(Note: This week’s first (and only on-time) posting for the series on Pound’s The Cantos is a review of an academic text I completed a few weeks ago. Since I will have completed my discussion of A Draft of Cantos 17-27 this week, I figured I might as take the opportunity to post this already-written-up post while I’m still mired in final exam stuff. (If I was less busy, I’d have posted this after Canto XXX. But it’s the week after exams, and I’m up to my neck in grading, so…)
(By the way I’ll be posting my reading of Canto XXVII soon! Soon, I promise!)
I have had a copy of University of Western Ontario’s former professor Leon Surette’s A Light From Eleusis for almost five years, since 2007, and for that long I have intended to begin again the task of studying Pound’s work, especially The Cantos. Surette’s book is invaluable in the work, but it is a book one must be careful in reading. For one thing, Surette is quite straightforward about which parts of The Cantos are, in his opinion, worthwhile, and which parts aren’t. (I am already certain I will find the China Cantos, and the Adams Cantos, a hard slog: therefore I have determined to make a week’s work out of each and get through them as quickly as I can, so that I do not give up before the much more important and beautiful section that follows, the Pisan Cantos. For another thing, Surette actually disclaims a significant part of his approach in his later The Birth of Modernism, which I discussed here back in May. (Essentially, in A Light From Eleusis, Surette sees Pound as using the pagan and other supernatural material in the poem in a strictly literary way; by The Birth of Modernism Surette argues that Pound was actually serious about at least some of this stuff, and that there is an occult superstructure to the text of The Cantos that, for number of reasons tied into modernist literary scholarship, he didn’t recognize until much later.) In other words, on one level The Birth of Modernism consists of a lengthy discussion of a bunch of things Surette didn’t realize were relevant to (and in) the text of The Cantos.
But for all that, I found Surette’s book to be quite helpful: he had, when writing this text in the late 70s (it was published first in 1979, though my copy is a reprint, only very slightly updated from what I can tell, from 2000) a mastery of the text that leaves me a little intimidated, and makes connections between cantos both early and very late with ease that leaves me despairing — can I do that?
Well, of course, I can, but it’s tempting to trust to Surette as one’s guide. He has a lot of great material here, but it is his treatment of some of Pound’s source texts (and their relation to The Cantos) and secondary-source texts of Pound’s own production (the other things Pound wrote while working on The Cantos, I mean), his clear-headed discussion of the rhetorical logic, structure, and coherence of The Cantos, his explication of Pound’s sense of the divine, and his understanding of the text not only as a whole, but as an unfolding artistic and textual process that make this book so illuminating.
My edition unfortunately (and infuriatingly) lacks an index, making reference back to specific points difficult; it also renders the book one that should be read on its own, but with the Cantos near at hand, so that one can add page references to the poem as one finds useful bits in the Surette.
In the end, reading the book not just as a critic but as a writer myself, I can only hope that something I produce will bear the weight of such intense, sustained intellectual study; if someone were to be driven to write a text interrogating my own work half as deeply as Surette has interrogated Pound’s, I would be gratified… even if my own human flaws were as clear in it as Pound’s are in A Light From Eleusis. It is an invaluable discussion of a difficult text, and I think it is very likely I will be citing Surette more than once when I begin to make my way through “The Pisan Cantos” this summer or fall.