Lunar New Year Reads, Book #31: A Draft of XXX Cantos

Ezra Pound is one of the modern masters of poetry. Ezra Pound was a dismal failure. Ezra Pound was a genius. Ezra Pound was a madman.

Ezra Pound Image From Who Knows WhereThese readings of the man, or readings of the man from his Cantos, I can understand. I can understand each of them, collectively as well as individually, and I can even affirm them collectively as well as individually. You might say that Ezra Pound transformed poetry forever, and I would not be inclined to disagree with you. On the other hand, you might be inclined to say he inflicted terrible wounds on poetry and that it has yet to recover; and there, I may agree with you as well.

It’s so difficult to keep away from the man himself when reading the poems. You get these flashes of him, images like when he made a fascist salute on his return to Italy, after so many years in the nut ward at St. Elizabeth’s. You get flashes of his voice as it might have sounded over the radio, and you read things about his fascination with the occult. You think about his the kind of mind that constructs an opening like this:

Eleanor (she spoiled in a British climate)
Έλαγδ?ος and Έλεπτολις, and
poor Homer blind,
blind as a bat,
Ear, ear for the sea-surge 
        rattle of old men’s voices.
And then phantom Rome,
        marble narrow for seats
“Si pulvis nullus. . . .” said Ovid,
“Erit, nullum tamen execute.”
Then file and candles, e li mestiers ecoutes;
Scene for the battle only, but still scene,
Pennons and standards y cavals armatz
Nor mere succession of strokes, sightless narration,
To Dante’s “ciocco,” the brand struck in the game.

Un peu moisi, plancher plus bas que le jardin.

“Contre le lambris, fauteuil de paille,
“Un vieux piano, et sous le baromètre . . .”

The old men’s voices, beneath the columns of false marble,
The modish and darkish walls,
Discreeter gilding, and the panelled wood
Suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision . . . about three squares;
The house is 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.

(Canto VII)

… and you balk at judging. Or you judge.

This is the second time I have read A Draft of XXX Cantos, and this time, I intend to read the whole damned book through to the end, but I know it will be done only with great difficulty. This is to poetry what, for example, John Zorn is to musical composition; it’s so far from any of the old assumptions, and at the same time so far from any of the contemporary assumptions, that it seems as if it exists not only in a class all its own, but a kind of genre all its own.

A poem containing history, or a poem “including” history. I suspect there may be a pun in there, something about including/occluding/occulting history; I also cannot imagine how much of it is intended, how much half-intended, and how much is my own reading.

As it stands now, it seems to me the poem is a kind of Coliseum show, a kind of verse drama witnessed by Pound and his reader, a show of history with its ragamuffin puppet characters — all vaguely similar in design, each echoing certain other characters. Buildings rhyme or clash; condottieri rhyme with American founders and troubadours and ancient Greek poets; British bankers rhyme with the sinners Dante plugged into hell. The poem’s themes, to me, seem to be about property, society and its oppressors, fertility, words and poetry, the transcendent, the infernal, money, and profound mysteries and secrets. That is to say, these are the blocks of the human world that Pound seems to deem most crucial to human civilization, and human history. He returns again and again to pagan gods, to bankers and money, to paintings he has seen; he turns East to Confucius, and to Gemisthus Platon, and he turns West to his grandfather, a builder of railways.

The poet as seer is something. The poet as witness is another. They’re not quite the same.

History as a visible structure is something. History as an invisible occult superstructure is another. They’re not necessarily different.

There is a continual return to the sea, to water, to sailing, to journey.

Good grief, there is so much more I could say, but I will say this; when I finished the Draft of XXX Cantos the first time, I felt only relief. I was reading it for a summer class and it was giving me a lot of trouble, as it was, I suspect, designed to do. But now, reading to the end of it, I found that all I felt was a deep, lingering desire to continue on reading it. Perhaps it is because, reading it from the small A Draft of XXX Cantos edition I felt I had come to the end of something (besides my assigned reading); but now, reaching page 149 of my New Directions complete edition of The Cantos, I know very well I have only scratched the surface. And I know, further, that even at the end of my first reading through these poems, I will not have caught anything near what I would catch after a second reading… this I know for, just from the first thirty, I have discovered so much more than I could have during my first reading of them.

And yes, in a sense, I am cheating counting A Draft of XXX Cantos as having read “a book”, since it’s in fact only the first 150 pages of a much more massive book of poems; but on the other hand, the textual density (on reaching the end, it felt as if the end of a massive novel of Lord of the Rings length and Biblical intensity) and the fact that it also exists in a single-text form of only those thirty cantos, and my own desire to catalogue my progress here, is what moves me to “cheat” and count this as one of my Lunar New Year reads. I am quite certain that no matter what I do, I shall not be able to write again of Pound in this context, for I suspect I may only manage to finish the whole of the Cantos by sometime late in 2006, if not sometime in early 2007.

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