Reading Ezra Pound's Cantos

Lee Lady

The art of letters will come to an end before A.D. 2000.  I shall survive as a curiosity.

--- Ezra Pound


Despite the fact that I visited Pound a lot when he was at St. Elizabeths, I'm not a Pound scholar. Knowing him personally gave me an incentive to read the Cantos but it didn't give me much help in understanding them. What follows is my own personal opinion and not stated on a basis of authority. It is not intended to be any sort of definitive criticism of Pound's Cantos, but rather just a general overview intended to help someone who is just getting started reading them.

The best guide that I have discovered to understanding the overall plan of The Cantos is Leon Surette's book A light from Eleusis. Unfortunately, what follows was mostly written before I read this book. I have tried to make a few adjustments in places where I now think I said things that were just plain wrong.
From: Lee Lady
To: Ezra Pound Mailing List
Subject: Re: Looking to get Pounded...
Date: Thu, 25 Nov 1999
Revised: June, 2001

>Date: Wed, 17 Nov 1999 02:42:29 -1000
>From: Steven S.
>Subject: Looking to get Pounded...

>Anyway, I want to read the Cantos from beginning to end and would like some
>advise on literary prerequisites to help me digest it. On my own I started
>with Homer, "The Metamorphosis", "The Aenied". Recently I've been working
>through the Greek tragedies and comedies. I'm really surprised at how
>intense, vivid, and fun these "classics" have been!

Reading the classics is a worthy goal. Reading them solely in order to be able to digest the Cantos is a different matter. You should be aware that Pound tended to heavily emphasize a comparatively small number of works.

The Greek (and Roman) tragedies and comedies don't show up in the Cantos very much at all. (Sophocles more than any other dramatist, except that according to Leon Surette's comments the Agamemnon by Aeschylus plays a crucial role in the overall structure.) Most classicists consider the Iliad more important than the Odyssey, but Pound's attitude was the opposite; he has many many references to the Odyssey and the only one that I know of to the Iliad as such is in Canto 7. Certainly there are many references to Troy and to Helen, but these seem mostly to derive from Aeschylus. (My suspicion is that Pound had never read very much of the Iliad, at least not in the Greek.)

For Ovid, he stressed Arthur Golding's translation.

Get the anthology From Confucius to Cummings, edited by Pound and Marcella Spann and published by New Directions. This will give you most of the literary background you need for the Cantos. Also get the volume of Pound's translations published by New Directions. And realize that in Pound's translations in many cases his goal was to produce a semblance of the sound of the original, the style of the original, even at the expense of accurately reproducing the meaning. (It's the same issue one faces when translating a song. Is it more important to accurately translate each line of the lyrics, or is it better to allow oneself to be more flexible about the literal meaning in order to create a song in the new language that has the same quality and the same overall meaning as the original song?)

Pound always claimed that almost everything necessary to understand the Cantos was there on the page. Even the foreign language material is not a block, in most cases, according to Pound; the same content is repeated in the English language text. However the English equivalent of a particular foreign language phrase may not occur nearby, or even in the same Canto. And it's nice if you have some idea of the sound of the foreign language passages. And in practice, like most of Pound's statements about the Cantos, this one should be taken with a few grains of salt. There are a number of things in the Cantos which you will never be able to figure out without external guidance.

You should definitely get Terrell's Guide to the Cantos, which is available in paperback. I have also found Christine Froula's books very informative: Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems and Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. She seems to have information most other annotators do not. Guy Davenport's book Cities on Hills has some really excellent explanatory material. (Guy Davenport was someone who visited Pound in St Elizabeths many times.)

And by all means read Hugh Kenner: The Poetry of Ezra Pound and The Pound Era. This is by far the biggest help to reading Pound. And if at all possible get Leon Surette's books, especially A Light to Eleusis, which explains things about the overall plan of the Cantos that even Hugh Kenner didn't know.

But meanwhile, just get in there and read. Don't treat the Cantos as a crossword puzzle. Ultimately, in large part the annotations are irrelevant.

