Thursday, 3 November 2011

Ezra Pound's Cantos: my maddening but magnificent Desert Island Book

I shouldn't really love Ezra Pound's poetry. As a man, he was a bit of a stinker. He lined up alongside the forces of barbarism during the Second World War. He was a raving anti-Semite. (I've already written about his personal shorcomings here.) 

He wrote some of the most wilfully obscure, show-offy poetry ever inflicted on a confused – and decidedly ungrateful – public. And yet, for the last two years, I've found myself returning repeatedly to the Cantos. To be honest, they’ve become a bit of an obsession.

The poems are packed with obscure references – to, for example, Chinese poetry and the work of French troubadours and the Italian banking system during the Renaissance. They're peopled with equally obscure historical figures (Astorre Manfredi of Faenza? Emperor Tching Tang? Io Sordels? – it’s a positive relief when the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Confucius and Talleyrand appear). They're stuffed with numerous lines that mean absolutely nothing to anyone but, one presumes, American academics (for instance, “ANAXIFORMINGES! Aurunculeia!” is a complete line from Canto IV, which the rest of the poem does nothing to explain). And they're shot through with medieval French and lots of Chinese hieroglyphics and Ancient Greek and Latin – all untranslated, of course -  as well as phonetic renderings of heavily-accented foreigners trying to speak English (a literary device that always makes my heart sink).

I even bought a guide to the Cantos to help me penetrate the maddening fog of what I took to be genuine erudition - but there are still tranches that make no sense whatsoever to me. In fact, I’m yet to be convinced that some sections aren’t pure gibberish to anyone but Pound himself – even my extraordinarily detailed guide slips furtively past certain passages. 

So why do I persevere? Why would anyone but an academic or an out-and-out pseud persevere?

Simple, really. The Cantos contain some of the most mysteriously beautiful and powerful poetry I have ever read. Pound might have gone completely crackers during his unfortunate Italian sojourn, much of the poetry makes no sense, and I have contempt for the theory that artistic talent excuses bad behaviour. But the Cantos aren’t the ravings of an unpleasant, disoriented madman – they are a work of sublime poetic genius, and one of the 20th Century’s greatest works of art.

If I had to choose a Desert Island Book, it might very well be an edition of The Cantos (as long as I was allowed to take along every commentary ever written on them).

If I’d started with one of the more incoherent fragments, I might not have mde it to the next page, but I started at the beginning – and the opening lines of Canto I are simply tremendous:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.

Well, that was me awed – and hooked. 

As I said, there’s something cold and cat-like about Pound, but his poetry is far from emotionless – the deliberate oddness is shot through with the sort of monumental, tragic tenderness you find in Homer:

But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in the sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
"Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
"Cam'st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?"
And he in heavy speech:
"Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle.
"Going down the long ladder unguarded,
"I fell against the buttress,
"Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
"But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
"Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
"A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
"And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows."

Canto XVI is a particular favourite of mine:

And before hell mouth; dry plain
              and two mountains;
On the one mountain, a running form,
              and another
In the turn of the hill; in hard steel
The road like a slow screw’s thread,
The angle almost imperceptible,
               so that the circuit seemed hardly to rise;
And the running form, naked, Blake,
Shouting, whirling his arms, the swift limbs,
Howling against the evil,
               his eyes rolling,
Whirling like flaming cart-wheels,
               and his head held backward to gaze on the evil
As he ran from it,
                to be hid by the steel mountain…

Bizarre, ludicrous, cartoonish – but what a blisteringly powerful, unforgettable image of William Blake that is! Unfortunately, I’m not sufficiently perceptive to know – or sufficiently articulate to be able to express - what makes it so good. Certainly, Pound is a master of visual imagery – he can paint pictures with almost contemptuous ease. His use of colour is particularly fine (there’s a wonderful image later in the same poem where he talks of “the criminal/lying in blue lakes of acid” – it’s the “blue” that makes this lodge in the mind). Like all the very greatest poets he also has an unerring eye for physical detail. And his command of language - his feel for it - is extraordinary.

Canto XLV is another favourite. Here, Pound’s sheer power is almost overwhelming (fortunately - and strangely - he was evidently a lousy propagandist). A trumpet-blast against what the poet considered to be usury, this makes me uneasy on many levels – the anti-semitic and anti-capitalism subtext is obvious (Pound apparently blamed capitalism for the slaughter of the First World War – not sure what he imagine caused the subsequent horrors of WWII or the butchery behind the Iron Curtain). Despite profoundly disagreeing with the thinking underlying the poem, I think it's magnificent. 
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
with usura
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luthes
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
with usura
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was ‘La Calunnia’ painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
Not by usura St. Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire,
Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling
Usura slayeth the child in the womb
It stayeth the young man’s courting
It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth
between the young bride and her bridegroom
                               CONTRA NATURAM
They have brought whores for Eleusis
Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura.

If the protesters currently despoiling our capital couched their arguments in these terms (fat chance, I know) one might even be tempted to listen to them.

I’m glad it took me so long to start reading Pound: early exposure might have led me to dismiss the art because of the man, and I’m more patient now than I used to be. I wouldn’t have liked to meet Pound. He evidently had many good points, including great generosity towards emerging writers – but, even leaving his repulsive political views to one side, biographies suggest he just wasnt likeable. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to have made his acquaintance at last.


  1. For those of you who never reach the end of my posts, this is just to let you know that I've added a poetry section at the bottom of the the blog, which I'll be updating whenever the fancy takes me. I've also added a Music section at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar, where I'll regularly link to personal favourites.

  2. I'm due to read from the Cantos at our next two local Pass on a Poem gatherings - which, such is Pound's toxic reputation, is probably the equivalent of selecting a Gary Glitter classic to sing on The X-Factor.

  3. Thank you, Scott, for your inclusion of Ezra Pound.

    If memory serves, a long ago read biography of EP listed 'The Chuchyard' by Sir William Watson as one of his favourite poems :

    ' I wandered far in the wold'
    And after the heat and glare,
    I came at eve to a churchyard old:
    The yew trees seemed at prayer.

    And around me was dust in dust
    And the fleeting light and Repose;
    And the infinite pathos of human trust
    In a God whom no man knows."