Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto II

This entry is part 4 of 56 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

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.

Today, I’m continuing with the Cantos, and specifically addressing Canto II. 

Hang it all, Hugh Kenner,
There can only be one Ezra Pound:
But their Pound,  and my Pound?
Lo Pounds si fo di Idaho.

As I commented regarding Canto I, it’s pretty hard to come up with much to say about Canto II: since most people don’t really care to study the whole book, they concentrate on these early cantos, and so there is a great deal said and written about them, to the point where sometimes it feels like everything has been said.

Yet I shall endeavour to say, perhaps, something a little new, and not to recount too much of what has been said before: the minimum necessary, I suppose, to make my own points.

The opening of the poem is taken from an earlier draft of the first three Cantos, which I’ll discuss once I’ve touched on the first three Cantos, as a kind of pause and reflection. It invokes Robert Browning and his famous, maligned long narrative poem — later championed by, among others, Pound — Sordello. Countless commentaries note that Sordello, like Pound’s Cantos, is a poem that contains history — though not all of history, as Pound sometimes seems to be trying to do, but a chunk of it.

The chunk it contains focuses on the life of one historical troubadour, Sordello. Why Sordello is such a focal point of interest for Browning escapes me: I don’t get it, myself, beyond the sense that Browning somehow believed he could use the story of Sordello to paint a vivid picture of a poetical soul. Is Pound’s project like this? It doesn’t seem to be, and yet Pound seems to despair in his invocation of Browning:

Hang it all, Robert Browning,
There can only be one Sordello:
But their Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana.

The lines have been pondered on by many, perhaps too many for their own good. Pound here is:

  • agitating about depiction and verisimilitude, because, as anyone who’s actually studied up can tell you, Browning got a massive number of details wrong, including which political faction — Guelph or Ghibbeline — Sordello was aligned with. The poem is loaded with anachronisms, and it’s not clear to me at least whether Browning used the anachronisms consciously, had limited (or bad) resources for research, or just didn’t care. Whatever the case, there are hints of Pound’s approach to conscious employment of anachronism or thematic rhyme and echo across vast oceans of time. (Into which he himself launches in the lines that follow.)
  • playing with the freedom and indeterminacy of this kind of depiction: there are multiple Sordellos, after all: the Sordello of history, that of Browning’s poem, that of Pound’s experience reading Sordello (or, indeed, of his Sordello, who perhaps is Browning or himself or whatnot), and then, the Sordello invoked in the fourth line: “Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana” just means, “Sordello is from Mantua” but it is a quote from Sordello’s vida. Anyone who has studied the vidas — which are biographical sketches of a sort, kind of like the troubadour equivalent of Stratchey’s Eminent Victorians, except that they were written long after the deaths of the troubadours concerned, by monks who had never met them, and often relied on the lyrics of the troubadours’ songs (ie. their poetry) to construct hypothetical life stories for them.1
  • agitating about the life of a text: Sordello may have been, in Pound’s opinion, a masterpiece, but it was maligned and Browning’s career suffered from it. Pound is already concerned with the question of failure, or failure-through-success perhaps; he is worried what his project will do to his career, if he cannot even live up to the successful failure of Browning himself.
There is little question of the fact Pound’s work is of a kind with Browning, at least between The Cantos and Sordello: both seem to have an eye for the visual detail, and pile them on relentlessly — though in the case of the Browning, I find it grows too much for me soon: after two attempts to read Sordello, and not going past the end of Book 1, I fear I may have to surrender and say, while I see a lineage of sorts, I am not too excited to ride the river that far upstream, but good examples are cited by Guy Davenport here.

But of course, there are other, more occult echoes in the opening of the poem. Pound addresses Browning directly, and in Browning’s style — the informal, colloquial tone of “Hang it all, Robert Browning” is Browningesque itself — but he also references a poem of Brownings which commences with yet another nekuia of sorts, for Browning begins Sordello with his own summoning invocation: at least, if I followed the that first Book of Sordello correctly (and it is a painful read!) he calls the spirits of dead poets to come and hear his recounting of the tale of Sordello. There is even a glimpse of Dante in hell:

Dante, pacer of the shore
Where glutted Hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom,
Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume—
Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope
Into a darkness quieted by hope—
Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God’s eye
In gracious twilights where his Chosen lie,
I would do this!

