewish heritage, to become an American citizen.
Through his mother and the Catholic influence of his faith, Sieber also became a pacifist.
“I strongly developed my notion against war after hearing what a total flop World War I was,” he said, “how war was such a useless, jackass thing; even animals know better.”
Sieber was also a poet, first published at age 9 and nominated for the National Book Award at 25.
Events in Sieber’s life were moving inexorably towards his key role as a member of the writing and research team at the Library of Congress in Washington in freeing poet Ezra Pound from a mental institution.
Like Sieber, another young man of the postwar generation also found himself attracted to Pound. As a 19-year-old college student, Ron Bayes checked The Pisan Cantos by Pound out of the library over Christmas vacation.
“I opened that sucker, and the first page I opened to, the quotation, it changed my life: ‘The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders,’” Bayes recalled more than half a century later. “Well, that knocked me back on my heels. To me, that was what democracy was all about.”
Sieber’s interest was, perhaps, more complex.
“My attraction to Pound was the fact that he had been captured [by the US Army in Italy] in 1943, and then in ’45 through his lawyer got himself into St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to avoid being tried for treason…. He was 13 years after he was arrested in Pisa in a mental institution without having been tried because they claimed he had committed treason. And I thought that was unconstitutional. Now, that was my principal attraction. Secondly, he was at that particular time considered one of the two or three greatest American poets in the history of literature.”
Bayes, who as a soldier assigned to a machine-gun unit in Iceland read a poem by Sieber about his visit with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, wrote to Sen. Richard L. Neuberger of Oregon, urging him to intervene on Pound’s behalf. Bayes was a liberal Republican, a political breed that is all but extinct today.
“When I was a PFC in the Army I was worried about Ezra,” Bayes said. “I wrote to Sen.
Neuberger, who had just won the election. My pitch was, ‘I worked hard against you during the election, but I respect what you’ve done.’ Here I am assigned to the machine-gun squad in Iceland. I’m nobody. All the Republicans lost in Oregon. I had to shoot straight with him. I said, ‘You’re really the only man of letters in the United States Senate, and you’re Jewish. And you’re probably the only man that could get Pound out.’ And he understood me on the level that I was talking.
“I got this lovely, long letter from him that said he had put his assistant, John G. Jones, in charge of the Pound investigation,” Bayes continued. “And it was through Jones, I believe, that Hal was contacted and assigned to the report.”
As a student of poetry and something of a fan, Sieber drove up to Washington from North Carolina to visit Pound, without invitation. They sat out on a park bench, where Pound received most of his visitors, and talked about The Pisan Cantos. Sieber didn’t like to see Pound in Center Building because his room smelled like body odor and rancid butter. Later, on one occasion, Sieber brought his son, Mark, then three or four years old, to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for a visit. Pound liked to keep hard salami and hard amaretto cookies wrapped in tissue paper. Pound took one of the cookies and threw it at Mark.
After college and the Army, Sieber was managing restaurants in Chapel Hill, including the Monogram Club. He helped Randall Jarrell, a poet who taught at Woman’s College in Greensboro and who held a post at the Library of Congress, with his translations of the poet Rilke over beers at one of the restaurants.
Sieber was considering a career in law, and he sat next to future NC Supreme Court chief justice Henry E. Frye in a class at the School of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.
An offer to work at the Library of Congress was too good to pass up, however, and Sieber dropped out of law school. He worked on a variety of projects at the library before taking on the Pound case, including a stint as speechwriter for Sen. John F. Kennedy. Ernest Griffith, director of reference services at the library, assigned the Pound case to Sieber.
“Dr. Ernest Griffith picked me because I had some familiarity with the law, a lot of familiarity with literature and poetry, particularly with the Cantos, a lot of concern about Jews. All these things he knew.”
Almost immediately, Sieber found reason to be skeptical of the official story about Pound.
“I suspected that Pound was telling the truth when he said that he tried to come to the United States, and he had written the State Department,” Sieber said.
The government maintained that Pound had made no request to return to the United States and disputed the poet’s assertion that he’d had been held in a cage by the US Army upon capture in 1943. Sieber pestered the office of Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, until they relented and allowed him to look at the files of the Army’s Disciplinary Training Center.
There he found a photograph of the cage used to hold Pound at Pisa.
“I found the letter that he wrote the State Department begging immediately after the war started: ‘Let me come back to the United States. My grandfather was a congressman. The last thing in the world I want to do is be against the United States. I’ve got a job with Radio Rome broadcasting about literature, and mainly I talk about my Pisan Cantos. My comments about the Jews and what have you are only in connection with the poems. And if you force me to stay here now that we’re going to war, I’m going to end up staying on Radio Rome, not talking about literature, but just talking in whatever capacity in order to make a living because I’ve got to have some income.’” Sieber’s report on Pound was widely admired, but the machinery was already in motion to release Pound when it was published. Eventually, federal Judge Bolitha Laws quashed the government’s indictment against Pound and allowed him to return to Italy. Robert Frost, who was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and who would succeed Jarrell as national poet laureate, was the public face of the effort to free Pound, with support from Ernest Hemingway and Archibald McLeish. Sen. Neuberger worked behind the scenes, along with a more public counterpart in the House in the person of Rep. Usher Burdick, a liberal Republican from North Dakota.
“The report was published after things were already happening because it was all a secret sort of thing,” Sieber said. “You didn’t give away your hand back then. Remember that it was Robert Frost that was the front man. And yet he used all the paperwork and the notes and the correspondence [from Sieber’s research] in making his deals with the government. You didn’t broadcast that. You had to move fast, or the government would have outsmarted you.”
Sieber held a strong conviction that it was unconstitutional to hold someone for 13 years in a mental institution without trial and without legal recourse, and he was not shy about stating his opinion in his report.
“I was a workaholic, brash young kid, 25 years old, who probably had a big ego which was heavy upon my shoulders,” Sieber said. “And so, arrogantly, I probably with a frenzy worked hard, and they saw I was headed in the right direction.”