Years ago — seven years ago this fall — I started a study group, with whom I started working my way through Ezra Pound’s classic poem, The Cantos. When I say “classic poem” it probably makes you think of a single page of sparse text, which is understandable if you haven’t read the Cantos. So think more like a late James Joyce novel, but in poetical form. Think about a bunch of different languages, including not only various forms of English, but also old Occitan, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese ideograms. Think references to obscure historical and literary materials, taken for granted.
When I say The Cantos is “a poem,” it’s sort of like describing history as “some stuff that happened.” It’s a collection of individual poems — over a hundred of them, most of them several pages long, many of them linked but not so much directly as by obscure references and subtle nuances. My copy is 824 pages long, and I have a companion by a scholar named Carroll Terrell that is even longer, just to make the (relatively more) obscure references somewhat less obscure.
When I was in grad school, I took a course where we read the first thirty Cantos — which had been published 1930 as A Draft of XXX Cantos — in a couple of weeks (and then went on to read HD’s Trilogy, Paterson by William Carlos Williams, and something else I cannot recall… or maybe nothing else, I’m not sure). Which is to say, I dug into those first thirty Cantos, but also found myself reading several each day, and being mentally exhausted after tracing all (well, okay, some of) the references, concepts, and implications.
Well, with my study group back in 2005, we dug a little deeper into each Canto, but only worked together for a few months before I left Jeonju, and Jason (another member of the group) left for the United States. Which is to say, we didn’t get so far… indeed, I didn’t post about the full range of our explorations (the whole series of posts is short, and you can see it here), and the last page I have marked up in my copy of the poem is 167, somewhere in the beginning of Canto XXXVII (37).
Looking back on earlier posts, I seem to have been bound and determined to read all of The Cantos, to the point where, from the vantage point of the present, I am disappointed with myself for not having done so. The problem is, one cannot simply pick up and continue after seven years of having left a book on the shelf. So I am thinking I will start again, for the last time I hope, and post at least once a week about the Cantos, until I have finished to book.
I actually had planned to do so on a separate blog, and in a different vein: I played with writing my posts in a different voice than mine, using a character who was convinced that The Cantos is some kind of cryptic spellbook, but I decided I’d rather have fun with the poems while also writing something useful to others who want to study it. Since I’m thinking about writing a book in which Pound figures as a magic-worker of some kind, this technically counts as some kind of research; and you can expect that I will be touching on the aspect of The Cantos that interests me most — the occult leanings that Leon Surette (among others) has in the past spent some time discussing. However, I’ll try put my own spin on it, while I’m at it. You know, what Pound and Lovecraft have in common, why Pound would be interesting for an occult novel, stuff like that.
I’m not sure which day will be my Cantos post-day, though going by my tentative schedule, any day except Wednesday is likely to work. I may slate it for Tuesdays, since that’s when this first post will go live (I’m writing it Monday night, but will publish it Tuesday, which happens to be Valentine’s Day). I may not post about a Canto every week: sometimes, when I am very busy, I’ll do a link buffet, and other times I may post about some secondary source material, such as the Leon Surette book (A Light From Eleusis) that I’m meaning to read early on in this recommenced study, or Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, a book I read long ago, but don’t remember all too well — and which happens to by in my university’s library (unlike The Cantos themselves). But I do plan to make this a weekly, ongoing project, and push till I get to the end. While I’m making an effort to read more books this year, I think I want to get all the way through this one, too.
EDIT: Oh, and you might be wondering why I want to do this at all. Well, for one, to get the damned book read. But, for another thing, because multiple people who’ve read something shorter that I wrote featuring Pound as a protagonist told me they’d love to read a novel-length treatment… so there’s that. This is a form of research, in a sense. While I will need to read biographies as well (I think Ezra Pound: A Serious Character and A. David Moody’s still-incomplete mega-biography Ezra Pound: Poet are likely candidates), a working knowledge of The Cantos — and I mean, more than just the first thirty-five or so — is indispensable to the project. But having a day job, and other stuff I’m reading and writing… I figure a minimum of one Canto a week will get me where I need to go… especially since I’m likely to deal with a few at a time in the earlier ones, which I know pretty well already.
I don’t intend to make a full-scale commentary, so much as to touch on things of interest in Pound’s sense of history, his interest in the mystical/occult (poetical device or otherwise), and things that connect interestingly to his character in ways that can be used in its dramatization. The last few of which are, I think, relatively unusual angles from which to analyze The Cantos, though, as I’ve said, Leon Surette has worked on the occult side somewhat.