(From Sordello, Book 1; no page numbers, but you a searchable text downloadable here)

This hinting at Browning’s nekuia of course echoes the whole necromatic tone of Canto I, which I discussed here, and reinforces the notion that there is a mystical interaction with the dead going on in the Cantos. While Pound may have considered this merely metaphor, for the purposes of my fiction project, the tantalizing equation that has begun to develop is: Poet = Necromancer.

Of course, this is not the only magical business afoot in Canto II: there is also that second of three themes that Pound mentioned in his letter to his father, and which is tiresomely (if usefully) quoted by everyone and his dog. I have no dog, but I shall quote it too:

A. A. Live man goes down into world of dead.
C. B. ‘The repeat in history.’
B. C. The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world.’ Gods, etc.

Trouble yourself not with the ACB/ABC structure: those are just two possibel sequences for the appearance of the narratives. But the Cantos is also a “rag-bag” into which bits of history have been “stuffed”, as Pound put it elsewhere, and these different themes tumble and twin together.

There is also a tumbling cascade of “repeat in history” here, and Pound superimposes the world of the troubadours — the world of Sordello and of Eleanor of Acquitaine — upon the world of the ancient Greeks, especially in his conflation (though Greek puns, the bastard: he applies the epithets for Helen of Troy, ελεναυς and ελεπτολις — helenaus and heleptolis, ie. ship-destroying and city-destroying) to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a superimposition of the sort that will abound throughout the Cantos. Both were powerful, beautiful, and world-changing woman of history, brimming with sexual power and each a sort of prototypical femme fatale in her way. (It also doesn’t hurt that both Eleanor’s and Helen’s fathers were significant men, Eleanor’s in terms of the fusion of different cultural poetries, but see Terrell (pg. 6) for more on that.) There is, perhaps, a warning here of the power of the occult, too: great beauty and power, matched with great capacity for treachery — Helen’s destruction of so much, and Eleanor’s betrayal of her husband (arguably, in response to his unfaithfulness to her, and ill treatment).

Here, we find hints at something else, hidden beneath the surface, however, of two factions, two sides of a war: Guelph against Ghibbeline, Achaeans (Greeks) against Trojans; English against French in the wake of the legal complications related to Eleanor’s marriage — note — to a King from each land. To this I will return in a moment, once I have sketched out what happens in the remainder of the poem.

For it is there, in the “magic moment” — not the necromancy of A, or the “repeat in history” that forms the second of Pound’s planned themes, but the third theme, the “bust through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world’, that is the main attraction of this Canto (and pardon the missing indentations, but they are hard to maintain on a blog post):

God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus,
grapes with no seed but sea-foam,
Ivy in scupper-hole.
Aye, I, Acœtes, 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.
The sky overshot, dry, with no tempest,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
dry forms in the æther.
And the ship like a keel in ship-yard,
slung like an ox in smith’s sling,
Ribs stuck fast in the ways,
grape-cluster over pin-rack,
void air taking pelt.
Lifeless air become sinewed,
feline leisure of panthers,
Leopards sniffing the grape shoots by scupper-hole,
Crouched panthers by fore-hatch,
And the sea blue-deep about us,
green-ruddy in shadows,
And Lyæus: “From now, Acœtes, my altars,
Fearing no bondage,
fearing no cat of the wood,
Safe with my lynxes,
feeding grapes to my leopards,
Olibanum is my incense,
the vines grow in my homage.”
The back-swell now smooth in the rudder-chains,
Black snout of a porpoise
where Lycabs had been,
Fish-scales on the oarsmen.
And I worship.
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.”
And they kicked me into the fore-stays.
I have seen what I have seen:
Medon’s face like the face of a dory,
Arms shrunk into fins. And you, Pentheus,
Had as well listen to Tiresias, and to Cadmus,
or your luck will go out of you.
Fish-scales over groin muscles,
lynx-purr amid sea…
And of a later year,
pale in the wine-red algæ,
If you will lean over the rock,
the coral face under wave-tinge,
Rose-paleness under water-shift,
Ileuthyeria, fair Dafne of sea-bords,
The swimmer’s arms turned to branches,
Who will say in what year,
fleeing what band of tritons,
The smooth brows, seen, and half seen,
now ivory stillness.