Or, in fact, the annotations tell you both too much and too little. For Canto 81, Terrell's or Christine Froula's notes can tell you that Lawes and Jenkins were 17th Century composers, and Waller was a poet who wrote songs for their music, and Dolmetsch was an early 20th Century composer of baroque-like music who also manufactured baroque instruments. But that doesn't really enrich your understanding very much. What will help is being aware of what Pound says about these musicians in the ABC of Reading and other prose works, and also being aware of all the other places in the Cantos where these people are mentioned. So one of the frustrating things about Pound is that you can't really understand individual pieces in isolation. The key to understanding a passage in the Cantos may turn out to be a paragraph in the Literary Essays.

There are definitely things you won't fully appreciate without some explanation beyond what's on the page. The various sets of notes help a lot at the beginning. But a footnote is usually not enough for these cases. You need the more complete background you can get from reading people like Hugh Kenner (especially The Pound Era) and Leon Surette.

And ultimately what's important is what's on the page. When I first started reading the Cantos, in my early twenties (and late teens), there were no annotations available. And Pound himself very seldom gave me any information which was helpful. But there was something in the tapestry of words and images that I found myself really drawn to.

More recently, I've found actually going through all the references and seeing what it all really means very satisfying. But I think that this only enhances my experience of reading the actual poem by a small amount. Partly because once I realize what Pound was actually trying to say, I find very little real value in it. But the tapestry of words and images remains.

In the beginning, you will diligently read all the reference books and critical books in order to find the answers to all the wrong questions. This is unavoidable, so don't worry about it.

You'll wonder "What does all this add up to?" and "What's the basic plan Pound was following?"

Pound's overall plan for the Cantos was extremely vague and changed over time. Leon Surette's A Light from Eleusis enabled me to understand what Pound was doing a whole lot better than I was ever able to understand from studying the Cantos themselves and by reading Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport, although they are also very useful. (Most of what I've written here was written before I read A Light from Eleusis, which changed my thinking quite a bit. Rather than rewriting the essay, I've gone through and tried to make a few adjustments where I think what I originally said was just plain wrong.)

In large part, in my opinion, Pound was mostly working very intuitive level in the overall organization of the Cantos. He wanted to include just about everything that he considered important for the world to know about. And he let himself be guided by the feeling which let him know when what he was doing was fitting into a coherent structure. (And whenever he wrote anything he liked, he would manage to find some justification for including it into the Cantos. From the time he started working on the Cantos, he no longer published any poems independently.)

In the ABC of Reading, Pound talks about the difference between symmetrical form, such as the form of a vase, and organic form: the form of a tree. The Cantos have the form of a tree; new material was created where there seemed to be a place for it. And yet a tree does have an overall direction it is growing towards, and the Cantos have a vague overall direction Pound was moving towards. (How vague Pound's notion was is a matter of argument. Leon Surette's book has convinced me that Pound had more of a sense of direction that I believed when I first wrote these notes. But I think that when you're first reading the Cantos, it's most useful not to look for some precise underlying structure.)

Borrowing terminology from computer programming, one can note that there are two general strategies in writing: the "top-down" strategy, where one starts with a fairly well worked out general plan and then goes about filling in the necessary details to achieve that plan, and the "bottom-up strategy," where one starts out by writing a whole lot of little pieces that seem good and then tries to figure out an overall structure that will accomodates all these pieces. It's probably true that all writers use a little of both strategies, but I think it's beyond doubt that Pound primarily used the "bottom-up" strategy. He would create a beautiful little piece, such as the Chaucer pastiche at the beginning of Canto 30 or the Cavalcanti translation that makes up Canto 36, and then try and figure out where to fit in in. (Again, Surette's book A Light from Eleusis has caused me to revise my thinking here. Surette has a fairly long discussion of the Cavalcanti translation, "Dona Mi Prega," and makes a fairly convincing case that it is central to the structure of the Cantos. I am still not convinced, however, that this was something that Pound planned in advance.) There are some groups of Cantos, such as the Malatesta Cantos (Cantos 8 through 11), not to mention the later Adams Cantos and the Chinese Cantos, where there's more of an overall plan, but it seems quite clear that to the extent that Pound had any plan for the Cantos as a whole, it was a very vague one. (Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Pound, A Serious Character, provides some useful information in this respect. See especially Chapter 5 of Part 3, starting on p. 417.)

Rather than working in terms of an overall structure or plot, Pound was guided by certain themes that he kept coming back to. In a famous letter to his father in the late Twenties, Pound described his plan as,

A. A. Live man goes down into world of dead.
C. B. `The repeat in history.'
B. C. The `magic moment' or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidien into `divine or permanent world.' Gods, etc.
This certainly characterizes the early Cantos, especially Cantos 1 to 16.

In Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography of Pound (A Serious Character), he quotes from an essay by Pound in The Dial in 1928 that seems to set forth one of Pound's major themes:

We appear to have lost the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with a clean edge, a world of moving energies.... A medieval `natural philosopher' would find this modern world full of enchantments, not only the light in the light bulb, but the thought of the current hidden in air and in wire would give him a mind full of forms. Or possibly this will fall under the eye of ... a painter who will answer: confound you, you ought to find that in my paintings.
Later Pound told various people that he was modeling his work on a mural by Cosimo Tura (see Hugh Kenner's books for details). And, finally, there is a very rough attempt to have the Cantos follow the overall pattern (but not the detailed pattern) of Dante's Divine Comedy, with an Inferno followed by a Purgatorio, and finally a Paradiso. In one of Pound's Money Pamphlets in the Thirties, he wrote the following oft-quoted passage: "For forty years I have schooled myself, not to write the economic history of the U.S. or any other country, but to write an epic poem which begins `In the Dark Forest,' crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light `fra i maestri di color che sanno."' (I think though that what we see in this assertion, as in most of Pound's statements about the Cantos, is Pound's claim in hindsight about what he had accomplished in the Cantos up till then, rather than a statement of something he had in mind from the beginning. And you have to make up your own mind about whether this claim is justified by the actual work. Once again I refer to A Light from Eleusis for a more careful analysis of the way Pound's plan changed as the Cantos progressed. Surette does make a good case for the idea that Pound had an overall plan for the Cantos which he was guided by, although this plan changed considerably over the years.)

In Charles Norman's biography Ezra Pound, he writes (p. 339)

As to its form, the Cantos is to poetry, or to the development of poetry, what Joyce's Ulysses was to the novel. In both works, there is the stream of consciousness technique --- the evident stream, not merely the aesthetic unconscious which operates in the creation of all art.


It can serve no purpose to question either Pound's intentions or design, for he is read best on his own terms. It may be useful to add that the Cantos, like other works of art, does not depend on initial reactions, whether of reader or critic. Time has sustained Pound's claims, first uttered long ago, when even Yeats and Eliot had doubts and did not hesitate to express them.

Pound did not follow any imagist rules in his work, or --- the concept being original --- any rules at all existing before; he depended instead on the source of all artistic rules, the artist's instinct. I do not mean any artist. The form is loose and impressionistic, and if there is a steady and pervading modus operendi, it is the stream of consciousness of a literary eclectic. His borrowings are impressive.

The academics who study Pound know vastly more than I do. But most of the academics (Hugh Kenner being the notable exception) study Pound by holding him at arm's length. They have been taught that this is the proper critical attitude for an academic. To do otherwise would subject them to the possibility of ridicule from fellow academics.

Fortunately, you're not an academic. Allow yourself to really commit yourself to the Cantos. Let yourself be absorbed in them. Allow yourself to be a believer. You can always back off and distance yourself later.

To some extent (in my opinion) to really be able to understand the Cantos you have to strive to become Pound. This is not something the academics are willing to do, and many of them (in my opinion) miss the whole point.

To become Pound means allowing yourself to become accept a certain sort of craziness. Putting aside questions of identifiable mental illness, there is a way in which Pound, in the Cantos, is often just not in touch with rationality as we ordinarily understand it. This is the craziness of someone who sees something that other people don't see (which is not in itself crazy) and who expects that other people will also see it if he just shows it to them.

I think that I understood this most of all when reading the chapter "Inventing Confucius" in Kenner's book The Pound Era.

Pound did not know Chinese very well at all. He would stare at a Chinese text, then compare it to some standard translation, and look characters up in whatever dictionary he had (often not at all adequate), and many times it was impossible for him to make any sense of it all. (I'm basing what I say on what I read in Hugh Kenner and other critical books.) And at that point, where analytical thinking failed him, he would resort to an inspired imagination and see wonderful things which were not supported by any rational evidence.

So far, this is not craziness: this is the vision of an inspired artist, where finding an inspired meaning is more important than getting things "right." Where it becomes crazy, though, is that Pound would then find it very important to display the Chinese ideogram in question to the reader of the Cantos, believing that if the reader looked at it really carefully he would see the same thing Pound did. (And Pound believed, of course, that his vision was the true meaning of the character.)

