There are other aspects of Pound that are worth discussing—the instigator, the thinker, the crackpot, the character—but it is the poet of the permanent world, “knocking at empty rooms,” that mattered to me when I wrote this in 2009.
1. KNOCKING ON EMPTY ROOMS
I’ve never come across anything that would help a general reader know if Ezra Pound was worth reading. Encountering Pound as a teenager changed my life. From Pound I received a ready-made comprehensive curriculum—instructions on what to read, how to read, and what languages to learn—that I spent ten years working through. Other books and other teachers guided me—but at the center was always The Cantos, and the satellite of Pound’s other poems, letters and essays.
The initial appeal was that it was incomprehensible and offensive. It was the late Seventies, and The Cantos fit perfectly with Punk. Against banality it offered intensified bewilderment and ecstasy. It led me to study Greek in the same spirit that friends were led to go out dressed in Hefty garbage bags or to play dissonant dance music. We wanted to rebuke the narrow and calculating world, while mocking ourselves.
But my initial enthusiasm changed, over the years, into something else. What? Well then:
First of all, it’s important to approach Pound not as a historical figure but as a poet of two moods: quiet regrets and visionary experiences of nature. The regret was there at the beginning. A sense of your life taken away from you, a sense of defeat:
I do not like to remember things any more. / I like one little band of winds that blow / In the ash trees here: / For we are quite alone / Here mid the ash trees. (“La Fraisne, Scene: The Ash Wood of Malvern,” 1906-8)
I am homesick after mine own kind, / Oh I know that there are folk about me, friendly faces, / But I am homesick after mine own kind. (“In Durance,” 1909)
Pound wrote these lines when he was in his twenties and you might ask “What does he know about it?” Of course he was playing a part, and that was his form of drama. Less admirably, he was also indulging in self-pity, of which there would be more to come.
In 1915 he found more parts to play, this time from the 8th century China of Li Po. A wife separated from her husband:
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind. / The paired butterflies are already yellow with August / Over the grass in the West garden, / They hurt me. / I grow older, / If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang, / Please let me know beforehand, / And I will come out to meet you, / As far as Cho-fu-Sa. (“The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter,” 1915)
And an exile separated from his friend:
And we were drunk for month on month, forgetting the kings and princes. / Intelligent men came drifting in from the sea and from the west border, / And with them, and with you especially / There was nothing at cross purpose, / And they made nothing of sea-crossing or of mountain crossing, / If only they could be of that fellowship, / And we all spoke out our hearts and minds, and without regret. // And then I was sent off to South Wei, / smothered in laurel groves, / And you to the north of Raku-hoku, / Til we had nothing but thoughts and memories in common.” “And once again, later, we met at the South bridge-head. / And then the crowd broke up, you went north to San palace, / And if you ask how I regret that parting: / It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end / Confused, whirled in a tangle. / What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking / There is no end of things in the heart. // I call in the boy, / Have him sit on his knees here / To seal this, / And send it a thousand miles, thinking. (“The Exile’s Letter,” 1915)
In Villanelle: the Psychological Hour, from February of 1915, Pound created an evocative scene but indirectly, without specifying anything, thereby presenting a new character:
I had over-prepared for the event, / that much was ominous. / With middle-ageing care / I had laid out just the right books. / I had almost turned down the pages. // Beauty is so rare a thing. / So few drink of my fountain. // So much barren regret, / So many hours wasted! / And now I watch, from the window, / the rain, the wandering busses. // ‘Their little cosmos is shaken’-- / the air is alive with that fact. / In their parts of the city / they are played on by diverse forces. / How do I know? / Oh, I know well enough. / For them there is something afoot. / As for me: / I had over-prepared the event-- // Beauty is so rare a thing. / So few drink of my fountain. // Two friends: a breath of the forest … / Friends? Are people less friends / because one has just, at last, found them? / Twice they promised to come. / ‘Between the night and morning?’ // Beauty would drink of my mind. / Youth would awhile forget / my youth is gone from me. // II. (‘Speak up! You have danced so stiffly? / Someone admired your works, / And said so, frankly. // ‘Did you talk like a fool, / The first night? / The second evening?’ // ‘But they promised again: / ‘To-morrow at tea-time.’) // III. Now the third day is here-- / no word from either; / No word from her nor him, / Only another man’s note: / Dear Pound, I am leaving England.’
A different persona—“Ezra Pound,” if you like. The loneliness and boredom and rambling regrets of the Chinese exile are translated into the world of Henry James.
