READING THE CANTOS
I am not the only person in the United States reading The Cantos. I know because the internet tells me so. Another man is blogging The Cantos. He started in 2015—he’s up to LXVII, about fifty more to go. Elsewhere, The Cantos Project (“peer-reviewed by a board of scholars”), is seemingly the only active website dedicated to them, and has annotations up to XVI. I am neither impressed nor depressed by these on-line affairs. Nobody “likes” to read The Cantos and of the few called, many are passionate. The Cantos become an obsession because they are about large swathes of human history and its languages, subjects equally infinite. Guy Davenport avers, “I have seen students learn Chinese because of him, or take up mediaeval studies, learn Greek, Latin, music…” I expect others ardently caught up are similar to myself—undoubtedly most male, politically disenfranchised by both squirming sides, hunched over a haul of books, rueful at not being brought up in a French or Italian immersion school, and feeling fucked by standard stateside curriculum that left Latin in the dustbin.
Branching out, few today would be caught saying they admire any of Ezra Pound’s oeuvre because of his problematic biography. Most great living poets profess their love of the early Pound, particularly Personae, which gathers many of the first poems (the most beautiful error-prone transcriptions of Eastern poems with Pound’s flair for elision and amplification) and some of the Ur-Cantos, and though August Kleinzahler has professed that Pound was a fool, a poet writing today would be an even bigger fool for ignoring his work. With “hate” the word du jour (a listing of books published in the last two years in this country records “hate” in the title of over three thousand), an anti-semite who was imprisoned for treason and escaped death by pleading insanity is not going to be the “face” of anyone. Guy Davenport, opening himself to scrutiny, explicated matters in an essay, “What drove Pound mad was the simple fact that the United States issues no money at all but borrows money issued by a private bank. The hideous and obscene taxes which we pay our government are actually interest on this perpetual loan…to explain this…Pound convinced himself that it was all a plot of international Jewish bankers.” Later he added, “Pound’s anti-Semitism was bigotry pure and simple…there is no available casuistry for excusing it.”
Still, there is the art. Reading through about two-thirds of The Cantos four years ago, equipped with Hugh Kenner’s seminal The Pound Era, which was J.M. Coetzee’s professed guide, I could feel my mind expanding in some arboreal way, resembling the work itself. British critic Kenneth Cox details this metaphor, most apt for the whole colossus written over forty-five years, as : “the shape of a tree…initial rooting is problematical and experimental: some attempts are blocked, a few go deep. Subsequent growth increasing height and girth is most ligneous, not itself productive but conveying nourishment to new branches. A storm breaks some boughs off and the tree reorientates itself to produce its great crown, The Pisan Cantos.” Reading the forthcoming Kenner/Davenport letters, it was inevitable to return to The Cantos since they and Pound are referred to constantly. Revisiting them means cracking Kenner’s book, and his The Poetry of Ezra Pound, along with Davenport’s rarely seen thesis on the first thirty, Cities on Hills – $379 on Amazon. Another younger man trying them out might arm himself with these and a parade of others: the full annotations by Carroll F. Terrell, or the shorter ones by William Cookson, maybe a book by critic Donald Davie, one of the dozens of English translations of The Odyssey (being its central text), then Dante, Cavalcanti and other Troubadours, and certainly Ernest Fenollosa’s essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, which served as a touchstone for Pound, spurring him on to the use and interpretation of Chinese characters in his poem and as a basis for his own ideograms—the central method of The Cantos.
Pound defined the poetic image as a “radiant node or cluster.” An ideogram, via Davenport is “a pattern of images, which is read as the sum of its components, as in the Chinese written character, which is built up of radicals.” Radicals being root parts. So an ideogram is a pattern of these radiant nodes or clusters and each Canto is usually made up of at least a few of them, though the transition between one and another can be as startling as a lightning flash. Davenport: “The Cantos…are a poem from which the ordinary binding narrative structure has been removed, leaving image after image suspended.”
