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.

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.

Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”

Normally I hate it when critics insert comments in the middle of a poem and break it up so that it’s nearly impossible to read it as a whole. I always want to read a poem and form my own opinion before being influenced by someone else’s opinion. However, I don’t feel quite as badly about breaking up Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” because it’s already segmented by its very nature. Besides, I’m not sure how else I could discuss it.

HUGH SELWYN MAUBERLY (Part I)
E. P. Ode pour l'élection de son sépulchre

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old sense. Wrong from the start –

No, hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;

I agree whole heartedly with what Pound says here; it’s precisely what I would love to do through my web site, though I’m not sure I mean the same thing by “sublime” that Pound does.

Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait:

At times, particularly when I watch beer commercials or MTV, I’d have to agree with this assessment, too. I can only guess what the third line must mean and don’t really give a damn what the fourth line means, though I’m sure that it is some obscure reference to a literary work.

"Idmen gar toi panth, os eni Troie

Jonathon, Jonathon, Jonathon, forget Japanese, tell me how the hell to reproduce Greek in a weblog. I’d guess that this must have something to do with Odysseus, though I don’t really care enough to look it up.

Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe's hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

Unaffected by "the march of events",
He passed from men's memory in l'an trentiesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses' diadem.

I’d assume poor Hugh, unlike the more celebrated Odysseus, though his cause was no less noble, faded from existence without ever wearing the Muse’s crown.

II.
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

No, despite what Shelley Powers may think, this is no longer the age of Audrey Hepburn. It’s the age of Jeniffer Lopez or Britanney Spears (you’re right I don’t know how to spell their names and don’t care enough to look them up on the net, either) or of an aged Senator Dole pushing Viagra in commercials.

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,

No doubt about this. This is the age of cheap copies, free copies if you’re to believe the young people demanding their Napster.

A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.

Certainly no time for rhyme, unless you count that rap crap.

III.
The tea-rose, tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,

When you do a Google search on these terms all you can find is Pound’s poem, so I don’t have a clue what it’s referring to.

The pianola "replaces"
Sappho's barbitos.

Christ follows Dionysus,
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel.

Not sure what this means, but I know that it’s not a good thing when Caliban casts out Ariel. Reminds me of Hawthorne’s tale of Alymer (yeah I discussed this earlier, but you can look up the link if you’re interested. I’m not paid to provide these kinds of links to my own works).

All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall reign throughout our days.

Amen, amen. You can say that again. It’s hard to watch much television or many movies and not arrive at this conclusion.

Even the Christian beauty
Defects -- after Samothrace;
We see to kalon
Decreed in the market place.

Faun's flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint's vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.

All men, in law, are equals.
Free of Peisistratus,
We choose a knave or an eunuch
To rule over us.

When I read somewhere that Pound saw himself as seer, it gave me a chuckle, but when you read this and look at our country you almost begin to wonder if he couldn’t foresee the future.

A bright Apollo,
tin andra, tin eroa, tina theon,

Here, again, is that irreproducible, incomprehensible Greek.

What god, man, or hero
Shall I place a tin wreath upon?

IV.

These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ..

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later ...

Nice parallel structure, almost Whitmanesque in it’s style, though the vision seems very, very different.

some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor" ..

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

‘Tis the Age of Enron, of Exxon, of the Soon-to-be-Gone.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.


V.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,

Ginsberg’s “Howl” can still be heard.

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

I don’t know what happened to Pound’s compact with Whitman, but this is certainly no Transcendental vision, is it? Instead, it’s time for reality therapy, I guess.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

It’s hard to deny Pound’s main contention here that the arts have been debased while society has turned to mass-produced culture. Unfortunately, I also suspect that it is precisely poems like this that contributed to that decline.

Worst of all, Pound’s poems make me think I’m going to have to look seriously at the “art as art” movement, “postmodernism,” and hermeneutics as I’m beginning to wonder exactly what it is I expect from poetry and the arts.

It’s impossible to deny that Pound’s poetry, even poems like this, have had a profound effect upon modern poetry. When you look at a poem like this, it’s hard not to see Pound’s direct link to the Beat poets, as well as other modern poets. How can I agree with so much of what he says and still be so repelled by the poems themselves?

Pound’s “Envoi” to the Literary World

While looking up a poem for Shelley the other day in Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, I coincidentally ran into an Ezra Pound poem that I had just finished reading. The comments in the book reminded me of what is paradoxically one of Pound’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. In short, the authors pointed out that there was a direct connection between Pound’s “Envoi” and Edmund Waller’s “Go Lovely Rose,” a connection specifically pointed out in the poem for those that were aware that “Go, Lovely Rose” was set to music by Henry Lawes, a 17th century musician and friend of Milton.

Here’s Pound’s poem:

ENVOI

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie,
And build her glories their longevity.

Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one color
Braving time.

Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.

and here’s Waller’s poem:

GO, LOVELY ROSE
Edmund Waller [1606-1687]

Go, lovely Rose,

Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.

Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retir’d:
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desir’d,
And not blush so to be admir’d.

Then die, that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee,
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.

The connection suggested by Brooks and Warren simultaneously enlightened me to the meaning of the poem and irritated the hell out of me.

Although I had originally been puzzled by the reference in the second line, I did not have enough background to make the connection, particularly the connection to the poem “Go, Lovely Rose.”; It’s obviously an “aha” moment when a poet’s audience makes a connection like this. For at least one moment, the reader can feel a direct connection to the past; we share our humanity with others. More importantly, Pound seems to use the past to leap frog to new insights, contrasting the transience of mere mortal beauty to the transcendence of artistic beauty.

When Pound says, “I would bid them live/ As roses might, in magic amber laid,/ Red overwrought with orange and all made/ One substance and one color/ Braving time” he suggests that the beauty of the rose, and of a woman’s loveliness, can only become eternal when captured and transmitted by art. Art, in this case poetry, is the “magic amber” that both preserves and transmits the original beauty. A carpe diem poem is transmuted into a statement of how art provides a means of transcending time. The two poems, when seen together, do reflect on each other, both poems mean more when taken together. And that’s certainly a good thing.

My complaint about Pound’s poem, though, is that parts of it seem nearly incomprehensible without realizing that the poem is linked to Waller’s poem and it’s conversion to a song by Henry Lawes. The poem would seem to appeal to an artistic literati, not to the average reader who would be unaware of the poem’s heritage. Unfortunately, this poem merely foreshadows Pound’s increasing tendency to imbed literary allusions into his poetry, to the point where the poems become to most readers, as Louis Untermeyer states in Modern American Poetry, “a masterpiece of obfuscation, a jig saw puzzle with the important pieces missing.”