I find that in reading Ezra Pound, the joy I receive is not a simple, pure joy. It is not like hearing a candence finally sliding into resolution at the end of a melodic line, nor the perfectness of a set of angles in a Kandinsky, nor is it the brilliance of a single turn of phrase or moment in a novel. The pleasure I find in Pound is somewhat more like the pleasure one finds in a good, serious Scotch that costs too much for one to enjoy it too often. There are these layers, these faint particles of experience that all assail you for too long, too fleetingly. When Pound makes sense, it’s like when you taste and feel that orangey smoke vapour there in the back of your throat; the sensation lasts long enough to notice, to register, and then you’re back to being lost again, adrift in the dark of history and life amongst half-ghosts, dreams and nightmares circling you hand in hand and singing out to you, each in its native tongue with an alien voice.
There are handholds, though; places where you may find purchase, where you can hold on long enough to make out the faces in the crowd, spots where you can almost grasp that bough of gold and find your way out of Pound’s Hades, to the clear light of day, to a paradiso terrestre. They seem so very few, too few, at first. But as you begin to know the man’s idiosyncracies, his own personal obsessions and interests, you can begin to navigate the world – the history – contained in the Cantos.
His idiosyncracies are absolutely crucial. If the Cantos are a “tale of the tribe”, as he referred to the poem once, then the tribe is neither geographical nor racial nor religious. The tribe seemingly transcends these boundaries. I am close to saying that for Pound, “the tribe” means Eurasian literate civilization; that he was rather unfamiliar with Chinese culture and verse in general, and that his main source, Fenellosa, was often a faulty one, matters little, for Pound was as desperately dependent on translators – many of them also flawed – of the ancient Greek texts that mark the genesis point of his whorling historical cycle.
But this word, “history”, what does it mean? What can it mean for a poem to “contain” history? What kind of history, and to what end? For whom is it written, and why in this fashion? And why does Pound equate the poet with the historian? These questions and more have come up repeatedly, not just in my current discussions of Pound with my fellow Ezra Pounders, but also in previous discussions I’ve read or participated in.
What follows is not so much a record of our group’s discussions, but how my own reading of Pound is developing as a result not only of participating in our discussions, but also as a result of my own further readings and thinking in other strange hours, gazing into those wraithly faces that never seem to stop spinning as long as Pound’s voice is in my ears.
Pound the Poet, Seer, Visionary, Speaker for the Dead
Here we are at the beginning of the Cantos, and what do we witness? We witness a scene from the Odyssey, as told by Homer; the scene were Odysseus is desperate to return home, descends into the Underworld and through blood-sacrifice rites summons up the spirit of Tiresias the seer to steal away the secret of the way home.
No, hold on; that’s not what we witness, we realize near the end of Canto I. For Pound is in there, in the scene itself. Pound, speaking with his own voice, telling Andreas Divus – whoe Latin translation of Homer is the source for Pound’s own translation – to lie still, a ghost among ghosts in Homer’s Underworld. We are witnessing, on one level, Pound inserting himself into a tradition, in a direct line from Homer, awkwardly perhaps via Andreas Divus, each conveying an older story forward through time. So in another sense, we are seeing Pound putting on the tradition itself as a kind of masque from behind which to speak with the authority of the Canon (or rather, of his Canon), of the tradition. Of course, to anyone the same question would occur which occurred to members of our own group: Why specifically is Pound doing this?
Of course it can be reassuring for a poet himself to do this at the outset of a great endeavour, and poets have for a long time put on the airs of being part of a tradition – of having soaked up a tradition so deeply that they are ready and even destined to be a part of it. So Pound was, at the very least, inserting himself into canonicity, in a very heroic role, as a kind of translator-hero.
But it’s important to understand just which context Pound is inserting himself into. Homer himself was, after all, also a kind of translator, a waypoint on the road along the way from orality to literate culture (which I suspect for Pound is equivalent to civilization). Homer himself (if he even existed) predated the inscription of his texts, but this is of little matter; the troubadour poets that Pound so admired mostly worked in an oral tradition as well, their songs transmitted by memory and mutating as they traveled. Pound idolized illiterate poets as well as literate ones, perhaps even moreso.
I suspect there’s more to this than that. I’m sure there’s some sense in which we could see appearance in Canto I as a kind of act – perhaps even a semi-ritualistic one – of self-reassurance inherent in the anointing of a seer. After all, Pound addresses a textual ghost of Divus just as Odysseus addresses the ghosts of the Underworld: with a force of command, with a sacrifice (of time, energy, and life in study), and with the power to extract some kind of crucial truth, some kind of “secret to the way back home”.