The tale here is simple, and taken straight from Ovid — the end of Book III of The Metamorphosis, to be exact: the men of a ship take on board a lad whom they plan to sell into slavery, though they have been told the lad has a god within him — which one, unknown. When it becomes apparent that they are bent on trickery, and foul dealing, the boy suddenly reveals himself to be Bacchus, a newly-powerful god; he halts their ship in the water, and strange phantom forms fill the air, the waters turning to fresh grape-must, the forms of lynxes and panthers apparent on deck, and an explosion of fertile vegetation (recalling vaguely the vegetation rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps, though those are devoted to Demeter and Persephone).

All this is easy enough to fish out of the canto itself, but Pound, cunningly, has omitted the framing story that gives the tale its context and force: and that is, Tiresias, whom we met in Canto I, has scolded King Pentheus that he must begin to worship Bacchus, the new god (whom you may known under other names, but most likely in the Roman name, Dionysus), who is at that point overtaking Apollo’s cult. Pentheus is not interested, does not heed the story, and indeed has Acoetes, the narrator, dragged into the dungeons to be tortured to death. (Again, a trip under the Earth, and again the blush with death, though it is said Acoetes escapes unharmed, the doors opening and the chains falling from him on their own accord.) Pentheus wanders onto the mountainside, spies a Bacchic ritual in progress — one involving even his own family members. Indeed, his mother leads the attack on him, and he is dismembered by the mob… and everyone from that day on worshipped Bacchus.

Here, we see yet another antagonistic binary to add to the list above: the Dionysian versus the Apollonian. Dionysus is an interesting figure as he is an outsider, and his outsider nature, or, as in this poem, his appearance as a young upstart to be reckoned with, seems quite applicable to Pound: in a sense, his use of this story feels a little bit like the bravado one picks up in hip-hop music, challenging other poets.

Or, if one considers again my task in these readings — an exploration of how The Cantos could be read as an occult text — perhaps Pound is playing at a deeper game. When I began to consider the notion of Pound as an occult adventurer, it became apparent that there would have to be two factions at war, with Pound as a member of one and caught up in battle against the other — familiar theme in epics but also in novels today. I hadn’t really connected these dots, but seeing them, especially this invocation of binary opposites confronting one another through the ages, again and again (the repeat in history) it would seem my imaginary, magic-working Pound might see himself as on not only the winning team, but the new team, the team that one must watch out for as the world shifts its axis; or perhaps, The Cantos is some sort of binding, designed not only to ensure Pound’s success (as an upstart outsider poet, much like Bacchus coming anew into the land and demanding worship) but also the success of his chosen faction. When one is dealing with ancient magical cults, millennia after their beginnings, either or both side might claim to be the newer, the inheritor and keeper of traditions against the evils of the old regime.

What those regimes might represent, though, is another question. Apollonian and Dionysian qualities — something to chew on. But they would not be so simple and straightforward as that, I think (and old-fashioned, too, even perhaps in Nietzsche’s use of them). After all, there was one thing Pound loved time and again to  exhort of others: “Make it new!” Still: the hint of an occult faction war here is tantalizing, and reassures me that I’m on the right track in my earlier considerations with regard to novelizing Pound as, ha, an occult adventurer.

Sadly, for those awaiting it, I don’t seen any specific SFnal links within the poem, but Ovid’s The Metamorphoses is deeply linked to fantasy in general, and is indeed itself a cornerstone text of fantastical literature. Oh, and of course, one more link to Pound’s conception of evolution, which does connect him, somewhat, to H.G. Wells: that is, his sense that, as Guy Davenport recounts here, Pound claimed to believe in 1921 that species did not evolve slowly, but rather through suddenly shifts and leaps, as poetry and as an individuals sensibilities can do. Doubtless there was something in the zeitgeist, but if we can attribute the presence of this romanticized notion of evolution that in the air to anyone, it probably ought to be attributed to H.G. Wells, many of whose early (and not so early) science-fictional novels sometimes posited sudden evolutionary change of one kind or another — see In The Days of the Comet, The Food of the Gods, or Star Begotten for examples.

This reminds me of a clear and known link between Wells and Pound; once, in Montreal, picking my way through The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, I found the name of H.G. Wells in the appendix, specifically tied to two letters. In one, Pound expressed great excitement at a book of Wells’ that he wanted to read — something on economics, mind, not a “scientific romance”; less than a hundred pages later (but more than fifty) Pound mentions Wells in a letter again, in harsh words. (What I remember is, “Wells disgusts me,” but I may be misremembering that.) I have no idea whether they actually met, but I have no doubt that Wells was every bit as much the “village explainer” that Pound was (according to Gertrude Stein), and that this would have served as an impediment in their relationship, especially with their political differences — Pound waxing Fascist then, while Wells remained a frustrated socialist.