Another poem Pound wrote during WWI consists, in its entirety, of
Spring … / Too long … / Gongula …(“Papyrus,” 1917)
The only thing Pound ever believed in was art, and he believed that art was a value for society, not a distraction. He believed it was an essential, central value, that merited appreciation, celebration and support. He believed that poetry was a valuable public service—perhaps the most valuable. He believed that the whole of society should be re-organized so that genuine artists got the support they needed to do their work. And he believed in his own poetic vocation. It is extraordinary that somebody with the political views of Pindar should appear at 5 Holland Place, London, in 1908.
As a very young man, somewhere between Wyncote, Pennsylvania and Crawfordsville, Indiana, Pound got the idea that the classics were alive, potent and powerful, if only we would attend to them. Against the barbarism of vicious incompetence, laziness, greed, selfishness, the culture of the classics presented health, order and stability.
Literature, and poetry in particular, are simply revelation. Literature provides you with everything you need: aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, politics, religion, strategy, tactics. The corpus of world poetry constitutes an ampler, better Bible. The solution of most problems could be found by locating the most appropriate citation. All genuine books were holy books.
And with this exalted view of literature, Pound prized wholeness and truth over finesse or agreeableness. And, likewise, he concluded that no literary conventions matter. Conventions, for the literary historian, are only temporary agreements. A writer was free to pick and choose and play regarding form, genre, content, tone, language, diction, syntax, typography. And eventually the idea of art as a noble calling led to an ambition to engage with the issues of the day, to preach, to prophesize, to propagandize.
During his long poetic apprenticeship, Pound’s philological training was transformed into an idiosyncratic attitude towards the past. History was tradition, i.e. what was translated, literally what was handed-on, from place to place, generation to generation, via documents. These documents (poems, pictures, buildings) had several aspects:
- There was the world evoked by the document.
- There was the sensibility of the person who made the document.
- There was the contrast of the document-world and the document-maker with the reader’s present-day world and present-day people.
- There was my experience with the document. The circumstances of my encounter; my savoring and puzzling over its language, obscurity, exoticness.
- Plus there was the further complication that the documents might be in fragments, almost unintelligible, but retaining its tang.
And so how could we make sense of this? How could we understand history? How could we understand our own experiences?
The Cantos were Pound’s response. They attempted to do justice to all the mingled elements of past and present in which we live—to really do them justice, even at the expense of coherence.
The Cantos is itself an experience, that unfolds over time. No story, argument, structure or idea can convey much of relevance about that experience. There is nothing about The Cantos that can be conveyed in a summary.
What The Cantos does is present things. For example, a sailor describes his experiences in Canto 2 (1922) without pretending to understand them
grapes with / no seed but sea-foam / Ivy in scupper-hole. / Aye, I, Acoetes, stood there, / and the god stood by me, / Water cutting under the keel, / Sea-break from stern forrards, / wake running off from the bow, / And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk, / And tenthril where cordage had been, / grape-leaves on the rowlocks, / Heavy vine on the oarshafts, / And, out of nothing, a breathing, / hot breath on my ankles, / Beasts like shadows in glass, / a furred tail upon nothingness. / Lynx-purr and heathery smell of beasts, / where tar-smell had been, Sniff and pad-foot of beasts, / eye-glitter out of black air.
Readers who know the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, will recognize this as the story of the pirates of Scios, who after kidnapping young Dionysus, were turned into dolphins by him. In Ovid, Acoetes was the first mortal to perceive a divinity in disguise. Ovid presented him as a simple character, but with the gift of insight. It was intuition that mattered—not cleverness, or heroism or magical power. His insight saved him, and he shared it by telling what he saw. Likewise the Acoetes in The Cantos ended his story:
I have seen what I have seen. / When they brought the boy I said: / ‘He has a god in him, / though I do not know which god.’
Acoetes is a poet. He exemplifies the aesthetic difference between historical reconstruction and personal experience, as well as the ethical distinction between metamorphosis that debases and metamorphosis that elevates.
Before the War, Pound had defined his technique as
An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. (“A Few Don’ts,” 1913)
Which is to say, a document. A few cantos later, Pound presented snippets from a variety of documents relating to Sigismondo Malatesta: a letter from a man whose sister he seduced, a thank you from his 6 year old son, a note from his secretary about his chapel:
That’s what they found in the post bag / And some more of it to the effect that / he ‘lived and ruled’ (Canto 9 (1923))
This is the method of The Cantos: analogy, rhyme, echo, acting across a wildly extended range of reference. There is a likelihood of confusion, but also the possibility that details will fix in the mind. There are rude, pithy exclamations. And a babel of nineteen languages, and seven earlier versions of modern languages.
The Cantos consists of fragments: parts of stories are jumbled and out of sequence. Likewise arguments: “Canto 99” (1958) announces very importantly the “five relativities” but only mentions three of them. Pound didn’t want to impart a thesis, but fix a phrase. In most cases Pound was not rescuing the fragments of a shattered work, so much as shattering works that were whole, smashing them to bits, to pry loose a phrase. Turning them into slogans, often ignoring their original meaning.