In Hugh Kenner’s The Art of Poetry, written as a textbook for students, he uses portions of Canto III, XXV, XXVII, and LXXXI to demonstrate certain points, for, as Davenport says, “Poems stick in the mind chiefly as an anthology of gists…reading poetry becomes a trained search for sharp configurations…” A reader is encouraged to take what speaks most and in this way, I’ve held on to certain sections of the early Cantos, even if they might be part of the whole intricate design—multiple ideograms oscillating, orbiting, and occluding others in the same Canto. In Pound’s own “Selected Cantos,” many are abbreviated.
Besides CXX, Canto XIII (the “Kung” Canto, meaning Confucius) is probably the easiest Canto to read (it’s included whole by Kenner in the above book), followed by the three “Hell” Cantos XIV-XVI—for some days I could not remove XVI’s phrase “blue lakes of acid” from my consciousness. These five are made for the person who wants just a taste and then to get on with his life. With light being Pound’s easily chosen symbol for wisdom and intelligence, along with the seafaring of Odysseus, many of the most memorable sections in these early Cantos, and the whole, are descriptions of light and water, isolated and together, and often saturated by color: “Glass-glint of wave in the tide-rips against sunlight…Grey peak of the wave,/wave, colour of grape’s pulp,” “the blue-gray glass of the wave tents them,” “There is a wine-red glow in the shallows,” “Crescent of blue-shot waters, green-gold in the shallows,” and “Eyes brown topaze/Brookwater over brown sand.” Lines get repeated and half-repeated, with sound-rhyme, eye-rhyme, all rhyme, and no rhyme limning the surfaces, creating word- and phrase-ghosts to haunt the whole. It struck Coetzee similarly: “Pound…had an unequaled capacity…for holding the sense-impression, auditory but more often visual, in the mind, holding it there while memory searched its archives for the one word of all words that would render it. Thus: ’wave, colour of grape’s pulp.’”
In Canto VII, focusing on order and loss, begins with names, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Flaubert, and Ovid needing annotation. Then a new ideogram begins:
The subject is ghosts: “phantom with weighted motion,” “grave incessu,” and “old voice.” I’m glad I didn’t read any introductory note, because it came to me in that white heat of processing language, how “the great domed head” “weaving an endless sentence” could only mean the man Pound meant to see in Britain, Henry James (one of the great men he was determined to meet, along with Yeats), who from What Maisie Knew on, dictated his work. Here the setting stimulates the subject into being, which no matter the hope to cordon off the section, reaches back to the last French words immediately preceding, a translation from Flaubert’s A Simple Heart—a description of a character through her furniture. Hence, like the outgrowth of literary history: from Flaubert to James, both renown for defining people by their things. James’s setting is a manor house not so opulent as it may look (Lamb House, in Rye, where he lived and worked): “Columns of false marble,” “Discreeter gilding, and the panelled wood/Suggested, for the leasehold is/Touched with an imprecision,” and “the paintings/a shade too oiled.” The Italian, “con gli occhi onesti e tardi” is Dante’s (“with eyes slow and honest”), pasted to a few phrases cribbed from Pound’s long essay on James for The Little Review. It’s a phantasm of the Master himself, as fine wine great as can be, “drinking the tone of things”—a metaphor that can hold as many functions as a swiss-army knife, wrapped tight and cute with the assonance of “an endless sentence.”