This is especially worthy of note since, so far in what I have written for the project, Wells and Pound end up teaming up… of course they do!

1. For example, where Bernart da Ventadour ends one song (“Can vei la lauzeta mover”) by declaring melodramatically that he will never love again and will instead retire to a monastery until his death; this becomes the conclusion to the vida written for his life, perhaps a century later.

Series Navigation<< The Traneumentary, Shooting for Trane, and Pound/Trane in ComparisonBlogging Pound’s <em>The Cantos</em>: Canto III >>

16 thoughts on “Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto II

  1. Grey-eyed Athena help me, but I went out and bought a copy of this thing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with you — where poetry is concerned I’m a complete naif — but I think I’ll enjoy the attempt.

    At dinner tonight Sturdy Helpmeet and I were discussing your idea of poet as necromancer, and since we’re caught up in the Republican political season here in the US we saw obvious parallels to politics: Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rich Santorum raising the dead with rhetorical magic and making them bear false witness against the past, the better to control the future. (Mitt Romney doesn’t quite seem to have the talent; he seems more the product of necromancy than its practitioner.)

  2. Ha, Marvin,

    To all the thoughts on necromancy and politics: yes, yes, and I’ve been thinking along similar lines too. Not just in US politics: I think this kind of necromancy happens in politics pretty much universally. I certainly see a constant necromantic activity in Korean politics, and indeed in Korean social life, given how nationalist brainwashing trickled down into identity and institutions here to the degree it has. It’s really enough to make one long for a couple of kindly necromancers who think more highly of the truth, isn’t it?

    And yes, Romney does strike me as the product of necromancy more than the practitioner. Santorum, on the other hand, brings to mind necroerotic nekuia, or at least that’s the vibe I get.

    As for your buying the Cantos: good on you! I wouldn’t have chosen Pound’s Cantos as a starting point for poetry, but I suppose from here on, everything else will be easy, and it’s courageous and cool to take on a challenge like that. :)

    I will be posting soonish a list of things I plan to check out to help me with my reading — it’s a long list of books, though many will be arguably unnecessary. But I will recommend one book here and now, as it is a major help in making sense of these poems, and that’s Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. I can’t think of any book more crucial to making sense of the book.

    (With Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era probably following in second place, though it’s more a (long) sketch of the literary and cultural world in which Pound and his contemporaries lived. But the Kenner is a normal book and can be gotten from the library; the Terrell is one of those things you’ll likely want at hand when reading, so when you (often) run into something that is Greek to you (sometimes literally) you can resolve the puzzlement.)

    (I should note: some people advise against the Terrell the first time through. They suggest just reading it, using the momentum you build up as you go to push right through to the end. I think they’re insane, but then, they often have read farther, and more times through, than I have.)

  3. I was debating with myself whether to get a companion book or to rely on Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg to get me through classical and obscure references. For me the big handicap will be not knowing when I don’t know that there’s something to be known (say that three times fast) but that’s why you do multiple readings.

    As for political necromancy: I think we need some kind of Dungeon Master’s Guide to the art. It could take the cultural and sociological observations of people like McLuhan, Chomsky, and others and translate them into pop-culture friendly tropes. Lying about the beliefs and ambitions of your forefathers in order to mobilize them as proponents for your cause could be compared to necromancy; baffling with bullshit could fall in the category of charm and glamor spells; and telling the truth in an inspiring and motivating way could be compared to some kind of white magic that I can’t think of a name for because who ever bothers to write cool stories about things that aren’t necromancy?

  4. Yeah, well, you can hold off a bit on getting a companion for reading The Cantos, but it tends to be a big help because some of the things Pound is obsessed about are in obscure books that he mentioned to people he knew, but which might not turn up on a Google search. Throw in alternate spellings of things, obscure references that are also VERY oblique, and so on. Multiple readings won’t help with a lot of references unless you’re reading everything Pound read. (And good luck with that!)

    I’m not mentioning all that much of what I glean from Terrell, but I do find myself relying on it a fair bit. Also, I’ve seen it online (illegally, I assume) at someplace like Scribd, I think, if you’re curious to give it a peek and see whether you think you’d like to have it on hand.

