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Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXXVII-XXXIX

John Quincy Adams
This entry is part 30 of 57 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time.

These are not exactly typical readings of the poems, so much as readings I’m doing with a specific research project in mind for a fiction project I’d like to write next year. If you’d like to know more about the project, I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of extended post, and reading the first installment in this series.

I’m currently working my way through Eleven New Cantos XXXI-XLI, and this week, I’m up to my second posting on the set, dealing with Cantos XXXVII-XXXIX. Note: it’s posted on a Friday: I’d hoped to get it done by Tuesday, but between the cold I caught my last couple of days of the trip, and my exhaustion from the return flight, and having the first week of class this week, a delay of a few days was inevitable. I will try get the next post up — a post on Cantos XL and XLI — in time next week.  

I’ll start things off this week by noting that the particular ground of Cantos I’m dealing with in this post is a little nonsensical, probably because I simply decided to read the next three Cantos and post regardless of how they do or don’t connect. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t; this week, it kind of doesn’t, though I’m not sure it’d be possible to work out anything like a sensible series of connected Cantos anyway, for reasons I imagine will be clear as this post progresses.

(To whatever degree it will actually progress–I’m currently on the road, and in Siem Reap; we visited Angkor Wat earlier today, and Miss Jiwaku is now resting before we head out. I have a couple of hours and don’t need a nap, so here I am, but I do feel like relaxing a little, and have some fiction to finish editing too. Not that I want to give these three cantos particularly short shrift, but I probably won’t be devoting as much time to them as I might if I were sitting in my office in Bucheon.)

In any case, here’s what I have for this time around:

Canto XXXVII actually links back to some of the earlier Cantos in the current set much better than to the ones that follow it. In short, it is a series of snapshots of the political career of the US President Martin Van Buren, written generally in the same style as Pound composed those recent Cantos focused on Jefferson and and John Quincey Adams. A fair bit of it is taken up with showing how cool ol’ van Buren was, on a host of political positions about which Pound was also deeply convinced of his own positions.

Martin Van Buren

Van Buren clashes with other American politicians, shit-talks a few of them, and shows himself to be a Poundian sort of maverick, in particular with relation to his sex life, for the scandal involving Peggy Eaton comes up multiple times in the Canto-doubtless, a bioigraphical detail that Pound found salutary given the complicated and scandalous nature of his own love life.

Van Buren does come off as occasionally cool, as in when he mocks the Tory Chief Justice Spencer, who apparently argued against the enfranchisement (ie. giving the vote to) landless freemen; Spencer seems to have argued that doing so would only end up giving the commoners votes that would be used by their employers, and Van Buren argues that if this were true, since Spencer obviously wants to protect the landowners by allowing only them to vote, what’s the freaking problem? A great comeback. Then again., Van Buren also is one of those nutty types who, while he opposes the slave trade, also opposes the British seizing and searching American vessels bearing slaves across the ocean, which is less cool.

There are interesting little bits in the Canto, such as how Van Buren retires to Sorrento, Italy in his old age, and from there writes about his political successors and their horridness; but all in all, Pound’s focus is the economics. In this, he somewhat reminds me of myself as an undergraduate, when I knew even less about economics and history than I do now… and yet Pound also reads as strangely current in some ways. He is particularly concerned about the interconnections between politics and economics, and how these jeopardize the integrity of  the US government… well, yeah. That worries people today even more, much more — if my impression is correct — than in Pound’s day.

Pound also sets up a political canon in these poems, and Jefferson once again comes out as very important, mentioned in the words of van Buren himself but also in the words of Spencer Roane, an American jurist and political writer who said, as Pound phrases it, “No man before Tom Jefferson in my house” in relation to the placement of some busts of political figures in his room. Meanwhile, John Adams is called into question by Van Buren, who suggests the man was lacking in his sense of democratic fervor–he didn’t hate the idea of a monarch so much as a British monarch instead of a monarch from the “Braintree House”; and his son, whose astronomical interests van Buren questions, is presented as having

deplored that representatives be paralyzed
by the  will of constituents.

But of course, the main focus is banking, economics, money, and the way it relates to American society–at least, the relation as Pound sees it. One glimpses, in Canto XXXVII, the power of bankers to sow chaos if they so wish, and to reap sizeability monetary benefits from cleverly doing so. Pound, clearly, thinks Van Buren did something important, and the hint as to what it was comes at the end of the poem, in its last lines:


There is a weird moment, on the fifth page  of the poem, where Pound suddenly seems to regress to a weirdly mystico-scientific mode:

Irritable and unstable,
Is formed, is destroyed, 
Recomposes to be once more decomposed
        (thus descending to plant life)

What this signifies, I have no clear idea, but it seems to  link back to some of the other pseudoscience and vegetative magic glimpsed in earlier poems, and also forthcoming in the Pisan Cantos, as well as to some of what’s going on in Canto XXXIX (see below). But this stuff is clearly peripheral to the larger project of Canto XXXVII: the building up of an American political canon, a discussion of the early problems in banking and finance (to which Pound will return in later poems within the Eleven New Cantos) and the establishment of Martin van Buren as a kind of heroic figure in the pseudo-libertarian, social-credit mythos Pound is working on building up.