The poem goes through a few more set-pieces, introducing the homily against the “Thin husks I had known as men,” a metaphor recurring near the end:
Marjorie Perloff first raised the issue that the English-language poetic era might be between Wallace Stevens and Pound, not T.S. Eliot and Pound. Certainly, except for a few grace notes, this section sounds like Stevens, while Davenport sees the whole Canto as speaking to “The Waste Land,” which Pound edited around the same time. All three knew the work of one other. Canto VII was finished in 1919 and published in 1921. About a year before Pound finished the Canto, Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” was printed in Poetry magazine, something Pound was well acquainted with since he instructed the editor Harriet Monroe to publish “Prufrock” a few years before, a poem Stevens knew before writing “Monocle.” Here is Stevens’s opening “canto,” a term regularly used at the time for numbered sections:
“Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds, O sceptre of the sun, crown of the moon, There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing, Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.” And so I mocked her in magnificent measure. Or was it that I mocked myself alone? I wish that I might be a thinking stone. The sea of spuming thought foists up again The radiant bubble that she was. And then A deep up-pouring from some saltier well Within me, bursts its watery syllable.
The mockery of “mock” in each; moon, water—the traditional poetic objects. A grumpy Poundian may contend Ezra tried out many voices, including those of the neo-Romantic Stevens. He’s poking at Stevens, but then he has to be poking at Eliot, too. A grumpier and imperious Poundian would contend Ezra contained multitudes and in a sector of those multitudes, was a room called “Stevens,” subsumed, but left unbesmirched, while the room of Eliot had been fully pilfered. Pound stated he never read Stevens, but that is what you say to appear superior. The early Cantos, the early Eliot (Prufrock: “For I have known them all already, known them all…/Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/ I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”) and the Stevens of Harmonium are all looking askance at the world with a new interiority, a new spidery circumspection, professing how life is out of joint. A synchronicity holds, all of these poems were written during or just after the Great War. Affinities with others, as well as sharp configurations, help us read poetry, though Eliot avers: “When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before.” Virginia Woolf: “…on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Kenner believed what did that most was the electrification of three mass transit systems within a few years in the three metropolises of the Western World: London, Paris, and New York. Something new did happen and this floated these artists in their new wave. “It was the commuting that was novel. Being governed by time, it brought thousands into convergence, each person answering to a private time which yet was everyone else’s. Mankind had never shared anything so abstract on such a scale before.”
As to Canto VII, there are sixteen lines to say, “people are sheep and full of shit,” but what lines: “the rain is listless,/Yet drinks the thirst from our lips.” And how does rain drink thirst from our lips? Sensually or not at all, backed up by the classical allusion to Eros and Sicheus. For Pound, allusion is poetry, for Eliot less so (“The Waste Land” excepted), until allusions almost disappear altogether in Stevens, who makes up his own mythological figures: Mrs. Alfred Uruguay, Professor Eucalyptus, and a being only called Rabbi. In the Canto, one line later, there is a “live man” “prob[ing] for old wills and friendships,” but “the big locust-casques” predominate and eat fine meat and make fruitless small talk. Swervings and repetitions make a compote of Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot, with “life to make mock of motion” the lynchpin ideogram, a splatter of single-syllable words with m’s and o’s fusing five words to sound as heavy as its thought.
Cantos I-XVI were originally published as a group and XVII begins with I’s closing phrase, “So that.” A new cycle dawns, especially as it follows the three Hell cantos.
Zagreus is Dionysus, a familiar enough sot. A periscopic view shoots us down from heaven to earth, where a goddess is moving about, defined by her circumstance, “…with the oak woods behind her,/The green slope, with white hounds/leaping about her.” “With” and “her” begin and terminate two phrases with “the green slope” wedged between—the second’s particulates “white” and “leaping” buttress the overall formation of the images transferring color and action, as the new agents in a similar phrase can expand the image. The best definition of poetry I’ve heard is by Joseph Cribb’s: “Words making sound and image, with sound being primary.” Most of the rest of the poem’s beginning functions this way, with more water, light, and color—vision, image and afterimage. “Chrysophrase,” more often seen without the second -h, being: “a brilliant to light green, slightly darker than sea foam.” It’s a limousine of a word ushering us to the c’s of the two soundings of “clear” and then “cliffs,” ending the phrase, “to the great cliffs” on the consecutive front-loaded vowel words, “of amber.” And with “amber” and all the waves, one is pressed to think on “Amber waves of grain.”