And the fragments are all rounded, typographically, by caesurae. The typographic design is used to shape the phrases, and to emphasize by isolation. Gaps of silence, as in the music of Pound’s contemporaries Webern and Cage. The effect is of a blizzard of facts, some trivial, some significant, scraps and overheard whispers. Even when he is writing about clear-sighted, orderly men but Pound could not bring himself to present anything about their lives in an orderly fashion, or even present their words whole. Instead: glimpses, imagist discontinuity, leaps, and contrast.
By presenting a collage of documents, Pound was not telling a story, but planting seeds that might flower in the reader’s imagination. Naturally this can result in obscurity, but it’s a kind of obscurity we’re all familiar with. How do I learn each day’s news? I glance at some headlines online, I exchange a word with a neighbor, I catch bit of NPR, I overhear a conversation at work, I peek at my email. The world comes to me in fragments—as things heard or remembered in snatches—rather than wholes. It doesn’t typically come with any background information or any explanation of its significance. And it comes in a jumble: wars and domestic trivia, celebrities and nobodies, past and present … shuffled together into a single texture of varied succession.
In a sense the book takes the place of the author. Marianne Moore wrote Pound was “greater than his grouches,” and The Cantos live because they are more than Pound intended.
In this way The Cantos, taking the hint from the sacred font of Leaves of Grass, inaugurated a type of long modernist poem as a notebook-style accumulation of miscellanea over a period of time. This form was taken up by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikof, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, David Jones, Ronald Johnson, James Merrill and resulted in books possibly even better than The Cantos.
Obviously this way of writing an epic contrasts dramatically with the intricately-structured Commedia, Pound’s constant reference. And yet the Commedia isn’t equal to the tidy Thomistic system Dante employed in it. Dante used the system—he even implied that it was reality—but he doesn’t ever pretend it is comprehensible. It provided a frame for Dante’s fluctuating sympathies and antipathies. Dante doesn’t attempt to justify the ways of God to man; he was as bewildered as the rest of us. Like Acoetes, like Pound, he attempts to describe what he saw. Much of it—not just in hell—was distressing to him.
The real danger of Pound’s accumulative-notebook-method isn’t obscurity or incoherence (though pages of The Cantos sag under them) but glibness. Pound’s translation, scholarship, erudition were imaginative rather than exact. The more you look into them, the less confidence you have. Over the years, in the various editions of The Cantos, there have been 600+ corrections in Pound’s quotations. His erudition was mostly just swanking—though not solely that—and has driven scholars wild for a century.
This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that The Cantos were deep-dyed with didacticism. Pound may have left the faculty of Wabash College in 1907, but he never relinquished the professorial attitude. Pound’s original-language citations were part of this mentality. He was so thrilled by the music, the antiquity and exoticism of these quotations that he often neglected to translate them, or translate them in a way that the reader would recognize as a translation. It’s wrong to dismiss Pound’s polyglotism and erudite allusions as deliberate mystifications. Pound was not assuming that the reader already could read Provençal, and Homeric Greek, and already knew about the great emperors of the First through Third Dynasties, as well as the history of the U.S. Federal Bank, and Sigismondo Malatesta’s personal life and, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s personal life. On the contrary, he assumed the reader didn’t already know, and he was encouraging you to find out on your own. This can be charming; like The Anatomy of Melancholy or the essays of Plutarch or Montaigne, The Cantos are an anthology of treats for the taking. And yet a little bit goes a long way. And exposure to too much of Pound inevitably prompts a reaction of “We are tired of men upon perches”—one of Pound’s many critical demolitions that applied more to himself than anybody else.
In a 1927 letter to his father, Pound described the three elements of The Cantos as
Live man goes down into world of Dead.
The ‘repeat in history’
The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis bust thru from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world.’
Which is to say, the creative apprehension of the past is undertaken not for the sake of scholarship, but to discover the repetitions in history, the rhyme of events, plus the revelation of the world. The action of The Cantos is remembrance and divination.