Canto XXXVIII shifts gears in a way that seems radical at first, though once you’ve read through the Eleven New Cantos, it doesn’t feel so radical a shift. It’s about the arms trade in the buildup to World War I. Now, World War I was, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, one of those cataclysmic horrors for  Pound that pretty much amounts to the game-changer of his career: it seems as if he really, truly couldn’t continue writing the kind of gently-warmed-over, if slightly-vicious, Victorian-seeming verse that defined his early output (such as most of what’s collected in Personae). For Pound, the War shattered a lot of his beliefs, a lot of his understanding of the world, and threw into bold relief the question of how power worked in a way he couldn’t ignore.

His belief in the early 1930s, when he was working on Eleven New Cantos,  seems to have continued to focus on the idea of assholes trying to make money off horror was the root of the cause, a notion to which he will  return repeatedly. In this particular poem, the asshole are arms merchants, specifically Sir Basil Zaharoff (whom we met waaaaaaaaay back in A Draft of XXX Cantos, under the same guiide as he appears now, Zenos “Metevsky”) and a few more arms manufacturers and merchants, such as the Schneiders and the Krupps. Those of you who recognize thoe names — the former being French electrical/oil/gas company rather than the German brewers of the same name, and the latter makers of espresso machines, among many other things — may now gape for a moment in recognition, because, yeah: they made their nest eggs manufacturing weapons.

Pound doesn’t just talk about how arms merchants sell out their societies for a quick buck; he also talks about how they routinely sell out their own workers for the same profit, in part by paraphrasing (slightly, if I have it right) a passage from Clifford Douglas’s writings on the Social Credit system, as well as his own writings on the same subject.

But he also seems largely to be interested in demonstrating what a tight stranglehold on power these people held. Schneider was on the board of “the franco-japanese bank” and partly owned “Chantiers de la Gironde, Bank of the Paris Union” — the former a shipyard, the latter a French bank where Zaharoff also owned shares. Awkwardly, Mitsui even comes up as being partly owned, through heavy share-buying, by Schneider.

While that may not shock us today, consider: World War I was only the fourth or fifth major war that was described by the phrase, “total war”. (The concept itself only arose in the mid-19th century, at least in the Anglophone world: see here for a little more detail.) But the idea of total war is that the whole society participates in the war, not just the military but also the civilians and government–the complete society–as a whole.

This is why a link between, say, Schneider and Mitsui would look so problematic to Pound; why Zaharoff selling arms to both sides in a conflict begins to look hinky: after all, in a total war, why aren’t businesses being loyal to their homelands? Because, like Dexter Kimball arguing that cigar-making is good for the mind because it’s so mindless that workers can listen to a book being read to them while they work: that is, people who want to make money will sell out as hard as it takes, if the money is big enough.

There are puzzling side trips in this poem, such as Pound’s recounting of a murder-suicide by a “Romeo and Juliet” from a newspaper cutting, or a “hungarian nobleman” who expresses the opoinion that (seemingly Austria) is “overbrained” but the long and the short of it is: arms dealers will sell out their own countries, their people, to the enemy for a buck only when they can’t make a fortune doing so… just as, in other poems in this series, Pound seems to argue banks are happy to do, and certain politicians, and so on. This explains the arms trade: some people are such utter assholes that they will stoop to making money off the creation of an environment in which war can and will happen.

And there, we see Pound’s explanation of early 20th century history, his summation of all he comprehends (to his own satisfaction, at least) regarding the causes of World War I.

Canto XXXIX is a much shorter, and a still more radically different, piece of writing. It plunges us into two specific narratives: one, an excerpt from Homer’s The Odyssey–specifically, the time passed by Homer and his men on Circe’s isle–and the other, a beautifully-rendered marriage-rite-type scene essentially cribbed from a few different Roman writers–Ovid, Catullus, and Virgil–plus the 14th century lyric “Alisoun.” But the thing is held together by reminiscences of Pound’s own experiences as well, as in the opening:

Desolate is the root where the cat sat, 
Desolate is the iron rail that he walked
And in the corner post whence he greeted the sunrise.
In hill path: " thkk thgk "
                      of the loom
" Thgk, thkk " and the sharp sound of a song
         under olives
When I lay in the ingle of Circe
I heard a song of that kind.

Here, again, we breathe a sigh and relax: finally, again, we think, there is poetry on these pages, and a place and time familiar to us: not the cat stuff, not the “thgk, thkk” stuff — those being recollections of Pound’s from his time in Italy — but the last two lines, about laying in the ingle of Circe. We have been here before, with Elpenor, in earlier Cantos. We have lain in this ingle beside one of Odysseus’ men before, with him drunk then, and passed out, and now dead, lamentable, lost both his chance to get home and his shot at being remembered gloriously.

(If you’d like to read the tale retold from Elpenor’s point of view, this is a wonderful little retelling on an interesting blog, written as Odysseus’ travel blog.)