Next Pound builds on the outdoor image like a helicopter shot in a film revealing degrees of landscape. Between them—that is, between the cliffs—is the cave of Nerea, who is an amalgamation of Thetis and Venus, born of that sea foam alluded to in chrysophrase. The rest of the section is a mosaic of repetitions and rhymes. The breaths are short, the beats of the lines similar. “She like a great shell curved,” is twice seen (though the second is coupled with “in the suavity of rock,”) as is “nor any noise of wave moving.” Pound keeps imbuing the setting by reverting to what has passed before the reader’s eye to ear continuance—“bird-cry” becoming “gull-cry,” and “porpoise” prefigures “porphyry,” and “water green clear” becomes “the wave/green clear.”
There are certain names that get associated with Pound, besides all the obvious writers. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is one of them. He died in WWI, at twenty-three, but before the war he worked frenetically, in a manner reaching back to pre-Reniassance times, as Davenport says, “He was the first sculptor in a thousand years to work in modes that had been all that Homer, Ptahotep (ancient Egyptian city administrator), Confucius, and Sappho knew as beauty in stone.” He knew Pound well and sculpted the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound.
“In the suavity of rock” is another one of those indelible sense-impressions I carried about. It is, musically, soon to be backed by the teeming eye-rhymes (cave—wave) and repetitions as the helicopter shot pulls out revealing those amber cliffs which go from “great cliffs” to “gate-cliffs of amber,” while giving the waves a coloring from fourteen lines before: “water green clear and blue” becoming “wave green clear and blue.” Then there is the actual detailing of the area: “the cave salt-white, and glare-purple,/cool, porphyry smooth,/the rock sea-worn.” Porphyry is “a hard igneous rock containing crystals, usually of feldspar, in a fine-grained, typically reddish groundmass.” Looking at the words, the spacing, the long stalactites of two p’s and y’s in “porphyry,” it is no surprise Donald Davie wrote a book called Poet as Sculptor. Davie said elsewhere: “As compared with Pound, Eliot presents himself as pre-eminently a rhetorician, a man who serves language, who waits for language to present him with its revelations; Pound by contrast would master language, instead of serving language he would make it serve—it must serve the shining and sounding world which continually throws up new forms which language must strain itself to register.” I would think Davie probably meant Eliot’s best poetry, Four Quartets (“Because I do…”) The following is a block (woodcut) from The Pisan Cantos, often thought of as a response to Four Quartets:
Here is the triumph of Pound, the look on the page—it stands out as calligraphy and it sounds like speaking in tongues. Stevens’s and Eliot’s stanzas and strophes are most often uniform. But when I see these assemblies of lines in the 1971 New Directions hardcover of The Cantos, I feel I am looking at another art form, since words have their own physicality and affording touch, that craft is sculpture. They stand out above the paper like these figures over the surface in Gaudier-Brzeska:
Davenport calls the above images of the goddess “lotus-like, drifting beauty.” And perhaps that’s all it is, but what else be the purpose of art? Pater: “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” So I re-read Canto XVII five, six, and seven times instead of monitoring the endless on-line scroll of people happy to continuously advertise their uncogitative thought and impulsive feelings, however lucid or trite. Why read The Cantos when we can just quote a line of them on the internet and watch as probably not much happens, just a nod of like from the one “friend” who is really into Pound? Basil Bunting wrote of them, by way of a poem: “There are the Alps…There they are, you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” Pound and Bunting, let alone Stevens and Eliot, could never have imagined it would come to this—the illusive propaganda of being well-read, or really well-thought of, overpowering the labor of page-hugging and turning. Studying literature for the sake of beauty is laughable to many of those conscripted to do so these days. The largely academic group often use it to forward their own personal political propaganda, no matter the seeming immunities of the art that they often don’t accept on its own terms. And so the art barricades them from a true identification, whether of enjoyment or understanding—Eliot: “…to enjoy a poem under a misunderstanding as to what it is, is to enjoy what is merely a projection of our own mind.”