Kenner writes (The Pound Era, p. 459)

That was Pound's forte, the magnificent misreading. In the Pisan Cantos, splendor on splendor of diction is elicited in this way from characters used as mantrams, to invent a Confucius far from the urbane sage of the Analects, a light-philosopher and perhaps as much an invention of Chu Hsi's [conception of Confucius] in the 12th Century. As in the cloud chamber a physicist sees an electron's trace, so Ezra Pound looking at ideograms in the 1940's was inspecing tracks left, he was thoroughly convinced, by the patterned energy at the roots of phenomena.
(And the above paragraph, I believe, is an excellent example of Kenner's forte.)

Reading the Cantos is like paying a visit to a wonderful enormous shop run by a devoted antiquarian. (A cultural antiquarian, in this case.) He walks you around the shop and shows you all sorts of unusual objects (or rather facts and quotations) which come from all over the world and many distant periods of history and archeology (and literature and folklore). Some of them are beautiful, some are merely strange. In other cases, it's not obvious on the surface exactly what is supposed to be interesting about them. But to the shopkeeper, each of these objects has profound significance, and as he shows them to you he expects you to be able to appreciate this significance.

He shows you a Chinese character, even though you know no Chinese. And now some words written in Greek, even though you don't know the Greek alphabet well enough even to be able to pronounce the words. He gives you various bits of explanation, sometimes more satisfactory than others, but he keeps showing you over and over again the Chinese character or the Greek phrase, believing that only by looking at the thing itself will you finally be able to grasp its significance. And he is convinced that if people could just understand the significance of the objects in his shop, then they would see what is wrong with the world and what needs to be done to fix it.

The shopkeeper is clearly in his way crazy. And yet there is something wonderful about being taken through his shop and being shown all these strange objects. And at moments you get the sense that he really does have some profound insights, if only you could manage to understand what he is talking about.

Footnote: Eugenio Montale made an interesting observation along these lines. I quote from Charles Baxter:

Montale said that Pound was like one of those Americans such as William Randolph Hearst who goes to Europe and buys up statues and paintings and takes them home. The Cantos, Montale said, was the collection of all the statues and paintings that Pound had bought. But this did not mean, Montale went on to say, that Pound had become a civilized man. Instead, Montale argues, Pound had become a civilized barbarian. It didn't matter how many statues he purchased, he would always remain a barbarian.

Charles Baxter gave this summary of Montale's observation as part of a commentary by him on a wonderful short story he wrote called The Old Fascist in Retirement, which gives a modernist fictional impression of Pound's mind in the last years of his life. (Published in the collection A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter. Baxter's comment is taken from the book of essays The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett.)

Montale's insight is very enlightening at the same time that it is in its way quite wrongheaded, as one sees by reading critics such as Leon Surette and Hugh Kenner.
End Footnote.

When one first looks at the Cantos, it is natural to have the impression that Pound was incredibly erudite. I believe that if you read the biographies and see the extent of his actual education, and consider all the activities he was constantly engaged in during his twenties and thirties and calculate how much time was left for intensive study of things like ancient history and assorted languages, you will realize that this was not the case. Pound was a perpetual dilettante, a quick study. Over and over again, we see that he could study a particular subject very quickly and learn some things which he considered very important, and which he considered the essence of the subject. His mind is one which we can learn from, I believe, but one should also realize that he was very good at creating the impression that he knew his subject much more thoroughly than he did.

He knew a very little bit about Chinese, mostly from reading Ernest Fenellosa's notes, but he convinced himself that he was an expert, and the strength of his conviction was such that he managed to convince many other people as well. (And, in a way, he managed to communicate the spirit of Chinese literature much more effectively than most people who actually knew what they were talking about.)

Pound read Greek, I am convinced, the same way most any beginning graduate student in classics does, with constant reference to a dictionary and sometimes referring to existing translations. Furthermore, I think that he was not always extremely conscientious in looking words up in the dictionary, but often depended on inspired, but not always correct, guesses. I believe that Pound had read only a very few Greek works, and probably only a very small proportion of the Odyssey in Greek. But what he did read, he read very intensely and very imaginatively.

