For the first time, international Ezra Pound conference to be held at Penn

In 1972, a young David McKnight bought his first book, “Selected Poems by Ezra Pound,” the seminal New Directions Publishing edition. Pound, who attended Penn, died that same year.

Now 45 years later, McKnight, as director of Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is leading the 27th Ezra Pound International Conference at Penn.

The symposium, “Ezra Pound, Philadelphia Genius and Modern American Poetry,” is scheduled for June 19-23 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

Three other poets associated with Pound and Philadelphia will be featured, as well: Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. They all met at or through Penn in the first decade of the 20th century and were lifelong friends.

“It is so thrilling, really, as I walk through College Hall. I feel their spirit,” says McKnight. “It sounds corny, but I do.”

An admirer of Pound’s poetry since purchasing that first volume, McKnight was first approached in 2014 by the Ezra Pound Society and Philadelphia-based Pound scholar Emily Mitchell Wallace about Penn Libraries hosting the conference.

McKnight signed up to support the idea and, in turn, the Penn Libraries administration, including Vice Provost and Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers III and William Noel, director of the Kislak Center, agreed to host the event.

This the first time the Pound conference has been held at Penn, and only the fourth time in the United States, since its inception in 1975.

McKnight expects about 100 scholars to attend, coming from universities across the country and around the globe. As many as 60 papers will be presented during the five-day program. Registration, at a cost ranging from $150 to $250, is open to the public.

One event is free, a June 20 keynote address by Edith Hall, a professor at King’s College in London, about the effect of reciting Euripides’ Greek on Pound’s early poetry.  

Several Penn faculty will be involved in the conference, including Jean Michel Rabaté, a professor of English and comparative literature, and Charles Bernstein, the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

Extensive recordings of Pound’s work will also be featured, as well as those of Doolittle, Moore, and Williams, on PennSound through the Kelly Writers House.

Pound is considered one of the most important and influential poets of the 20th century, transforming modern poetry by his creation of imagism, using precise images for clarity of expression. Perhaps best-known among his poetry is “The Cantos,” which he worked on for nearly 50 years. Pound’s views later in his life related to pro-fascism and antisemitism made him a controversial figure.

“At the end of the day, I believe you have to decide whether Pound was a great poet or not, and acknowledge the greater genius of his work,” McKnight says.

Pound first lived in Philadelphia on 43rd Street, and grew up in Wyncote. He attended Penn from 1901 to 1903 as an undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences, but transferred to Hamilton College to earn his bachelor’s degree.

He returned to Penn in 1905 to study with Hugo Rennert, professor of romance literature, and received his master’s degree in 1906, graduating with Williams, a friend since they met as freshmen, who received a medical degree. Pound also studied toward a Ph.D. at Penn in romance languages.

Doolittle, once engaged to Pound, attended the College of Women from 1909-1910. She and Moore became friends while studying at Bryn Mawr College.

One aspect of the conference will explore Penn’s campus during Pound’s day, circa 1901-1907, including guided tours, as many of the buildings are still very much in use: College Hall, Houston Hall, Furness Library, Franklin Field, and the Quad and Triangle dormitories.

“Writ large, through this conference we are celebrating Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania, and PennSound,” McKnight says.