In Canto CXX, Pound wrote (in no persona) “I have tried to make Paradise”—the aforementioned moments and many others demonstrate that. Its shreds of phrase and fragments stand out (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” in the “The Waste Land” becomes “These fragments you have shelved (shored)” in Canto VIII) as Sappho and the like had a large hand in transfiguring Pound’s verse. “Salt-white, and glare-purple,/” and then the hard stop at the line’s ending. Next line: “cool, porphyry smooth,” language to stand out against the sea, like the shimmer of light on waves (“shimmer of rain-blur” Canto VII). “Salt-white” and “glare-purple”—great enough and rarely read enough to steal. I would think Cormac McCarthy has. “Saltwhite” is actually in Ulysses, written around the same seasons.
Hugh Kenner said he didn’t know how to read Pound until he heard him speak at St. Elizabeth’s in 1948. That year The Pisan Cantos was released, a section of which he began in the steel cage he was kept in for three weeks at the Detention Training Center at Pisa, drafting the first one on toilet paper, an act adding to his and the poem’s mystique—can they ever be distinguished? One can start with The Pisan Cantos and some people only read them, but their backbone is still what came before. Perhaps because they were written differently, more autobiographically, especially when treason was often punishable by death, they are the “crown” Cox speaks of. This method is spotlighted by Eliot’s injunction in “Tradition and Individual Talent,” that the poet “must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.” I’m choosing two sections from succeeding cantos as examples of this new type of writing, words from a man at knifepoint, yet who still holds to the binding of ideograms. First, from Canto LXXVI:
The first utterance stops anyone in their tracks—it’s a play off of Cavalcanti, whose canzone “Donna me prega (A lady asks me),” which defines love, was a supreme work to Pound. Dove sta memoria “Where memory liveth” is a line from that poem—Pound presents its full translation in Canto XXXVI. Canto LXXVI is built on an old man’s concerns, regret and memory, states leading to Canto LXXXI’s charging sequence of seventy-seven lines, the “What thou lovest well remains” and “Pull down thy vanity” otherworldly chants. The em dashes separating “in the end” have the ability to extend the phrase or simply have it signify death. The line “that had carved a trace in the mind,” speaks again to the sculpting quality, that which marks us forever, though invisible. And it is also to say, from Pound’s most important essay, “Medievalism,” that the central Troubadour theme is, “…the dogma that there is some proportion between the fine thing held in the mind, and the inferior things ready for instant consumption.” The Cantos are about this tension. Metaphor is the central part of the poem, as Kenner writes that Ernest Fenollosa’s studies of Chinese characters helped, “…for the first time in centuries to restore metaphor, ‘the swift perception of relations’…to the heart of a poetic process not peripheral to but concentric with.” Then, as if remembering what he has devoted a good part of his life to aside from poetry, comes the attack on government. It is perfectly justified and answered by the appearance of the second president, one of the heroes of the poem—he didn’t like banks, either. “The effect of the movies” is surely a reference to propaganda (Triumph of the Will), quickly joined to “The Fuhrer” in the next line, and the atrocious thoughts of “our boys.” But having off at “the Ripper,” the next stanza begins, “Lay in the soft grass by the cliff’s edge…” changing back to an apt place, as Pound’s periplum is now solely centered in his imagination. Nature quells.
In the following, Canto LXXVII, Pound extends these themes—his life passing before him, and him coining his own truths instead of spouting those of others.