People here on the mailing list have recently talked about the Cantos in terms of film montage, as originally developed by Eisenstein and used so effectively by Hitchcock, Scorsese, and other directors. (See Hugh Kenner, The Poetry of Ezra Pound.) Remember the shower scene in Psycho: almost two hundred different shots edited together into about 45 seconds worth of film time. This is very much Pound's way of presenting narrative. But I think it helps even more to think of music videos, presenting a narrative sequence of visual images but without any clearly defined plot.

Look at Canto 17 and see it as a music video. Get the annotations from Terrell or, better, Christine Froula, but they're only really important in order to assure yourself that you're not missing anything important. It does help to know that the Canto is based on two very different cities: Rapallo and Venice. Only Christine Froula will tell you this. And it helps a little to know that apparently in Venice there are underwater trees beneath the canals which have become petrified.
But just read the Canto and take in the images. Don't look for a story, because there's not one.

Opening line:

"So that the vines burst from my fingers"

Who is this speaking that vines should burst from his fingers? Dionysus??? In the critical works, you'll find only speculation. You can decide to believe one of the speculations, just to set your mind at rest, but it really doesn't matter. Just accept the image. I myself now believe that this line records a moment where Pound, in Rapallo, looked at his hand grasping a bunch of vines and had the image of the vines actually growing from his fingers. (It's useful to know, however, that Zagreus, mentioned several times in the Canto, is Dionysus; See Surette's book A Light from Eleusis, pages 55-56, for a more careful explanation. It's also useful to know that Io means (in Latin?) "Hail"; Pound is quite fond of this word.)

"The goddess of the fair knees" is Artemis, also known as Diana. So what? Knowing that doesn't really make any difference to your understanding of the Canto.

Then, without being warned, we're in Venice, traveling through a canal in a gondola.

Further down (and at the very end) we're suddenly in the Venice of the Renaissance. Why? What's the logic of suddenly bringing in Borso, Carmagnola, and Sigismondo Malatesta? Don't worry about it. Pound was working on an intuitive basis rather than a logical one (in my opinion) and the effect he was producing seemed to him to work. It's more likely to work for you if you just give up trying to figure it out like a crossword puzzle and surrender yourself to it.

Addendum, June, 2001: In A Light from Eleusis, Chapter 3, Leon Surette, although apparently unfamiliar with the hypothesis that this Canto refers to Rapallo and Venice, gives an explication of Canto 17 that actually makes everything fit together, even Carmagnola and Sigismondo. Canto 17 is apparently intended to represent the Earthly Paradise, which here one descends to. It also seems to relate to the Eleusinian Mysteries and Eleusinian rites, which have to do with Dionysus/Zagreus, Demeter and her daughter Persephone/Kore. Dis/Pluto raped Persephone and stole her to his kingdom, Hades. Because she ate a pomegranate seed in the Underworld, she must return there for six months of each year (the fall and winter), during which time vegetation in the world dies. (I'm afraid that my explanation of the myth here is not very good.)

The line "The light now, not of the sun," in Canto 17 seems to indicate that one is now in the Underworld, although not in Hades.

Surette sees Odysseus as being the protagonist/narrator for Canto 17. Odysseus first has his encounter with Circe, who tells him that he must descend to the Underworld (as he does in Canto 1). Surette believes that the line

And shipped thence to the stone place
at the end of Canto 17 refers to this descent into the Underworld. Borso, Carmagnola, and Sigismundo, of course, made in their time a journey to the Underworld by more conventional means, i.e. by dying.

The encounter of Oysseus with Circe is further dealt with in Canto 39 (see also Canto 47). Circe, of course, transforms Odysseus's men into swine, but her magic fails to work on Odysseus himself. Circe then offers Odysseus the same delights his men have experienced without the penalty of being transformed into a pig. In Canto 47, Pound paraphrases Circe's offer as

Discuss this in bed said the lady.
Circe tells Odysseus that he needs to go the Underworld to find the information he needs.
Been to hell in a boat yet?
The lines that occur later
Beaten from flesh into light
Hath swallowed the fire-ball
A traverso le foglie
His rod hath made god in my belly
   Sic loquitur nupta
   Cantat sic nupta

Dark shoulders have stirred the lightning
A girl's arms have nested the fire,
Not I but the handmaid kindled
   Cantat sic nupta
I have eaten the flame.

apparently refer to the sex between Odysseus and Circe. (The Latin in the indented lines translates as "Thus said the bride, thus sang the bride.")

-- Lee Lady

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