Loren Considers Ezra Pound’s Cantos

As I read Pound’s Cantos I found it hard not to envision some mad prophet speaking in tongues to his disciples. As an outsider, I was impressed by flashes of genius, all the time wondering who were these disciples that worshipped at his altar and what the true message of this prophet was.

Luckily, one of the most brilliant moments in the Cantos has been captured at KYBERNEKYIA: A Hypervortext of Ezra Pound’s Canto where Ned Bates offers an annotated version, elucidating elements of the poem that may need, at least for those as uneducated as myself, further explanation. Still, there’s no denying that lines like this rival the King James Bible:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

Though at times obscure, this canto is carried by its sheer brilliance. However, it seems to me that if Pound is ever to capture a wider audience outside the universities, it would require precisely this kind of annotation to make him accessible. The Cantos would benefit greatly from a hypertext edition, just as Eliot’s The Wasteland benefited from this treatment at The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot as Hypertext site.

Unfortunately, I understood most of the Cantos about as much as I understand preachers who speak in tongues. Luckily, there are quite a few sites on the web that offer some help for those of us who need help understanding the Cantos. One of the best sites is at Modern America Poetry, which includes a number of general introductory essays, as well as essays on specific cantos. Another good introduction can, strangely enough, be found at Pound the Poet, which is part of Hermes, the Literary and Cultural Studies in Taiwan. A number of links to interesting essays, as well as a link to a video clip of Ezra reading Canto LXXXI, can be found at Voices and Visions Spotlight – Ezra Pound.

However, none of these sites seems to provide the kind of comprehensive insight that would be needed to understand the Cantos. I suspect that Kasey Mohammad is right in suggesting that a reader would need to purchase at least one good text in order to gain even a minimal understanding of the Cantos.

As I read the Cantos, I constantly wondered whom Pound considered his audience. I’ve had seven years of college English, with a focus on poetry. I’ve had two grad-level courses in Chinese Literature taught by a brilliant Korean professor. I’ve read a wide range of poetry for over twenty years. Yet, I felt totally inadequate when faced with the Cantos. Who, then, did Pound think would read his poem? Did he really expect anyone to be cognizant of all the literary influences found in the poems? Or did he think that, like a prophet, scribes would meticulously study his poems for years, annotating them so that the faithful could begin to truly comprehend his message? At the very least, the poem seems directed at a small, elite group of artist-scholars who believed, as Pound apparently did, that the great poets are seers.

Of course, many obviously do believe that Pound was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. One of many people who believed Pound was a genius was Marshall McLuhan who wrote Pound:

Your Cantos, I now judge to be the first and only serious use of the great technical possibilities of the cinematograph. Am I right in thinking of them as a montage of personae and sculptured images? Flash-backs providing perceptions of simultaneities? (16 June 1948)

As the site notes, McLuhan apparently thought that:

These "simultaneities" … are precisely the situational analogies and/or historical rhymes that can be presented only through the agency of metaphorical and/or tetradic logic. To conceive of these simultaneities requires, in the first place, enormous erudition. To present them requires some skill in technical matters-the sculpturing of images, for instance, and the use of flashbacks. In each case, the transference of techniques from other media to print must be effected with both knowledge and craft. Pound’s poetry and prose, in other words, served as a model for bringing over into speech and writing the unspoken and unwritten relations between seemingly time-bound cultures and diverse technologies.

Genius or not, for me, the more important question is whether the Cantos are worth the effort necessary to comprehend them. I doubt anyone could gain even a minimal understanding of Pound without spending the same time that they would have to spend for a 5-hour, quarter-long grad course, roughly 150 hours of reading and studying. Obviously you would need either a professor guiding your study or, as Kasey Mohammad suggested earlier, a number of high quality texts

That’s a considerable investment of time that I think I personally would prefer to devote to other poets, poets like Roethke, Yeats, Robert Penn Warren, poets whose books I have sitting on the shelf waiting to re-visit, or even to the reading younger poets I have yet to discover.

I’m glad I spent the last two weeks reading, and reading about, Pound, but I’m afraid I must agree with Donald Lyons who argues convincingly that “The Pound that matters is early Pound, essentially the Pound of the London years.” For me, the best reason to read Pound is to begin to understand how he serves as bridge between Victorian poetry and modern poetry through his influence on modern poets.

