Loren’s Impression of Pound’s Canto II

When I started reading the Cantos several days ago (which I have to admit I had already started reading prior to writing the last blog entry), I was expecting a difficult poem, but was pleasantly surprised by the first Canto. With the help of Modern American Poetry’s comments on Canto I reading the Canto was relatively painless, and I was impressed by Pound’s successful combination of Odysseus and Old English poetry.

The Second Canto, however, was an altogether different matter. The allusion in the first three lines:

Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one ‘Sordello’
But Sordello, and my Sordello?

led me on a wild chase for several days.

The reference to Robert Browning took me to Gordon Ray’s 900 page volume Victorian Poetry and Poetics, my college text for a 5-hour course in Victorian Poetry. Though I did not remember that particular poem, I did recall several Browning poems that had caught my attention. However, in the whole 180 page section on Browning there are only two short references to the poem, one mentioning it was set in medieval Italy.

There was, however, an interesting comment on Browning’s influence on Pound:

Browning’s experiments in rhythm and diction his achievement of a flexible monologue form and his bold obscurity, opened up new possibilities in poetry. Through the influence of Ezra Pound (who began his career as an imitator of Browning), and less directly of T S Eliot the dramatic monologue has become the dominant form of contemporary poetry. Most of Pound’s important poems, and the chief poems of Eliot’s early and middle period are variations on the form Browning developed.

An even more relevant comment, one that somehow seemed particularly pertinent to my reason for re-reading this old textbook was the following comment on what the author describes as “touch-and-go allusions:”

Browning’s obscurity, also, is the result of a method that is characteristic of much modern verse. He was addicted to touch-and-go allusions which demand extensive knowledge on the reader’s part, to the plunge in media res without preliminary description of character, place, or time, and above all, to elliptical syntax and the sudden jump from thought to thought without benefit of connecting links. His friend, Julia Wedgwood, once protested to Browning (and her objection has since been echoed by readers of Eliot and Auden) at his use of "hieroglyphics." "You must treat us respectfully," she said, "and not fling us torn scraps of meaning, leaving us to supply the gaps." Elizabeth Barrett, dismayed by the same qualities, offered an analysis: "I have observed … that a good deal of what is called obscurity in you, arises from a habit of very subtle association; so subtle, that you are probably unconscious of it, . . . the effect of which is to throw together on the same level and in the same light, things of likeness and unlikeness – till the reader grows confused as I did." But Browning was no more unconscious of it than is T. S. Eliot. When Ruskin complained of his obscurity, he answered: "You ought, I think, to keep pace with the thought tripping from ledge to ledge of my ‘glaciers,’ as you call them; not stand poking your alpenstock into the holes, and demonstrating that no fool could have stood there; – suppose it sprang over there?"

Frustrated that several hours of reading left me no closer to finding out what the reference in the poem meant, I started an internet search that led me to Bartleby’s transcription of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One. At last I found something relevant, as revealed by the lines "This poem, as already hinted, was Sordello, Browning’s second study of a poetic soul, but a soul, this time, caught in the context of large and imperious circumstance and quite unlike Aprile.” So, at least, this idea of the “study of a poetic soul” seemed relevant to Pound’s Cantos.

Somehow, though, the next few lines of the article:

Many have explained Sordello, and some have comprehended it. It is uncompromisingly and irretrievably difficult reading. No historical account of the conflicts of Ghibelline and Guelph, no expository annotation of any kind, not even its own wealth of luminous ideas or splendour of Italian city scenes and solitudes, can justify it entirely as a work of art.

offered more insight into the Cantos than I wanted to believe at this point. It seems strange to me that Pound would choose a poem that disappeared into relative obscurity and that diminished the reputation of one of his favorite poet’s as a starting point for his own “masterpiece.” Was it a realization that the Cantos themselves were doomed to the same kind of reception, or did he believe that he could transcend Browning description of the poetic soul with his own poem?

Though I now at least knew what the lines referred to, I certainly didn’t have enough knowledge to transform those lines into anything meaningful. My search next led me to The Sordello Site where I discovered parts of the poem transcribed, a discussion of the actual Sordello, and, perhaps more importantly, a quote from Pound stating that Browning’s “Sordello” was “probably the greatest poem in English.” To me, at least, that wasn’t a good sign.

Having finally satisfactorily read the first four lines, I returned to the poem, only to be confronted by:

So-chu churned in the sea,
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
Sleek head, daughter of Lir

Despite the irrefutable beauty of the line “Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,” I hardly notice that, in fact I didn’t notice for hours later, because I’m immediately confronted by the questions of who the hell is a “So-chu” and who the hell is the daughter of “Lir?”

Thanks to the miracle of the internet I did manage to find the answers to these questions in several places but, most notably, at the URL entitled Robert Anton Wilson commentary on The Cantos of Ezra Pound which begins with the following introduction (typos included):

Ez told his father, Homer[!] Pound, that
the theme of metamorphoses dominates this canto
[I think Ez has multiple realities, not just mutltiple fathers.
He walks an uneasy waltz between Method Acting and Multiple
Personality Disorder, like some nitwit "channeling,"
but instead of producing their horsesht he somehow
produces great poetry. Robert Graves, oddly, said
all first-rate poetry emerges in semi-trance.
And Batty Billy Blake said a buncha naked angles
dictated his poems to him.]
This Canto seems psychedelic……..