After the First World War, this meditation on history shifted from the mythopoetic to the personal. Pound gave way to the shock of loss, being cut off, feeling strange in a familiar place:
The house too thick, the paintings / a shade too oiled. / And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi / Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion, / Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things, / And the old voice lifts itself / weaving an endless sentence. / We also made ghostly visits, and the stair / That knew us, found us again on the turn of it, / Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty; / And the sun-tanned, gracious and well-formed fingers / Lift no latch of bent bronze, no Empire handle / Twists for the knocker’s fall; no voice to answer. / A strange concierge, in place of the gouty-footed. / Sceptic against all this one seeks the living, / Stubborn against the fact. The wilted flowers / Brushed out a seven year since, of no effect. / Damn the partition! Paper, dark brown and stretched, / Flimsy and damned partition. (“Canto 7,” December 1919)
Low ceiling and the Erard and the silver, / These are in ‘time.’ Four chairs, the bow-front dresser, / The panier of the desk, cloth top sunk in. / ‘Beer-bottle on the statue’s pediment! / ‘That, Fritz, is the era, to-day against the past, / ‘Contemporary.’ And the passion endures. / Against their action, aromas. Rooms, against chronicles. / Smaragdos, chrysolithos; De Gama wore striped pants in Africa / And ‘Mountains of the sea gave birth to troops’
This regard for the lost translated into a tender regard for the metamorphoses of things over time, what endured, what had fallen to pieces:
Drear waste, the pigment flakes from the stone, / Or plaster flakes, Mantegna painted on the wall. / Silk tatters, ‘Nec Spe Nec Metu.’ (“Canto 3,” 1923)
Confronted with the decayed fresco for Isabella d’Este, Pound could offer “neither hope nor fear.” A sober end to a canto that began with a blissful vision:
Gods float in the azure air, / Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed. / Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen. / Panisks, and from the oak, dryas, / And from the apple, maelid, / Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices, / A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake, / And there are gods upon them, / And in the water, the almond-white swimmers, / The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple, / As Poggio has remarked.
At the same time, there was a violent reaction against nostalgia:
[Churchill] like a swollen foetus, / the beast with a hundred legs, USURA / and the swill full of respecters, / bowing to the lords of the place, / explaining its advantages, and the laudatores temporis acti / claiming that the sh-t used to be blacker and richer / and the Fabians crying for the petrification of putrefaction, / for a new dung-flow cut in lozenges (“Canto 15,” 1922)
From the beginning, outrage was one of the dominant moods of The Cantos. It registered Pound’s outrage at the first World War, his outrage over the deaths of his friends Hulme and Gaudier. It was probably the reason he suddenly started writing a long poem circa 1915.
It is of course an element that is not very popular among live-and-let-live non-ideologues, who comprise most of the poetry-reading public today. It is the thing about The Cantos that contrasts most strikingly with the Leaves of Grass. But of course, it is entirely in the spirit of Dante.
This fury eventually captured Pound, and from the late Twenties through the Forties, condemnation displaced remembrance and divination. The problem begins in “Canto 12” (1923) with the introduction of a new theme: frenzy against banks, money, interest: a nexus of exploitation and swindling Pound named “usury.”
In an era of global credit meltdown, ruinous national debt, and record foreclosures, its impossible to dismiss distrust of the financial world as absurd. But Pound’s analysis, his objections don’t pass his own test of being salient facts: they’re conjectures, conspiracy-mongering and name-dropping.
Pound identified himself as a believer in Clifford H. Douglas’s Social Credit movement, but the earnest believers in Social Credit thought Pound’s economic talk was worthless. It was romantic, it was emotional and it was fueled by outrage at injustice that soured into hate. There is a lot of hatred in The Cantos: hatred of exploiters of artists and usury, along with hatred of bankers, Philistines, war-profiteers, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, the Renaissance, America, ….
And, if that weren’t bad enough, starting with “Canto 35” (1934) Pound presented the solution to these evils: fascism. In the late Twenties Pound began to identify himself with the present-day politics of his home, meaning Rapallo, meaning fascism. He took the fascist revolution and Mussolini at face value. He chose to be naïve, to make excuses. He became exactly the sort of corrupt writer he began his career denouncing.
The pro-Mussolini propaganda in The Cantos, covert and overt, is inept and embarrassing. Mussolini-worship colors all his portraits of virtuous statesmen. Even the seductive “Pisan Cantos” (numbers 74-84, 1945), amid appealing glimpses of nature, the voice of the volunteer fascist ideologue resounds, mourning Mussolini and “the dream.”
And, whatever Pound may or may not have said elsewhere, the post-WWII cantos reflect no regrets. Even in the last Drafts and Fragments of 1969, Pound was still able to find a good word to say about Mussolini.
It is instructive to alternate “Pisan Cantos” with Primo Levi, who wrote about the same time period. Levi’s Italian experience, Levi’s unjustified imprisonment doesn’t entirely obliterate Pound, but Levi raises the question of how Pound’s three decades of meditation on the principles of civilization could have led him to embrace The Republic of Saló. What happened to the sensitivity to facts, to attentiveness to the reality of what’s going on around you, to the careful discrimination between truth and falsehood that Pound claimed to uphold?
