If the father of modern American poetry was Ezra Pound, its mother was Hilda Doolittle, and its place of birth—in a rare real-life instance of poetic rightness—was English poetry’s glorious crypt, the British Museum. The time was late in 1912. The tall, striking, introspective (though not particularly intellectual) Miss Doolittle had offered to bring some of her new poems to the Museum so that Mr. Pound, who at the age of twenty-seven was already a notorious figure in London's literary underworld, might pass judgment on them.

Doolittle was twenty-six, and a complete nobody. Indeed, her only claim to fame was that, years ago, when she had been a sweet young slip of a thing at Bryn Mawr, Pound (then William Carlos Williams's roomie at the University of Pennsylvania) had been her fiancé. On Hilda’s part, at least, it was real love. The crude and charismatic Pound had...


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