The site includes a “complete” explication of this Canto II, and Cantos XX. Though I had some doubts about how authoritative Robert Anton Wilson’s interpretation might be after searching his site, at this point I decided to just read his explication of the poem and leave it there. But reading someone else’s “translation” of a poem isn’t exactly the same as reading a poem yourself, is it? At best it might get you the grade you need in a class if you can manage to paraphrase it successfully, but it’s not going to do much more than that.

Needless to say, I’m not going to try to explicate the entire Cantos. I doubt if even Shelley would hang with me through that. I’ll offer a “few” words tomorrow on what I’ve really learned once I finish reading Selected Poems of Ezra Pound tonight.

7 thoughts on “Loren’s Impression of Pound’s Canto II”

  1. Loren, just wanted to say that it’s enjoyable to read your point-by-point account of your progress through Pound, even though you sound put off by it in many ways. When say that “worst of all” you might now have to engage with postmodernism, etc., I can’t help but feel a twinge of optimism/hope that the experience might not be as painful as you imply you think it might be. Personally, I’m a very lazy reader, and the denseness initially deterred me, but after a while I managed to find ways to enjoy the Cantos without worrying about every single term’s referent. Reading your post, however, I found myself wanting to sit down with Pound and really engage with his sources in the way you’ve been trying.

    The internet will lead you to a lot of shaky material though. Just a suggestion: if you care enough to push further, there are two useful accessory texts to the Cantos that I know of offhand: Carroll Terrell’s _A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound_, and William Cookson’s _A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound_. For general background, Hugh Kenner’s _The Pound Era_ is wonderful. Be warned though–sometimes Kenner can be as oblique as Pound, or at least as elevatedly rhetorical.

  2. I’ll admit that I am put off by much of Pound’s later poetry, though I can certainly see how he has influenced modern poetry, and particularly some poets that I am quite fond of.

    I’ve already ordered “Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology” and an accompanying work on postmodern fiction writers.

    Since some of my favorite writers are included in the postmodern fiction writers collection, I’m hopeful that I will find the poets equally challenging.

    That said, I’ve already seen how Pound’s innovative techniques have influenced poets that I would have never considered “postmodern poets.”

  3. I’m with Julia Wedgwood. Such a sensible comment I’m going to have to find out more about her (rather than Pound… )

  4. I might if you let your sarcasm have free reign.

    I wouldn’t mind hearing more about this influence of postmodernism on poetry. And this reference to ‘denseness’ that Kasey mentioned.

    I am thinking of visting Bellefontaine Cemetary today, to see the gravestone of William Prufrock, the inspiration to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. However, will refrain from duplicating the _entire_ poem in my weblog. But I’m beginnning to see what you could mean by “postmodernism’s” influence. Is it that an artistic elitism?

  5. I second Kasey’s recommendations, especially of The Pound Era, which was like a giant light bulb above my head when I was grappling with the Cantos… yikes, over 25 years ago now.

    I sympathize with your irritation — Pound is probably the most irritating of major poets — but I confess I’m puzzled by your intense focus on line-by-line comprehension. I mean, it should be clear from a casual glance into the Cantos that it would take years to “get” all the allusions, and may be altogether impossible. To me, this means the only feasible approach is to just read through a chunk of it, enjoying the poetry and letting the allusions go for the moment. If you like it enough, and want to know more, you’ll wind up investigating the Companions and Guides and so on, gradually figuring out more about what’s going on — but it won’t be so that you can enjoy the poem, it will be because you already enjoy the poem and want to enjoy it more, and thus won’t seem like work at all.

    Surely you don’t expect to grasp postmodernism all at once (to take an analogy right there at hand)? I presume you “like the idea,” have read things that make it seem interesting, and want to get into it more. But the first time you read Derrida, it’s not going to make much sense. I take it on faith that if you spend enough time on it and read enough corollary literature, it will make sense, but I don’t intend to do it because I don’t like the idea or the writers enough to put in the effort. If you feel that way about Pound, fine, many people do, but it’s unfair to put the blame on Pound for not writing “accessible” poetry. He was writing as he had to write, just as Browning did with Sordello or Joyce with Finnegans Wake, knowing it wasn’t going to win any popularity prizes but hoping some would like it enough to put in the needed effort. Not an “elite,” just an audience.

    Anyway, I hope you don’t give up altogether!

  6. Kenmore’s The Pound Era, though a bit hard-going in itself, is the most helpful book I know on Pound I know. Helps make the connections. And it’s always worth picking up a recording of Pound doing his own stuff. It helps a lot to hear him read, for all his eccentricities. He’s less accessible than Eliot, but ultimately quite as stimulating and satisfying.

  7. I am a marroccan university student preparing my rsearch paper about the poetry ezra pound .I FOUND what you have written about the cantos of great interset.i m so honored to ask a help from you in accurate explnations,commentaries and criticsof my matter subject
    with love adil

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