    Ha, a DMG for politics, no kidding. I would assume that “white magic” would be classified mainly by purpose and general usage: if you’re telling the truth so to make the money needed to make the budget happen appear somehow, it’s a conjuration; if you’re telling the truth in order to get people to, say, pay their taxes it’s some kind of binding or a charm.glamour spell. There’s good and bad uses of all those kinds of magic. (Including necromancy, though it seems to get a bad rap.)

  5. I checked out the Companion in Google Books. It looks mighty, mighty useful.

    Interesting point about necromancy getting a bad rap. I suppose I’m in the habit of associating the term with Sauron, zombies, Faustian bargains, and the like, but it could equally well apply to intercessory prayer directed at the saints or propitiation of the ancestors (generally considered beneficent activities by the people who do them), or, indeed, summoning up the shade of Tiresias in order to ask some practical advice. In Christianity we’re accustomed to dividing the dead into the saved, who are really something more and better than “alive” in the ordinary sense, and the damned, who must be regarded as evil and untrustworthy and whose cooperation can be bought only by means of some ghoulish self-damning act of one’s own.

    But but there’s no reason to be stuck in that paradigm, and the idea of “white necromancy” is intriguing. Suddenly I’m flashing back to Grim Fandango. =)

  6. Yup, The Terrell is a lifesaver… or, since I am actually playing about in my head with Lovecrafticatifying The Cantos in bits, it perhaps is more of a mind-saver.

    I like those thoughts on white necromancy and why necromancy gets a bad rap. That’s interesting because Pound definitely does have a lot of necromantic-type images and concepts in his poetry, and he (like the Greeks, and lots of other cultures, and unlike most of us) seems to use those images and ideas in ways that aren’t necessarily negative, though they sometimes are dangerous… and in the end, maybe are more dangerous than he realized. One of the fragments at the end of my edition includes something that would go into the trailer if the story of the Cantos were to become a movie:

    I have tried to write Paradise
    Do not move
         Let the wind speak
              that is paradise

    Let the Gods forgive what I
              have made
    Let those who love me try to forgive
              what I have made.

    Payback is a bitch, and that could easily go for necromancy too… certain types, anyway. Muhahaha. I wonder if that’s the theme waiting to be discovered for this Poundian novel of mine.

    I have never played Grim Fandango but it looks like it would have been fun back in the day…

  7. OK, Terrell is on order. After five cantos I decided I wasn’t so much reading the poems as pronouncing them.

    On necromancy: do you ever read Order of the Stick? It recently had one of the most intelligent — albeit brutal and traditional — treatments of necromancy and the undead that I’ve seen in a while.

    On necromancy #2: could any attempt to make the dead speak, as it were, even through history and anthropology and archaeology, be seen as a kind of necromancy? I find myself wondering if the kind of modernist literature that tries encapsulate the human condition through constant and wide-ranging allusions to classical and mythological culture — Pound, Joyce, Jung, Campbell, Mann, even Nietzsche, and any humanist scholar who attempted to resurrect classical learning as a counterpoint to Christian cultural hegemony — can be classified as necromancy? (I can easily see people obsessed with the past being accused of necrophilia, for instance.) Perhaps that’s really what you’re driving at by making Pound an occult figure.

    And past-obsessed necrophilia is certainly not hard to come by; the world’s full of people more enchanted by dead kings and poets than by their living and breathing neighbors. Maybe the whole cliche about how the “good old days” were better than the current degenerates running around constitutes the first step towards necromancy.

  8. I think you won’t regret picking up the Terrell! (Almost everyone I know who has read Pound reports what you did: starting out by realizing they’re mostly just trying to pronounce the poem. It gets easier… :) Well, maybe not, but…

    I don’t really read a lot of webcomics, mainly I suspect because I spent too much time at my desk as it is and have no tablet for reading such things on anywhere else. But yeah, brutal and traditional but funny treatment. If one’s reading of the Cantos were to posit a link between fascism and necromancy, then Pound’s plot arc may look a bit like Xykon’s fangirl’s.

    I don’t know if history or archaeology are as necromatic as the literary stuff, simply because of the intimacy of voice involved: ceremonially, metaphorically, or literally, Pound puts on airs of giving literal voice to the dead, but also of the dead speaking through him. While some claim he was dismissive of Yeats’ interest in mediums and seances and spiritualism, he definitely was hooked up with some people into that funny business, including the Theosophist GRS Mead and Yeats himself.

