As I read Pounds 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, theres 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 Eliots 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. Ive had seven years of college English, with a focus on poetry. Ive had two grad-level courses in Chinese Literature taught by a brilliant Korean professor. Ive 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
Thats 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.
Im glad I spent the last two weeks reading, and reading about, Pound, but Im 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, Im 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 Ill be doing when I receive the books on postmodernism that I ordered while reading Pound.