It took the Allied victory in Italy, and nine months at the Detention Training Center outside Pisa, to re-acquaint Pound with quietness:
and there was a smell of mint under the tent flaps / especially after the rain (“Canto 74,” 1945)
He mourned the end of the Era Fascista:
Pisa, in the 23rd year of the effort in sight of the tower / and Till was hung yesterday / for murder and rape with trimmings plus Cholkis / plus mythology, thought he was Zeus ram or another one / Hey Snag wots in the bibl’? / wot are the books ov the bible? / Name ‘em, don’t bullshit ME.
He felt sorry for himself:
a man on whom the sun has gone down / the ewe, he said had such a pretty look in her eyes; / and the nymph of the Hagoromo came to me, / as a corona of angels / one day were clouds banked on Taishan / or in glory of sunset / and tovarish blessed without aim / wept in the rainditch at evening / Sunt lumina / that the drama is wholly subjective / stone knowing the form which the carver imparts it / the stone knows the form
He resigned himself to martyrdom:
300 years culture at the mercy of a tack hammer / thrown thru the roof / Cloud over mountain, mountain over the cloud / I surrender neither the empire nor the temples / plural / nor the constitution nor yet the city of Dioce
A subsequent canto gave way entirely to personal nostalgia:
Nancy where art thou? / Whither go all the vair and the cisclatons / … Orage, Fordie, Crevel too quickly taken” (“Canto 80,” 1945)
During Pound’s subsequent institutionalization, the masks, the personae, re-appear. He translated Mencius into a eulogist for a lost past:
Even I reach back to a time when historians left blanks (for what they didn’t know), and when a man would lend a horse for another to ride; a forgotten era, lost. (Confucian Analects, 15.XXV, 1950)
And once again Pound walked the stage as a Chinese peasant:
Autumn sees the plants wither, / wild beauties decline together; / all things cold now as pain, / I turn to go home again.” “The quail and kite take air, / sturgeon hath lair / in deep waters evading.” “Bracken hath crest, / Willow its rest in marsh / taking no wrong, / my rest: / a song. (The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, Part 2, Book 4, X, 1954)
On his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Pound returned to Europe, wandering the remaining 14 years of his life from Schloss Brunnenburg, back to Rapallo, to Martinsbrunn Clinic, and finally to Venice. His personal history had become frankly a myth, and old friends and Olympians co-exist in a quietly melancholy haze:
H.D. once said ‘serenitas’ / (Atthis, etc.) / at Diendonne’s / in pre-history. / No dog; no horse, and no goat, / The long flash, the firm breast / and to know beauty and death and despair / and to think that what has been shall be, / flowing, ever unstill. / Then a partridge-shaped cloud over dust storm. / The hells move in cycles, / No man can see his own end. / The Gods have not returned. ‘They have never left us.’ / They have not returned. (“Canto 113,” 1959, published 1969)
Near the end of The Cantos, there is a passage that characteristically combines high dungeon and frankness:
A tangle of works unfinished. / I have brought the great ball of crystal; / who can lift it? / Can you enter the great acorn of light? / But the beauty is not the madness. / Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me / And I am not a demigod / I cannot make it cohere. / If love be not in the house there is nothing. / The voice of famine unheard. / How came beauty against this blackness, / Twice beauty under the elms-- / To be saved by squirrels and bluejays?”“To confess wrong without losing rightness: / Charity I have had sometimes, / I cannot make it flow thru. / A little light, like a rushlight / to lead back to spendour. (“Canto 116,” 1959)
But then, at the end, Pound reminisced:
And for one beautiful day there was peace. / Brancusi’s bird / in the hollow of pine trunks / or when the snow was like sea foam / Twilit sky leaded with elm boughs.”(“Canto 117,” 1959)
And the note of self-pity modulates into a vision of the permanent world.
2. THE PERMANENT WORLD
In the taped-up copy of The Cantos I bought thirty years ago at Krock’s & Brentano’s in the Cherryvale Mall, a passage on page seven is marked in pencil:
And by the beach-run, Tyro, / Twisted arms of the sea-god, / Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold, / And the blue-gray glass of the wave tents them, / Glare azure of water, cold-welter, close cover. / Quiet sun-tawny sand-stretch, / The gulls broad out their wings, / nipping between the splay feathers; / Snipe comes for their bath, / bend out their wing-joints, / Spread wet wings to the sun-film / And by Scios, / to the left of the Naxos passage, / Naviform rock overgrown, / algae cling to its edge, / There is a wine-red glow in the shallows, / a tin flash in the sun-dazzle.
Why are The Cantos worth reading? Because of “a tin flash in the sun-dazzle.”