    I am not sure I see Pound’s (imagined or real) mysticism as necessarily oppositional to Christianity; Pound was in general disdainful of Christianity and I rather think his oppositionality might be against something else, equally primal and ancient, perhaps. (Sort of like how I don’t see Mozart so much as a nemesis, but more as a mere misstep in Western musical history.)

    As for past-obsessed necrophilia, yes, very true, though of course the point of necromancy is control of that present — as is the cliche about how good the old days were. (They usually weren’t that good, after all.) With this occult Pound character, there’s a measure of that too, but I think there’s also a kind of addiction to the resurrection, organization, and control of the past, perhaps, at work. Think necromancy as heroin.)

  9. The Terrell has arrived! If anything it looks more daunting than the Cantos, but most of it appears to be in English, at least.

    You may be right about the greater intimacy of the poetic voice (compared to history and archaeology and other academic pursuits concerned with the past), but thinking of Pound (as I’ve seen him described so far by you & others) reminds me of American Southern culture, and people (like Robert E. Howard, come to think of it) for whom the study of history and classics and associated academic disciplines is deeply tied to a kind of cultural self-image that obsessed with superiority — sometimes racial superiority — and a resentful sense that one belongs to a faded aristocracy that has been unjustly deprived of its rightful place. Diving into history in a certain way becomes a means of reasserting and resurrecting a lost past, and of making an alternate present.

  10. Yay Terrell; yeah, it’s all in English, or when it isn’t, it’s glossed for the monolingual Anglophone! :)

    I think you’re onto something with your observations of Southern culture. Pouond’s from Idaho, of course, which is quite far North, but it’s also out West, where there is, in effect, not so much real local history to speak of. Since I come from just North of there (and a bit East), I can certainly get a sense of the rootlessness that might drive one to read and study the past of other places — Renaissance and Medieval Europe, ancient China — for a sense of how the world ought to be. People out West are always constructing histories and meanings for themselves, in some sense. And the part of the West he came from, just north of that in Canada, there’s a strong affinity with Texas: we laughingly call Alberta the Texas of Canada, but it is kind of true, sort of: there’s more of that cowboy identity, more grabbing onto that as a way of making identity in a place radically (geographically, climatically, temporally) cut off from Western history anyway.

    And yes, about creating an alternate present: actually, in my earliest attempts to write Pound as a mage of sorts, that’s precisely what he does with the Cantos… in a literal sense.

    The thing about faded aristocracy thing as well — it’s sort of the Lovecraftian echo I pick up in Pound, I think. For Pound, it’s usura and modern commercialism; for Lovecraft, a commercial writer, it’s some evil genetic incursion from primordial, inhuman forces. More hmmmmm.

  11. A year and a half ago my sister and I sat around with some cousins and compared notes about (among other things) growing up with a grandmother who clearly wanted her children and grandchildren to know that they were a certain kind of people, and the world would recognize it. In the South I recognize the symptoms of Lost Cause-ism, antebellum nostalgia, Walter Scott-ism…I’m not sure what I’d call it for a New Englander like Lovecraft, but I agree that he has his share of it, whatever it is. (Come to think of it, though, Lost Cause nostalgia was devoured heavily by the Union states during Lovecraft’s formative years…) I’m not surprised to find it in a midwesterner like Pound, since so much of the midwest was colonized by people with the same dreams and nostalgias and prejudices.

    And I knew about Alberta’s cowboy culture but never really thought much about the idea that it too might have it’s modes of “alternate present.” I suddenly have images of a whole new kind of cowpunk in my head.

    1. Yeah, the Lost Cause-ism was also huge part of the (primarily northern) blackface minstrel show phenomenon, too… that nostalgia was very popular, along of course with mockery of southern rubes and other immigrant groups. Funny how this dovetails with my recent post on blackface in Korea media today and 19th century American pop culture.