Personally, though, I’m less concerned with the message of his poems than I am with the way he has forced me to reconsider what I expect from poetry and poets, something I’ll be doing when I receive the books on postmodernism that I ordered while reading Pound.

13 thoughts on “Loren Considers Ezra Pound’s Cantos

  1. Dear Mr. Webster,

    I’m glad you’ve written here about Pound. I have been reading his Cantos and secondary texts about them for about six months now. I say “reading” the Cantos mainly because there is not a suitable word in English to describe what I’ve been doing–living with them, perhaps? I might have more ability to read them than most people my age because I read several languages, including Latin; I am a student of history, Classical literature, Renaissance philosophies, and Dante, but I still struggle. I think this struggle is a natural part of the poem; so many pieces of it are so specific to their context in Pound’s life, that any other individual would have little literal meaning for them. They most certainly had meaning for Pound. But who am I to not search for their meaning for me?

    Anyway, one of your comments stoked my mind. You wrote, “Genius or not, for me, the more important question is whether the Cantos are worth the effort to comprehend them.” I might suggest that no one is qualified to comprehend the Cantos in their totality, and that if ease is one of your criterion for appreciation, you might do better to read someone else’s work, as you wrote a few lines later. If you read this poem like all the other poems you read, you would surely be dissappointed. It is a new animal, an animal often feared, ignored, or derided as incomprehensible. I fear that our society is losing the ability to understand, or the impulse to TRY to understand, anything written fewer than 10 years ago, and this attitude of yours is perhaps one example. Perhaps this quote from Canto XXXVI (pg.179 pub: New Directions), which sounds a bit like a translated quote, will clarify: “Go song, surely thou mayest / Whither it please thee / For so art thou ornate that thy reasons / Shall be praised from thy understanders, / WIth others hast thou no will to make company.” Goodness forbid that a poem should not snare readers through its accessibility–especially today when poetry is supposed to be pre-digested. Didn’t Whitman once write that great poets require great audiences?

    I digress. The message is the only thing in the Cantos–the general over the particulars. The part of their message having to do with their general inaccessibility is well parsed here by George Kearns, who refers to page 135 in Pound’s Guide to Kulture, “Beauty, limpidity, meaning, if they are not to be sentimental, specious, nor serve, Pound thought, as an idological soporific pleasing to the masters of our ‘hell of mercantile industrialism’, are achieved only after considerable effort, research and learning on the part of both poet and reader.” I know I gain more genuine pleasure and understanding through exertion. There really is something worthwhile there. Even so, de re gustibus, non disputandum. Thank you for these posts of yours.
    All the best,

  2. I’m afraid “language hat” made a much better argument for Pound’s Cantos than this in an earlier posting that you apparently didn’t bother to read.

    A simple glance at the other poet’s reviewed would show that many of them are just as “old” as Pound, and few of them have written anything in the last twenty years.

    The real question in dispute is who is worth the effort to pursue. And, for me, at least, Pound is least worth pursuing.

    His vision simply doesn’t seem as remarkable or as worthwhile as Whitman’s, Yeats’, or Roethke’s vision, as well as a dozen other poet’s I could mention.

  3. I did not mean to anger you, but it seems I did.

    1.) I am well aware that you’re able to read things written ten years or more ago. Your list of poets attests to that fact. I simply made an observation about society, NOT YOU. My comment was perhaps a bit heavy, and for that I am sorry. I merely meant to say condemning Pound for being too difficult to read without footnotes misses the point entirely. You, and I, are not meant to understand every little particle. Understanding them doesn’t lead to greater fullness of total meaning. Besides, there is no “understanding” the Cantos; not even Pound fully understood them. Their point is not to be totally understood. Part of their point is to resist time, limits, codification, the noose of understanding.

    2.) You wrote, “His vision simply doesn’t seem as remarkable or as worthwhile as . . .” This is the key misunderstanding we have here. What I meant earlier is that whatever vision the reader has when reading Pound is not so much Pound’s as the reader’s. Whatever we have won in Pound is ours, not his. Whatever we win in Whitman or Yeats is more or less only what they have put there.