From the start, Pound’s poetry contained visions of nature:
I stood still and was a tree amid the wood, / Knowing the truth of things unseen before; /; Of Daphne and the laurel bow / And that god-feasting couple old / That grew elm-oak amid the wood. (“The Tree,” 1908)
There were two aspects to the vision: the ecstatic union, and the sudden realization of what the scene—the landscape, the place—really was. The image-document registered a discovery of the permanent forms of nature.
Pound early pedagogic-literary-propagandistic work was informed by the visions he detected in neglected poets. C.f. his translation of Ventadorn’s Bernart of Ventadorn’s “Quant ieu vey la’lauzeta mover / De joi sas alas contral ray”:
When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart; / Ai! what great envy comes unto me for him whom I see so rejoicing! (Sprit of Romance, 1910)
From the beginning, Pound was clear about what he thought these visions were:
I believe in a sort of permanent basis in humanity, that is to say, I believe that Greek myth arose when someone having passed through delightful psychic experience tried to communicate it to others and found it necessary to screen himself from persecution. Speaking aesthetically, the myths are explications of mood. … Our kinship to the ox we have constantly thrust upon us; but beneath this is our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree, and the living rock, and, because this is less obvious—and possibly more interesting—we forget it.
And Pound’s translations of visions from other times and places informed the poetry he presented in the persona of “Ezra Pound.” Within lyrics, vision was complicated with other emotions, other matters:
Rest me with Chinese colours, / For I think the glass is evil. // The wind moves above the wheat-- / With a silver crashing, / A thin war of metal. // I have known the golden disc, / I have seen it melting above me. / I have known the stone-bright place, / The hall of clear colours. // O glass subtly evil, O confusion of colours! / O light bound and bent in, O soul of the captive, / Why am I warned? Why am I sent away? / Why is your glitter full of curious mistrust? / O glass subtle and cunning, O powdery gold! / O filaments of amber, two-faced iridescence! (“A Song of the Degrees,” 1913)
Within the vast estate of The Cantos, the glimpses of permanent nature became more elaborate:
Air moving under the boughs, / The cedars there in the sun, / Hay new cut on hill slope, / And the water there in the cut / Between the two lower meadows; sound, / The sound, as I have said, a nightingale / Too far off to be heard. / And the light falls, remir / from her breast to thigh. (“Canto 20,” 1925)
Visions echoed earlier visions:
And the sea with tin flash in the sun-dazzle, / Like dark wine in the shadows (“Canto 21,” 1925)
This exemplifies the method of The Cantos. These lines occur after a peek into a letter of Thomas Jefferson, in which he asked the recipient if he could
‘Find me a gardener / Who can play the french horn? / The bounds of American fortune / Will not admit the indulgence of a domestic band of / Musicians, yet I have thought that a passion for music / Might be reconciled with that economy which we are / Obliged to observe. I retain among my domestic servants / A gardener, a weaver, a cabinet-maker, and a stone-cutter, / To which I would add a vigneron. In a country like yours / (id est Burgundy) where music is cultivated and / Practised by every class of men, I suppose there might / Be found persons of these trades who could perform on / The french horn, clarionet, or hautboy and bassoon, so / That one might have a band of two french horns, two / Clarionets, two hautboys and a bassoon, without enlarging / Their domestic expenses. A certainty of employment for / Half a dozen years …’
And then, as if the time and place have been sanctified by such humane and cultured sentiments, the canto concludes with a pageant of elemental forces:
And the boughs cut on the air, / The leaves cut on the air, / The hounds on the green slope by the hill, / water still black in the shadow. / In the crisp air, / the discontinuous gods; / Pallas, young owl in the cup of her hand, / And, by night, the stag runs, and the leopard, / Owl-eye amid pine boughs. / Moon on the palm-leaf, / confusion; / Confusion, source of renewals; / Yellow wing, pale in the moon shaft, / Green wing, pale in the moon shaft, / Pomegranate, pale in the moon shaft, / White horn, pale in the moon shaft, and Titania / By the drinking hole, / steps, cut in the basalt. / Danced there Athame, danced, and there Phaethusa / With colour in the vein, / Strong as with blood-drink, once, / With colour in the vein, / Red in the smoke-faint throat. Dis caught her up. / And the old man went on there / beating his mule with an asphodel. (Canto 21, 1925)
It’s important to note that Pound abhored religion. “Belief is a cramp,” he barked. He considered Calvin’s God “a maniac sadist,” and wasn’t kidding when he wrote that he considered Confucius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses “the only safe guides in religion.” For a poet given to ecstatic visions, he was exceptionally contemptuous of mysticism:
Many ‘mystics’ do not even aim at the principle of good; they seek merely establishment of a parasitic relationship with the unknown. ("Axiomata," 1921)
In general, Pound distrusted any attitude that disparaged this world and this life. As he said about Confucius:
And Kung gave the words ‘order’ / and ‘brotherly deference’ / And said nothing of the ‘life after death.’ (“Canto 13,” 1923)
And in the character of Confucius:
To seek mysteries in the obscure, poking into magic and committing eccentricities in order to be talked about later; this I do not. (Unwobbling Pivot, 1947)
While Pound’s visions of the permanent world were always grounded in the context of quotidian particulars, during the late Twenties he increasingly saw the permanent world and the quotidian world in conflict, as a battle between good and evil:
We appear to have lost the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies ‘mezzo oscuro rade,’ ‘risplende in sè perpetuale effecto,’ magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante’s Paradiso, the glass under water, the form that seems a form seen in a mirror, these realities perceptible to the sense, interacting, ‘a lui si tiri,’ untouched by the two maladies, the Hebrew disease, the Hindoo disease, fanaticisms and excess that produce Savonarola, asceticisms that produce fakirs, St Clement of Alexandria, with his prohibition of bathing by women. … Between those diseases, existed the Mediterranean sanity. The 'section d’or,’ if that is what it meant, that gave the churches like St Hilaire, San Zeno, the Duomo di Modena, the clear lines and proportions. Not the pagan worship of strength, nor the Greek perception of visual non-animate plastic, or plastic in which the being animate was not the main and prinicpal quality, but this ‘harmony in the sentience’ or harmony of the sentient, where the thought has its demarcation, the substance its virtu, where stupid men have not reduced all ‘energy’ to unbounded undistinguished abstraction. (Cavalcanti, 1910-1931)
And so the visionary scenes in The Cantos increasingly became visions not of the permanent forms of beauty, but of the permanent forms of ugliness. Pound becomes a obsessed with visions of Hell—a secular hell, hell on earth—brought about by injustice:
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 stone / weaver is kept from his loom / WITH USURA / wool comes not to market / sheep bringeth no gain with usura / Ursura is a murrain, usura / blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand / and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. (“Canto 45,” 1937)
And injustice debases mythopoetic reality:
They have brought whores for Elusis.
On the other hand, the visions of permanent nature could be defended against debasement by verbal precision. This is nothing new; philology—his philology—had always been, for Pound, an ethos. In his 1920 notes to Fenollosa he glossed the ideogram ching-ming as:
Man and word, man standing by his word, man of his word, truth, sincere, unwavering. / The word sign is radical supposedly from combination of tongue and above: ? mouth with tongue coming out of it.
Which Pound took as a Chinese version of “directio voluntatis”—the direction of the will, rectitude, honesty, strenuously active virtue—a phrase from De Vulgari Eloquentia, which Dante uses to describe one of the three themes of poetry (the other two being war and love).
But Pound wanted more than an active practice of honesty, he wanted an image of honesty. In his translation of The Great Digest (1928), Pound glossed the Chinese ideogram tê as:
’Sincerity.’ The precise defintion of the word, pictorially the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally. The right-hand half of this compound means: to perfect, bring to focus.
This image of an optical instrument led to one of the distinctive visual elements of The Cantos: Chinese ideograms. They first appeared in Canto 34 (1931), where they function not only texts that were glossed, but as images to be contemplated. Emblems of honesty, they heraldically registered concepts, virtues, heroic names. As elsewhere in this Imagist epic, presentation displaced description, and typography displaced syntax and argument.
But this was not a question of décor; what was at stake, for Pound, was the presence or absence of civilization. As he translated from the same section of The Great Digest:
The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse through-out the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good givernment in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.
So that, in the late Thirties, The Cantos presented visions of union, as before:
The light has entered the cave. Io! Io! / The light has gone down into the cave, / Splendour on splendour! / By prong have I entered these hills; / That the grass grow from my body, / That I hear the roots speaking together, / The air is new on my leaf, / The forked boughs shake with the wind. / Is Zephyrus more light on the bough, Apeliota / more light on the almond branch? / By this door have I entered the hill. (“Canto 47,” 1937)
But also glimpses of the permanent forms behind quotidian life:
Sun up; work / Sundown; to rest / dig well and drink of the water / dig field; eat of the grain / Imperial power is? and to what use is it? // The fourth; the dimension of stillness. / And the power over wild hearts. (“Canto 49,” 1937)
Which is not to say Pound became a celebrant of everyday experience. On the contrary, in The Cantos there is little mention ordinary life. The quotidian for Pound doesn’t mean working, keeping house, raising a family, or any other common pleasures and pains. Instead, the quotidian is a reflection of eternal forms. Like the Commedia, The Cantos is full of real people and their doings. But they are not presented as gossip; they are presented as archetypes. Both poems present type-portraits, people who represent virtues or vices. One of his blindnesses is that Pound really only cared about great things. Ordinary life and ordinary concerns only came to his attention to the extent that they reflected great ideas.