Pound As “Historian” or Historiograph
Much is made of Pound’s claim –or aim – to be writing “a poem containing history”. What kind of history? Whose history? For what audience? Why history?
Yet these are not the first questions that come to one. The first question that comes to one is, “How in the name of all that’s holy is this any kind of a history?” The Cantos are heavy, are violently obscure, are naggingly haunting. They do not sound like any kind of history we have ever known or studied before.
Unless, of course, we have studied the history of history, which most of us have not, and which was a branch of the historical discipline that did not in fact exist within the academe in Pound’s time. Pound, of course, was studying all kinds of histories, which we now call literature. Histories brimming with possibly-mythic events, histories which have changed over time, which have been passed down orally for centuries before being set down. It seems to me that for a poet, this is exactly the place where one starts finding history, the history of poetry and the history of civilization alike: in the murky voices of the long-dead, and even more in the still more ancient voices, now inaudible except as echoes in the voices of the dead we can still hear.
And so Pound’s history can quite sensibly be a history of civilization – Western and, insofar as he reinvented it in his imagination – Eastern too; meanwhile, it is also a history of words, utterances, and translations. It is both of these things.
A level deeper, though, it seems that Pound’s historiography does not stop at utterances, at translation and poetics. From the start, he engages in massive “rhymes” involving subjects, characters – including himself, and figures of movement, such as his famous triadic organization of a descent into the underworld, a repeat in history, and a miraculous transformation. Historical figures are held up almost as if to suggest they are all the temporarily-visible faces of the same transcendant form or archetype: the profligate poet/wanderer/hero… the bride/abducted rape victim/femme fatale… the revolutionary murderer/patron of the arts… the shadowy voice of the past in a ghostly form… the slain adulterer… the wise governor/tyrant/political-philosopher and his polis.
The specific characters begin to elide as early as Canto II:
“Eleanor, έλέναυς and έλέπτολις!”
This line is a reference to two figures: Eleanor is Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom Pound discusses further a few Cantos later; however, Eleanor is a French version of the name Helen, and the Greek in the quoted line, “elenaus and eleptolis!” are puns applied by Agamemnon to Helen of Troy, meaning, “destroyer of men and of cities.”
It is as if the great narratives of human history – or rather, those select narratives of human history which Pound seeks to hold up as the great ones – all somehow fit into a kind of general rhyme-shape. And in a sense, it seems to me that the central project of the Cantos may well be the marshalling of imaginative forces so as to make sense of the deep shape of history, the resonances and rhymes that echo throughout the lives of (those deemed by Pound to be) the most important figures in any given age. And in some sense, it begins to approach the feeling of being a kind of mystical history of humanity, a history spinning out the very few plots – perhaps the one and only plot – which shapes all lives and all civilizations within Civilization and Life.
But there are cracks in the grandiosity of this vision, or so it seems. There are, for example, the endless notes in the Terell Companion to the Cantos which suggest Pound’s misremembering of a source. At first, when I encountered this kind of note, I felt it was a kind of underestimation of Pound as a researcher. From the accounts I’d heard previously, the man was an indefatiguable researcher. But moments resurface now: his bizarre suggestion in one footnote that the troubadours might not be Eleusinian Mystery Cult revivalists, as one G.R.S. Mead (I think it was) had suggested in a lecture, but rather Manicheans – an equally bizarre assertion, given the stamping out of the Manicheans in Europe by about 600AD… though, to be fair, it seems this lineage enjoyed some more currency among theorists of Pound’s time. I remember an instance where, early on, Pound expressed great admiration for H.G. Wells – yes, the early SF writer – and then, after finally having read him, expressing only disgust. (The question being why he bothered to have such high approbations of Wells even before having read him!)
That Pound was probably mistaken in many instances, though, is not something I think is only related to the fact that he was a sloppy researcher. I feel rather strongly that it’s also related to the nature of History as it existed in whichever texts which Pound read deeply, studied intensely, and cared about most passionately.
And one major example of this is the Vida.
Sordello si fo di Mantovana, and other Histories
In the beginning of Canto II, Pound addresses Robert Browning:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one “Sordello.”