    3.) I never saw any sort of thing on your site titled “Language Hat.” If I were to find it, I might read it. Don’t accuse me of “not bothering.” That’s snide. I’d prefer not to trade insults, but if you’d like, I’ll indulge you.

  4. I find point 2, rather interesting, Scott. I think to some extent that’s true of any great poet. I’ll have to think further about that.

    However, I read a new poet to expand my view of the world, to help me see new possibilities. I expect them to lead me somewhere I haven’t already been. To me, reading Pound’s Cantos would almost like reading the I-ching, or tea leaves for that matter.

    (I apologize for the “language hat,” reference. It refers to another blogger who made rather long comments on Pound in some of the other postings on Pound (there are multiple Pound entries on this site.))

    I haven’t read poetry for over 40 years not to understand the need to dig deeply into what is said. That is, after all, the best reason to pay for college courses and books of literary criticism.

    My main point is that after spending a week or two reading Pound that, FOR ME, it does not seem worthwhile to spend the time to “decipher” his poetry.

    I would never have said this as an English teacher because I always felt I had to be more “objective” than that as a teacher. But I’m NOT “teaching” poetry here.

    I’m discussing poetry as it has affected, and is affecting, my life, using it as a means of self-enlightenment, as it were.

    That is the reason I became a “poetry major” and the reason I’ve continued to read it throughout my life — it is my inspiration and often the source of any personal enlightenment I am able to attain.

    That said, though I admire many of Pound’s earlier poems (as I noted in an earlier entry), I did not find the Cantos either personally inspiring or enlightening.

    Pound has every right to reject Whitman and offer his own vision instead, but I have an equal right to reject his vision and to choose that of the Transcendentalists and their adherents instead.

  5. Loren,
    Thank you for trying to maintain an even tone with me. I understand that this site’s purpose is for you to speak your “subjective” mind. I’ve read your other posts on Pound. I’m no blogger. I am an outsider to your sub-culture, but I care about poems. If you take the time to read and sincerely address what I say, maybe we can get somewhere. You say you’re a teacher, great, I used to be one too. The difference between us seems to be that I don’t make as great a distinction between my standards for writing in school and for writing in life.

    I don’t know where you got the idea that Pound rejected Whitman. Whitman was, in fact, the only American literary ancestor Pound ever acknowledged, and although Pound consciously ignored Emerson, Emerson’s essay “Representative Men” bears more on the Cantos than many other texts.

    The Cantos (properly considered one whole poem) doesn’t require us to dig deeply into what is said, the Cantos requires us to dig deeply into our selves and our society. It is ‘a profounder didacticism,’ as Pound put it. I understand that some readers might not enjoy a poem with intentions like that. But you must have more criteria for poetry than just whether or not you’re enlightened or inspired by it. Surely there is a quality less dependent on your being receptive.

    It is a mistake to assume that Pound had an audience in mind, some pre-existing elite to which the average reader is too ignorant to belong. Mr. Kearns, whom I mentioned earlier, writes, “The greatest obstacle to reading the Cantos is demanding to know too much, too soon. Pound at times posited a reader who would principally attend to ‘what is on the page’. In 1954 . . . he wished for a critic who would ‘read through them before stopping to wonder whether he or she is understanding them: I think he or she will find at the end that he or she was’. . . What, if we don’t stop to ‘understand’, might we find we have understood after all?” Two weeks in an abortive attempt is hardly enough time. Read the entire Cantos even if you think you don’t understand it. The key is believing in yourself and noticing the clues Pound builds up over 800 pages. The clues really are obvious after a few hundred pages. You seem to have handcuffed your own understanding even before you opened the book.

    Pound in the early poems is not Pound in the Cantos. WW One destroyed any faith he had in the ability of his early aestheticism to address the problem he saw of ‘a hundred fat rich men starting wars for personal gain’. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly is in part a farewell to that early standpoint on beauty. If you like his early stuff better, that’s fine, most people do, after all, de re gustibus non disputandum, regarding matters of taste, there should be no dispute, but don’t disregard his masterpiece. It is his Leaves of Grass. If more people would read it, maybe we could begin to address the moral implications of our economic system.

  6. Well, I meant to say I was a high school teacher for 30 years. I’m not anymore.

    Now that I took early retirement, I can do what I wanted to do before I got so preoccupied with teaching: read what I want to read.

