For those who don’t know, I’m writing a series of posts about Ezra Pound’s massive book-length poem The Cantos as I work my way through the poems. My readings, designed to help me write a novel featuring Pound as an occult adventurer (more on that here), will stray from the merely academic to the unusual and highly fanciful, so take all this with a grain of salt! If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, there will be a menu where you can go back to the beginning of this series.
Where to begin?
I could go back and read Personae again; I never finished it, but have a copy on my desk. No doubt I will do so eventually — as in, sometime this year, and likely as a break from the Cantos, perhaps once I reach the midpoint ( Canto LX or so) — but that doesn’t appeal to me at the moment.
Meanwhile, I could have started with a discussion of Pound’s life — a biographical sketch — as the beginning of this study, except that I’ve been tearing through biographies of another major artist of the 20th century, John Coltrane, and am finishing up with the books about him that I have on hand… besides, I don’t have any Pound biographies on hand (at the moment, though I have one or two on the way).
I also considered beginning with the “Ur-Cantos” but it makes no sense to begin there, without first have looked at the first three Cantos themselves. After all, whatever resonances that be grasped, whatever meanings spied out by looking at the Ur-Cantos, it seems to me, will only be glimpsed or seen clearly when those earlier poems are held up in the light beside what they finally became.
Therefore, I’m tackling Canto I today.
Which, I have to admit, is a difficult task basically because so much has been said about it: everyone knows about how it’s an English translation of a Latin translation (by Andreas Divus) of an episode of Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey; one cannot read it and miss the implication that translating poetry is, like the action in the poem, a way of giving voice to the dead, of summoning history up through sacrifice and giving it a kind of waking life in the contemporary world. One cannot miss Pound’s invocation of “The Seafarer” in the alliterative verse and meter near the beginning, or his invocation of Aphrodite near the end — his elision of Western historical imagination and the Hellenic mythology and history with which it merged in the Renaissance. All of this is to foretell things he would get to in late poems.
But as stated in my opening post, one of the singular things about this Canto is its speculative-fictionality. I don’t know whether Pound ever encountered any early fantasy writing, but if we take the wider definition of the genre — a definition that includes Greek gods, occult metaphysics, and the like — then this poem is saturated with speculative fictional concepts, and even has incidental connections to mainstream SF.
Here’s a recitation of the poem by Pound himself, to start with:
You’ll probably want to read along, as it’s not easy to grasp the words just by listening. Here’s a complete text with proper indentations and so on. (Opens on a new page.)
Shall I start with the SF connections? Well, a couple of them, anyway?
Cool SF Connection #1: Pound has Odysseus and his crew sail off —
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays.
As critic and SF author Samuel Delany points out (somewhere in Longer Views), those are the same misty, mysterious [K]immerian lands that a young Robert E. Howard chose as the homeland for his now-famous barbarian character, Conan the Cimmerian.
Same well water, different soups, which seems to me as amusing a response to Pound’s “Cantico del Sole” as I could think up myself. (In terms of the influence of the classics being more widely available in translation in America: I mean, Conan the Freaking Barbarian!)
Cool SF Connection #2: At the commencement of a life-spanning project of a poem of history, Canto I contains within it a formula for two necromantic rituals, known as nekuia in ancient Greek: one, of course, the action by Odysseus within the poem:
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death’s-head;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and at the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the heards, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
The formula is precise enough, for one who might want to enact such a ritual, but I doubt Pound took it seriously in a literal sense. But there is another nekuia — necromantic ritual — which I suspect Pound did take somewhat seriously: the channeling of voices of the dead through poetry, through translation.
The occult fascination with words — spoken and written alike — is rooted deep in human cultures, and quite certainly goes farther back than writing itself. In our era, we tend to think of language, above all other human traits, as the one that differentiates us from other animals on our planet, and no matter how often naturalists point to elephants and chimpanzees using sign language, or other animals using language-like behaviours, we will not be convinced… rightly, since among humans, language is a whole ‘nother thing. For us, it is a fantastical wellspring, a source of power in the very literal sense: with language, we get writing, mathematics, science, technology… all of the things that make our age of wonders and miracles (and, yes, horrors) possible.