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana
When we encountered this in our group discussion, we settled upon it as a somewhat important moment for the poem, and perhaps for the Cantos, too. Suddenly there was a lyrical Pound, a Pound speaking in something like his own voice, with what seemed to be a somewhat contemporary diction, at least for the first three lines. We discerned, among us, several potential Sordellos: the “Sordello” in the first line being that of Browning, the two in the second line potentially meaning the real historical man, versus Pound’s writing of the man – or perhaps the troubadour myth of Sordello versus Pound’s reception and retransmission of it? The fourth line, as I recall, we talked about briefly, and then took to mean a representation of the real man, the historical man, and moved on.
We moved on because at that point we (or at least I) felt more intent on exploring what came after, this business of So-Shu churning the sea, the reference to the repudiation of a Chinese poet for weak emulation of other poets.
Aha, I thought to myself, Pound is betraying his own anxiety, perhaps as a kind of old-fashioned gesture of writerly humility. Like the envoi at the end by which an author sends his or her book into the wide world alone, the apology at the outset of a tale or long poem is a hoary old tradition by which authors display a humble attitude put on before the tackling of some massive literary task, such as taking it upon themselves to write the Tale of the Tribe, as Pound did.
But I have a feeling I skipped over that fourth line of Canto II a little too quickly. The thing that made me suspect this was in the first line of a Vida – a biographical sketch of the life – of another figure referred to several Cantos later, Bernart da Ventadour, which runs like this:
Now, take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, since it’s only based on that appearance of “… si fo di…”, plus Terrell’s notation on the second occurence of this line (in Canto VI), that this is a reference to “a biographical sketch” of the life of Sordello.
Now, the vidas are interesting because of what they are, and because Pound refers not only to troubadours but to their vidas.
Vidas were these oddball things, usually written many years after the death of the troubadours whose lives they supposedly described. In reality, some were actually relatively true-to-facts, but many were fabricated from rumors and/or from the content of famous songs by the very troubadours whose lives they claimed to encapsulated. For example, the vida of Bernart da Ventadour, viewable here, claims that he gave up on music and retreated after a broken heart to live in a monastery and died there. Now, this is all very romantic, but it’s also probably based on the very misogynistic ending of his famous song, “Can vei la lauzeta mover”, which runs as follows:
Tristans, ges no.n auretz de me,
Qu’eu m’en vau, chaitius, no sai on.
De chantar me gic e.m recre,
E de joi e d’amor m’escon.Tristan, you will have nothing more from me,
For I go away, wretched, I know not where.
I will withdraw from singing and renounce it,
And I hide myself from joy and love.
Now, with the vida – a form of history-writing that is distinctly medieval, but also hearkens back to older forms of history where rumors and extrapolations were considered fair game and acceptable sourcing – brought to the fore, we can ask again what kind of history Pound was writing. His few lines about Eleanor’s divorce from Henry –
“Ongla, oncle” saith Arnaut
Her uncle commanded in Acre,
That had known her in girlhood
(Theseus, son of Aegeus)
And he, Louis, was not at ease in that town,
And was not at ease by Jordan
As she rode out to the palm-grove
Her scarf in Saladin’s cimier.
Divorced her in that year, he Louis,
divorcing thus Aquitaine.
— I cannot help but refer to Georges Duby’s The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest, which contains a lengthy discussion of how many different, propagandistic rumors were spread, in a medieval form of “spin doctoring”, to cover up the fact than indeed it seems it was Eleanor who pressed for anullment within the Church on the grounds of consanguinity.
Is Pound citing the story because he only did limited research and this was the rumor he stumbled upon, and naively took to be the truth on the matter? Or is it cited because he felt this version of the story fit his narrative better than others? It’s extremely difficult to say, but I’m going to opt for some combination of the two, for now.
Well, it’s time I sign off, but I want to provide just a little bit more food for thought, so I’m going to mention the headings of sections I wish to write more about, or expand upon, next time, as well as include a few links to Pound-related goodies. First the headings:
Mouvance, Intended and Unintended
Cryptograpy and Cryptaesthetics
The Occult and the Occulted: Eleusis, Cathari, and Other Nutty Stuff
And now, for the treats:
mp3 of A song by Piere Vidal, as performed by the Consort Clemencic mp3 of Can vei la lauzeta mover by Bernart da Ventadour (and the text) mp3 of the vida of Bernart da Ventadour, recited with flute accompaniment in the original Occitan flash animation of the first verse of Can vei la lauzeta mover
- some interesting thoughts on reading Pound. (Not sure what I agree with, but it’s worth a look.)
- a stunning academic study of mouvance in troubadour texts
- some musical compositions by Ezra Pound — cd with samples on this page
- Pound ranting about bureaucracy