One of his pamphlets includes the half-serious observation:
Italy has lived more fully than other nations because she has kept up the habit of placing statues in gardens. The grove calls for the column. Nemus aram vult. (“A Visiting Card,” 1942)
Which is echoed in the next set of cantos:
la scalza: lo son’ la luna / and they have broken my house / the huntress in broken plaster keeps watch no longer (“Canto 76,” 1945)
Which is followed by a return, after twenty years, of a directly observed landscape:
Lay in soft grass by the cliff’s edge / with the sea 30 metres below this / and at hand’s span, at cubit’s reach moving, / the crystalline, as inverse of water, / clear over rock-bed
And longing for the quiet life:
Came Eurus / as comforter / and at sunset / la pastorella dei suini / driving the pigs / home, bene comata dea
While noting that his circumstances have contracted to a cell:
Arachne che mi porta fortuna; / Athene, who wrongs thee? / tis adikeí / That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole
Visions still came, but they came to him at the U.S. Detention Training Center, hence with irony:
Bright dawn … on the sht house / next day / with the shadow of the gibbets attendant / … I heard it in the s.h. a suitable place / [to hear that the war was over] / the scollop of the sky shut down on its pearl(“Canto 77,” 1945)
O moon my pin up, / chronometer (“Canto 84,” 1945)
But the visions were his life-line:
When the mind swings by a grass blade / an ant’s forefoot shall save you / the clover smells and tastes as its flower (“Canto 83,” 1945)
But after ten years of institutionalization at St. Elizabeths, the visions ceased to sustain. At first, as always, Pound expressed the loss through an assumed identity:
I look up with awe to the exigeant heaven / which hath no kindness to me-ward, / my unquiet is come to the full. / The sky presses down heavy as whetstone / nothing moves calm in this country (The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, Book 3, X (264), 1954)
Then in his own persona:
Trees die & the dream remains / Not love but that love flows from it / … & cannot ergo delight in itself / but only in the love flowing from it. (“Canto 90,” 1955)
But even so, there were visions that could quiet the pain:
The water-bug’s mittens / petal the rock beneath, / The natrix glides sapphire into the rock pool. (“Canto 91,” 1955)
And the spirit rallied a bit:
A lost kind of experience? / scarely, / O Queen Cytherea, / che’l terzo ciel movete.
So that, eventually, Pound raised the possibility of reconciliation. At first through in the character of a stoic saint from Sophocles:
Time lives, and it’s going on now. / I am released from trouble. / I thought it meant life in comfort. / It doesn’t. I means that I die. / For amid the dead there is no work in serivce. / Come at it that way, my boy, what / SPLENDOUR, / IT ALL COHERES. (Women of Trachis, 1956)
And then, in “Canto 97” (1958), he was sufficiently composed to smile at late-Classical manners, when visions of gods were not so pure:
Bernice, late for a constellation, mythopoeia persisting
And pass on an axiom of an earlier, sterner age:
The temple … is holy, / because it is not for sale.
And he struggled to convey his vision’s reality:
not in memory, / in eternity / and ‘as a wind’s breath / that changing its direction changeth its name’, / Apeliota / for the gold light of wheat surging upward / ungathered / Persephone in the cotton-field / granite next sea wave / is for clarity / deep waters reflecting all fire / nueva lumbre / Earth, Air, Sea / in the flame’s barge / over Amazon, Orinoco, great rivers. (“Canto 106,” 1958)
And struggled not to be disheartened by misfortune:
Diana crumbles in Notre-Dame des Champs / but the bronze must be somewhere, / Amphion not for museums / or stone / but for the mind / like the underwave (“Canto 107,” 1958)
For the living reality endured:
Brook water idles / topaz against pallor of under leaf / The lake waves Canaletto’d / under the blue paler than heaven, … Neath this altar now Endymion lies (Canto 110, 1959)
“Canto 119” (1959) begins with a mention of a bankruptcy and passes immediately to remembrance of
a field of larks at Allègre, / ‘es laissa cader’ / so high toward the sun and then falling, / ‘de joi sas alas’ / to set here the roads of France.
And so, at the end of his epic, Pound returned to the poem of Ventadorn he translated a half-century earlier, and, feeling revived, could articulate his vision anew:
Two mice and a moth my guides-- / To have heard the farfalla gasping / as toward a bridge over worlds. / That the kings meet in their island, / where no food is after flight from the pole. / Milkweed the sustenance / as to enter arcanum. / To be men not destroyers.
There are other aspects of Pound that are worth discussing—the instigator, the thinker, the crackpot, the character—but it is the poet of the permanent world, “knocking at empty rooms,” that matters to me.