Now, among scholars there seems only to be a minority (most prominent among them Leon Surette and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos) who take seriously this idea of the Cantos as an occult text, or as a text informed by occult thinking; I’m not sure I fully take the idea seriously myself, to be frank, though it does provide an interesting way of looking at the work. (And, for my purposes, very useful, as I consider writing a novel wherein The Cantos indeed are a magical text.) Others seem either unimpressed by the idea, or, as in the case of a recent and acclaimed biographer (if I recall it right, it’s A. David Moody), downright hostile to it.
So, what I’m saying is that you, the reader of this series of posts, should take everything here with a good helping of salt: I am trying to read and explore the Cantos, but doing it from the point of view where an understanding of the text can be supplemented — profitably — by speculations as to occult dimensions within it that are lost even upon those scholars who suggested the idea first. (And I am also hoping that by reading it “creatively” in this way, I will be engaged to read it all the way through, since that’s a mountain I’ve failed to finish climbing more times than I like to remember.)
Pound did, after all, spend most of his life in the twentieth century, and while he was given to seeing fauns and satyrs hanging about the place, and thinking of gods and goddesses and musty dead personages, he also lived after the shockwave of Darwin, of Kelvin and the predicted Heat Death of the Universe; he lived in an age of technologies that as we shall see are not completely absent from his poem — a reference I half-recall, to his grandfather’s construction of rail lines, comes to mind.
And yet, I think, the presence of this double necromancy in the first poem of the book suggests Pound is doing on the occult level what he does on many other levels: he is warning us that this book will both be a kind of necromantic spell in itself, and that it will contain occult knowledge.
Pound also seems to be fascinated with something else — something I’ve noticed in other writers I’ve read lately, especially T.E.D. Klein: a fascination with the experience of human failure (something we will see again in Canto II, indeed):
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit.And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”
Elpenor is a traumatized spirit, a compatriot of Odysseus who was lost along the way; it is chilling to think of this, to think of the fact these poems were originally published before World War I but that Pound would return to the image of young men lost to a stupid, pointless death. Is Pound also perhaps projecting his own fears, at the outset of a great voyage? What if he might turn out to be an Elpenor, and not an Odysseus? It is an understandable anxiety, for as long as it is entertained. (Soon after, Tiresias the soothsaying spirit banishes doubts.) Then, Pound shushes Andreas Divus — to whose Latin translation of Homer he is giving voice in English — and makes a supplication to Aphrodite.
Why Aphrodite — goddess of love, sex, procreation, beauty, and pleasure? Here, Pound is astute, for, in evolutionary terms, it is very likely that our aesthetics in part proceed from our evolutionarily-programmed sexuality, our physicality. We hold certain foods and drinks in high regard because of how we evolved, after all; we see beauty where we do because of how we evolved. The rhetoric of evolutionary psychology isn’t Pound’s, it’s mine, but it is for me a way of cracking open that nut in Pound’s own rhetoric by which sexuality, beauty, and poetry are linked. But Aphrodite is also magical, a transcendent being, and a creature of metamorphosis — literally, in Ovid’s telling.
In this sense, it is tantalizing to ask to what degree those of a more pulpish sensibility might garner reading Pound’s depiction of the various Hellenic pagan deities. They are, after all, nothing like the creatures of modern religions, moralistic and loving towards mankind. In the Greek world, and in The Cantos, the gods seem to be perplexing, transcendent beings who as often as not are busy with their own amoral business — their wars, their infighting, their affairs and obsessions.