    I also realize that Pound said, “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman-I have detested you long enough.” but there certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a reconciliation in the poetry itself.

    Perhaps I will come back to the Cantos as I often do come back to a poet after a time. Right now, though I’m in the midst of moving, have committed to finishing Robert Penn Warren’s Complete Poems and have promised to discuss Yeats with an ex-colleague later on in the month.

    I appreciate your love of Pound, and hopefully if I can come back to him later you will offer your insights.

  7. Loren,
    The relationship between the two aesthetics presented by the Cantos and Leaves of Grass is certainly a complex field. Formally, at least, they share some obvious similarities, but after that, the geneaology becomes difficult to see. I’d love to talk to you about these things and Pound whenever you have time. Congratulations on retiring early.

  8. I stumbled upon this terrific blog trying to find one of my favourite quotes from Pound again, “first must thou go through hell” – I didn’t find it here, but found the sentence “started reading the Cantos several days ago”, which I found irritatingly put given the fact, that it took me some ten years to finally buy the Faber-Edition of the Cantos

    It has been some time since I gave a lecture on Canto LII January 16th 1991, which took me exactly the six month Scott says he spent with Pound so far to prepare. The actual lecture was a turning point in my perception of literature, because it coincided with the beginning of Desert Storm – bombs fell on human beings and my eyes were sore deciphering poems! A sinologist mainly interested in Tang- and Song poetry and at that time aiming to “read” the Li Sao once in my life, that night I learned that efforts of the scope necessary to read Pound or learn Chinese compel us to tackle real problems, as long as the world has still some unresolved ones left. I’m not going to waste this space with an acoount of how I tried to live up to this, because it failed -but lo: history repeated itself since then in a vortex of inbecility, the ever accelerating alienation of different cultures has off late led to ever more and more bloodshed… and so on, we get the tenor and it is beside the contribution I think I could make to the discussion between the two of you.

    It is, no offence, a bit shortsighted or maybe admissible only in the strictly personal vain of a blog to ask whether the Cantos are worth the effort necessary to comprehend them. They are an attempt to follow the light of reason through history, gleaning what Pound thought worth saving from oblivion. He was among the first to reject eurocentrism, to extend the accepted cultural canon of his times: the difficulties all of us have to deal with the sheer amount of allusions should not be taken literally, but as a mimetic device to make us aware of the vastness of what we don’t know and what we lack for completion of the proper perspectives.

    Lecturing on Cantos LII-LXI was a lucky start, because this section is a random rendering of passages from the Shi Qing and the Li Ji, interspersed with connotations Pound found with other or current events – not very deep and even limited by the dogged insistance with which Pound, at that time of his life, again and ever again rediscovered his few more palpable messages (“usury is really bad”) in almost everything he included in his historical cosmos. Knowing this, you will stop to decipher each and every line of the poems and get to the gist more easily: a patchwork of things to remember. And none of us will claim the discovery of Chinese culture unworth the effort – we may say: “this is not for me, but the fault is mine and even pardonable.” In fact: Pound is always a catalyst lagging behind as soon as we get more intimately acquainted with the subjects he promotes. But the benefit, it turns out, is always our’s. (To give another example: I always detested Herman Hesse – but had to back down, finding how many Germans developed a taste for reading by starting with “Steppenwolf” and all his other lachrymose stuff. Who am I to judge success?! But that’s chitchat, sorry to deviate).
    Little, off course, is gained by understanding the actual meaning implied in

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

    But hey: the exploration had us encounter Browning, probably even reading “My last Duchess” again; we got to the troubadours and may have taken up Pounds literary translations again, reading Li Tai Bo instead. Big assets, after all. The Cantos are packed with opportunities like this, one of the few works never to be finished reading and never giving us the same experience twice, but always something new (his credo: Make It New!). The question, therefore, is not, whether Pound is worth the effort. The fact is: culture is.

  9. The word “terrific” in the first paragraph of my comment was the last I wrote before posting it – and terrific it is by the sheer unfathomable amount of reading experience made availlable: I wish I had the stamina to do something like this – and more: I wish I read that much. Envy, therefore, might in part prick me on to comment on a possible shortcomming I felt in the approach to Pound – this is a topic different from the one before, therefore I post it separately.