As for the Chinese character, Canto LXXVII has an explanation of them following the poem in all editions. It is the character of dawn—the simple attrition of days, and thankfully, the poet had them. Here Pound is looking on from the cage, a scene Kenner so eloquently reconstructs:
Every night, each man stretched out on his concrete floor, the prisoners relearned the dimensions of their outdoor cages : six feet by six and a half…Pound, E. L.: no rank, no serial number. He was in a cage because he was very dangerous, as witness the heavy air-strip that was welded over his galvanized mesh, with so many welds the acetylene torches blazed blue a full 36 hours. Some of the inner mesh was then cut off, for no clear reason unless 50-odd jagged spikes (what to do but count them?) were an invitation (as he thought) to slash his wrists. He was sometimes tempted. A tough customer, clearly: he alone was never led outside for exercise. By day he walked in the cage, two paces, two paces, or slouched, or sat. By night a special reflector poured light on his cage alone, so he kept his head under the blanket. There were always two guards, with strict orders not to speak to him.
Maybe the Pisan clouds are the most splendid seen because of life’s whirlwind, from humbler times to treason. He remembers a stranger never spoken to, only seen, but the vernacular of the poet’s description stands in for what the New Jerseyite (Trenton) would have said, could he have described himself—his “rudimentary” a simple man’s textbook diction, a la many of the surprising words from Faulkner’s characters. The “feller” isn’t “fishin’, just watchin’ the water.” The “of” in the next line is no ornament either, and maybe a mixture of the speaker’s voice and this man. Then the emerald herald of truth, that “quality of affection,” returns with “counts” replacing “matters.” Why? “Just watchin’ the water” has saved many a person. Pound picks out his age to sharpen the contrast—what if life had been this? Olga Rudge said the first instance of “the quality of affection…” is the turning point of the poem. Memory rounds off life, it is the gift life reserves for the old age of whoever lives to grow old. In memory is wisdom. Pound lived to see what few experience. Never could he have imagined how his life’s poem would be changed when his life was upended. It could have ceased there. The Army could have burned the drafts written.
And one continues reading parts, or just skips parts that are brittle—John Berryman: “…most of the American historical cantos…are willed, numb, angry…” But then there is the Rock-Drill section, agreed by some Poundians to rival The Pisan Cantos. These poetics “carve a trace in the mind,” which only describes the action, but carries the meaning of metaphor—visual, aural, and symbolic—in its prime rhyming words. Behold the poem’s arras, its form. “Form,” Pound wrote, “Gestalt, every spiritual force sets in movement the bodies in which (or among which) it finds itself.” Cavalcanti, maybe the overriding force, from Canto XXXVI:
Metaphor. Pound spoke sculpturally of Cavalcanti, “thought cuts through thought.” He also spoke disinterestedly of the Renaissance (didn’t capitalize it, either)—his aim was to reclaim things from the great civilizations of China, western antiquity, and the Middle Ages. There are so many epigrams that can be applied to The Cantos and I’ll add another. Pound wanted to write about the good in human beings—“I have tried to write Paradise.” Yes, he did. A few months ago, on one of the internet’s largest forums, Reddit, some young Turk started a topic: “[Help] who are some poets that write like Ezra Pound’s shorter works who aren’t terrible people?” Hugh Kenner called literature our communal past. Only time will tell if surgical strikes like this, so prevalent in modern warfare, will continue to poison our discourse.
Coetzee, J.M. “Homage” – Threepenny Review Spring 1993
Cookson, William – A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound
Cox, Kenneth – The Art of Language
Davenport, Guy – Cities on Hills: The First Thirty Cantos
The Geography of Imagination
“Making Pound New” Bookforum Spring 2004
Davie, Donald – Articulate Energy, an Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry
Eliot, T.S. – The Collected Poems
– On Poetry and Prose
Kenner, Hugh – The Pound Era
The Mechanic Muse
Pater, Walter – The Renaissance
Perloff, Marjorie – The Dance of Intellect
Pound, Ezra – The Cantos
Literary Essays of Ezra Pound
New Selected Poems and Translations (Ed. Richard Sieburth)
Stevens, Wallace – The Collected Poems