This pagan reality all presented in a sense that is both distant and historically remote, and at the same time secretly present in our own world, to the end that one cannot help but wonder whether a compare-and-contrast between the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos and the classical deities in Pound might be fruitful… if not useful in understanding the poems themselves, perhaps useful in piecing together the use of ancient mythologies in modern literature, and the attraction to pantheons of deities so unlike the gods of the public today, and also useful in the novel project I have in mind, wherein this book of Pound’s actually is, in some literal sense, magical.
But this, I think, I shall save for a later posting, for some Canto more gods-laden. He does, after all, eventually unfurl every umbrella stuffed into this basket at some point in the coming 800+ pages.
Which brings me to another interesting SFnal connection: There’s another interesting deity link, though, worth mentioning, and it comes in the form of Tiresias. The blind Theban prophet’s notorious experience of both male and female sexuality might, some have argued, in fact be a later reconceptualization of an earlier, androgynous “entity”; there are some who wonder whether Tiresias is in fact a tamed, modified version of the old Cretan deity Qe-Ra-Si-Ja; while some accounts argue this deity was a goddess, I’ve also run across others that state Qe-Ra-Si-Ja was androgynous. The deity seems to have been associated with destructive force — especially the Thera volcano — and pumice stone formed part of the religion that venerated it. For all that, the association of a prophetic blind seer with a deity linked to enormous destruction and called by such a Cthulhu Mythos-flavored name as Qe-Ra-Si-Ja, is very difficult to ignore. More about Qe-Ra-Si-Ja and Lovecraftian deities later… except to say that likewise, Aphrodite was (in the Bosphorus, rather than among the Greeks) a Chthonic deity. Surely Lovecraft was thinking of the Chthonic deities when he named Cthulhu; and I find it tantalizing to wonder how the Greek gods, amoral and warring and themselves not the eldest gods of their universe, might be linked to the Cthulhu Mythos… but more later, I suppose.
One more note, to point out that a close examination of the following lines can provide a startling surprise:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.
In the Creatan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:
Pound does not use a quotation mark to break apart what he says to Divus, and his (Pound’s, and Divus’) return to the Homeric narrative: we can ask who it was that “sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away / And unto Circe”? Sure, it can be understood to refer to Odysseus, naturally, but is it also Divus who is sailing off toward Circe (as a ghost, being banished to a more powerful worker of magic)? Is it Pound, for whom Odysseus is understood as a poetical figuration anyway?
Then comes the invocation of Aphrodite. Here, of course, one is tempted to raise prurient questions of Pound’s sexual life, to lapse into discussion of, for example, the menage-a-trois that he and his wife Dorothy Shakespear shared with Olga Rudge; nowhere more than in poetry can an author’s sexual concerns and proclivities stand as stark and bare to his or her audience, though of course poetry is not simply autobiography, and all writing is informed by ideals and imaginings. Either way, it is no surprise to find Aphrodite here, being that she is not only a goddess of love and sexuality, but also of magic… but it is nonetheless interesting. Perhaps, I think, she may be some kind of anodyne to the fear of failure, as well as perhaps to the discomfort (to a man of Pound’s time) of the unreal, baffling, magical bisexuality of Tiresias. This poem, he seems to want to declare, will be manly: we will take Aphrodite in our arms, and do shocking — shocking! — and wonderful things to her.
He will do shocking, and sometimes wonderful — but also sometimes really questionable — things to history, and to poetry, too, along the way, seeding in occult notions, making poetry indeed a sort of occult enterprise: but that is for me to unfold in the next hundred-and-some posts on the subject.
One more note: I am tempted, for the moment, to do a couple of Cantos a week. I am resisting my temptation for now, but I may well go ahead and hit a few Cantos — or even, at points, a group of them. I don’t want to abandon close reading, however, and I also don’t want to turn my reading of these poems into something too much resembling work, else I lose steam and abandon the book again. It is a difficult enough enterprise really reading one poem a week with sufficient care and attention, let alone tear through three or five or more… but at the same time, certain poems (like those exploring the life of Sigismundo Malatesta) seem to beg to be read as a group.
We’ll see, I suppose.