      Totally not surprising Pound would have been shaped that to some degree, though it’s worth noting he ended up being much more overtly anti-Semitic than anti-black. (I have a book titled Ezra Pound and African American Modernism on its way, which should illuminate the issue for me more. All I know for now is that there may have been some correspondence with Langston Hughes at some point, and that Pound somewhere complained about African-Americans “talking like Harvard men” (or whatever Ivy League school it was). He suggested that Harvard (or whatever)-styled English was inferior to what we now gets called AAVE (African American Vernacular English) or Ebonics. There’s a discomfiting racism there, of course; I imagine the aforementioned book will get into it…

  12. Your project sounds great. You may want to look at “A Draft of Three Cantos” (1917), which are the basis (but in a different order) of the collected three. You can find it on line. On the other hand you may not want to hem in your creativity with scholarship, which I respect.

    1. Martin,

      Ha, for me, scholarship often goes hand in hand with creativity. And while I appreciate the suggestion, I actually covered A Draft of Three Cantos in a post titled “The Ur-Cantos” back in 2012.

      I appreciate the bump, though. I actually cleared off a bunch of space on my desk at work in the hopes of finishing the Adams Cantos this summer. (This project has been on hiatus for some time, but I am hoping to be able to get back to it in coming weeks.)

  13. I left a comment for Canto 46 a few days ago. That was before I started reading your blogs from the beginning, which I have now done. And now I understand your angle and focus: Pound as an occult voyager. That is a great angle to take, I think. I specifically like the idea that Pound is part of a team which heralds in a better time for all concerned; that he is part of a spiritual battle which has been raging throughout the ages. I think we see a kind of climax of this battle these days, and as far as I am concerned, I can only hope that Pound’s team will win (and with that I do not mean the fascist team, of which he was only a part in a very individualistic way, it seems to me, like Heidegger or Benn siding with the Nazis for a very short time). I am now reading the Chinese Cantos, and there is a lot of beauty and manifestable utopia in those. Great stuff you are doing! My own systematic reading of the Cantos is certainly made easier by your running commentary. I really like the free way in which you tackle this wonder of a book.
    Btw – I have been reading a lot of PK Dick recently, and especially his Exegesis. There is certainly a similarity between the two of them when it comes to the importance of direct mystical experience and the B.C. of Pound’s letter to his father.

    1. Hi Ralf,

      Sorry to be late commenting. Yes, my approach is to garner from Pound what I can from the point of view of his having been an occult voyager of sorts. Somewhere in my hard drive, there’s actually a (somewhat terrible?) story based on this idea, but fitted to a pulp modern fantasy mold.

      I think Pound’s commitment to fascism was somewhat more enduring than you suggest, but I think a lot of people forget just how many people in his time also felt it, and why so many people in his time felt liberal democracy couldn’t work. (Given that we seem to be watching several failure modes of liberal democracy unfold at once in the US and worldwide right now, it’s a little easier to see why.)

      In any case, I agree that he was—in some other areas of his thinking—arguing for good things: he was a constant source of reminders that literacy means more than being about to read, that art is important, and that the economic we’d already embraced by his time was a path to ruin (even if his suggested alternatives were not really any better, and might have been somewhat worse).

      And yes, there is something utopian about his view, I think, in the same way that H.G. Wells (an author Pound originally admired, and then stated he despised) was. Wells’ utopianism was blinkered by prejudice (there’s a number of jarring instances of that in In the Days of the Comet for example, where a Jew, a Black man, and a woman all say things that demonstrate Wells’ inability to conceptualize the absence of implicit racism, sexism, and antisemitism in a utopia—that is, to imagine a utopia that would be a utopia for people like them). But he was still more of a utopian than most of the people around him, and we’re al ultimately blinkered in ways we don’t realize, I suppose. (It’s a constant battle.)

      I’m glad my posts on the subject are of use to you. I do hope to continue posting them sooner or later.

      Oh, and I think you’re right noting parallels between P.K. Dick and Pound. I also tend to see parallels between him and H.P. Lovecraft, another major early 20th century author with a massive legacy in his field and some downright despicable views. I think Lovecraft and Pound were actually more tapped into the same underlying zeitgeist in a number of ways, but just reacted to it in different ways.

      (They’re both interested in secret histories that shaped the world unbeknownst to us, but Lovecraft sees it as a bad thing, where Pound seems to see it as a potentially positive one, since it gives us the ability to look back and see how historical patterns unfold and how we could line up the dominoes to get a pattern we want, instead of the undesirable ones we often get.)

      Hm, well, I do hope to continue this series eventually! And perhaps collect the posts and tidy them up and publish them, some way or other, though I’m not sure what kind of publisher would be interested in them. (I can’t see academic publishers being interested, but maybe I’m wrong.)

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