    On may 15, 2003, you claimed to “always want to read a poem and form my own opinion before being influenced by someone else’s opinion” – and I trust you do. I was, however, surprised at the way you started your exploration of Pound’s reference to Browning: you, after much time-consuming trouble, unearthed some criticism from 1907-21 where Browning’s “Sordello” is dismissed as drivel. This, to you, “at least, that wasn’t a good sign”: How could Pound name “Sordello” as “the greatest Poem in English”?

    I mean: you were trying to understand Pound – so what is there in conventional academic prejudice to stop you from trusting in his convictions?

    Maybe your approach is marred by that which Pound tried to mend in his attempt in the Cantos (which would explain why in the end you didn’t get yourself to enjoy the work). I should have gone another way, based on my poet’s works: Finding, that Pound wrote some essays on troubadours in his “Literary Essays” (7 entrys on Browning’s Sordello), I would have turned to the text on http://www.pagerealm.com/sordello/ , where the second stanza – notwithstanding the quality of the endless work – explains Brownings poetics, valid even in his later, decidedly better and undisputed works:

    “By making speak, myself kept out of view,
    The very man as he was wont to do,
    And leaving you to say the rest for him.
    Abysmal past divide its hateful surge,
    Letting of all man this one man emerge
    Because it pleased me, yet, that moment past,
    I should delight in watching first to last
    His progress as you watch it, not a whit
    More in the secret than yourselves who sit
    Fresh-chapleted to listen. But it seems
    Your setters-forth of unexampled themes,
    Makers of quite new men, producing them,
    Would best chalk broadly on each vesture’s hem
    The wearer’s quality; or take their stand,
    Motley on back and pointing pole in hand,
    Beside him. So for once I face ye, friends,
    Summoned together from the world’s four ends,
    Dropped down from heaven or cast up from hell,
    To hear the story I propose to tell.”

    In this (besides getting to the setting of “Verona”, which is a recurrent theme of the Cantos: they are enacted as a play seen from the arena), you should have found the poetics of the Cantos, a collection of dramatic lyrics spoken in the voices of the people involved. You would have had the whole of the Cantos in a nutshell, just like this.
    Please kindly do not feel insulted by the rugged tone of this – I know you had a lifetime dealing with this and therefore such a comment as mine is inane: I do not think it either necessary or possible to change your ways – but I believe, that something in them has debarred you from getting to Pound – which again, in itself, is not such a loss: I saw the list of other favourites of your’s and we don’t have to enjoy all of literature – it’s vast. But this, and not a criticism, was a point I always wanted to make since I read your considerations on Pound some weeks ago.
    Best regards indeed

  10. Tibor,

    I’m in the midst of a major move and have just now had a chance to glance at my website after neglecting it for over a week.

    I’ll have to admit that I’m continually impressed by the fervor that many have expressed for Pound. I think I’ve had more comments on the entries I’ve done on Pound than on any other entries.

    In reality, I considered my comments on Pound somewhat of a failure because I never could really connect with the Cantos, though I did admire some of his earlier poetry.

    I think I persisted in commenting on his poetry simply out of stubborness, because I had said that I would comment on it.

    I tried to indicate that I considered my comments personal, rather than objective, by including my name in the title, something I’ve never done before.

    I’m not sure why I rejected Pound’s later poetry, though I’m sure that reading some of his commentary during the war didn’t predispose me to his poetry. For whatever reason, I had a hard time reading even the abridged version of the Cantos.

    Considering the fervor with which several readers have defended Pound, I may have to re-read the Cantos later.

  11. Yezzzzz – the poundits are a vigilant bunch, they are. I guess, the amount of diligence indispensible to getting something out of Pound gives that which is gotten an intensity of its own – the quality not of your common generic intoxicants but of getting a little high on your self, of feeling proud with a reason for a change (most things we super-proudly claim the world’s adoration for didn’t actually pose quite the challenge we pretend and we just did, what we were trained to do).
    I forsook ambitions to follow an academic career after finding professional readers a lot more prickly on diverging views than those who love to pick up books to get inspired – your peaceful and moderate response therefore impresses me immensely and attests to the authenticity of your calling. Thanks for not getting angry and may your major move be over soon to get you back to reading.

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