But the cat stuff, that’s from Pound’s life. Like a great many writers, Pound had an immense fondness for cats. While the link is very weak, the first few lines made me think of the Lovecraftian Dreamlands city of Ulthar, with its many cats lounging about freely, respected and unharmed in the streets of the city.

There is, of course, also Greek script, and there are curse words, not the first in English, but certainly the harshest yet, following directly on the above:

          Fat panther lay by me
Girls talked there of fucking, beasts talked there of eating, 
All heavy with sleep, fucked girls and fat leopards,
Lions loggy with Circe's tisane, 
Girls leery with Circe's tisane

There is some business about “evil drugs” which make up the “tisane” and some other lines from other poets mentioned above, in passages that link druggedness, music, and sexuality–the attentive descriptions of the female form, of a song sung, and of the weird, semi-hallucinogenic play of phrases in Greek romanized and translated.

The next page again begins with a passage that sings:

First honey and cheese
          honey at first and then acorns
Honey at the start and then acorns
honey and wine and then acorns
Song sharp at the edge, her crotch like a young sapling
illa dolore obmutuit, pariter vocem

Even with no idea how Circe’s crotch is like a sapling, the passage shimmers with a weird, hallucinogenic musicality: the repetitions and variations and weird images, followed by the prophecy (rendered all in Greek, to the horror of Pound’s original readers, I’m sure) that sends Odysseus in search of the ghost of Tiresias, who will tell him the way home.

We glimpse Hathor, the Egyptian fertility goddess, drifting in a box on the surface of the sea, and drift back and forth between Circe’s isle and a wedding scene in Rome, gorgeously rendered in language that shifts from something that looks Chaucerian, to Latin, to pure Poundian English:

Betuene Aprile and Merche
         with sap new in the bough
With plum flowers above them
         with almond on the black bough
With jasmine and olive leaf,
To the beat of the measure
From star up to the half-dark
From half-dark to half-dark
         Unceasing the measure
Flank by flank on the headland
         with the Goddess' eyes to seaward
By Circeo, by Terracina, with the stone eyes
         white toward the sea
With one measure, unceasing:
         "Fac deum!" "Est factus."
Ver novum!
         ver novum!
Thus made the spring,
Can see but their eyes in the dark 
         not the bough that he walked on.
Beaten from flesh into light
Hath swallowed the fire-ball
A traverso le foglie
His rod hath made god in my belly
         Sic loquitur nupta
         Cantat sic nupta
Dark shoulders have stirred the lightning
A girl's arms have nested the fire,
Not I but the handmaid kindled
         Cantat sic nupta
I have eaten the flame.

It is a stunning ending to the poem, and one gets the sense that there is some of Olga here. Has Pound found some measure of peace, in Olga’s presence in Italy? PRobably, but Pound is also clearly on about the hieros gamos here, that mystical “sacred marriage” that leads the participant into the transcendent.

This leads one to start to think about the poetical metaphor for which hieros gamos stands in Pound’s work more generally. Translation, as we have seen earlier in the poem, is most clearly represented by necromancy, right from Canto I, where Pound bids Divus “lie quiet”; but the hieros gamos is a far different magic, that of the Eleusinian Mysteries, of vegetation rituals and fertility rites. Here, the poet does not contact with a single, distinct voice–that of Divus, or that of Homer via Divus’ translation–but with a more deep-rooted, universal force, a more cyclical and ever-regenerating force, the generative forces of life, of birth and fertility… and perhaps, too, some of what Jung ended up calling the Collective Unconscious, what Clive Barker ends up calling in a couple of his novels “Quiddity,” that sea of dreams from which all imaginings arise.

There are some very interesting points along the way: “Fac deum!” “Est Factus.” for example, is a call and response between two voices, one commanding the other to “make the god” and the order replying that “it has been made.” The making of gods and the making of other new life are linked, but what, then, does the making of gods mean? Is this, like so much else in Pound, a case of transformation? Of humans becoming transcendent and godlike in their sexual and reproductive capacities? Is it a kind of crazy twist in the romanticism which we see sometimes in Pound’s earlier work, which elevates the woman to the level of goddess?

Whatever is happening is a very intensely physical process: “Beaten from flesh into light / Hath swallowed the fire-ball” — and “His rod hath made god in my belly” — which feels very much like an invocation of Olga’s pregnancy, of the vindication and perhaps the solace that Pound finds in it, and in the daughter Olga bore him. This would come into greater relief now, since Olga is present in Rapallo in 1933 and Pound’s wife Dorothy Shakespear, while unappreciative of his “secret” affair with her, pretty much kept her objections to herself as far as anyone else could tell.  (In 1933, Pound begins a series of concerts, which played a part in the revival of Vivaldi’s music, among other things; the concert series was run by Pound and Rudge, but that didn’t prevent Shakespear from being enthusiastic about them from time to time.)

The last five lines are absolutely gorgeous, because it is so very simple, so very physical.  Dark hair, a girl’s arms, a fire… the eating of flame. These images are powerful and beautiful all at once, impossible to ignore, and they also quite definitely feel like a superimposition of an image from a classical poem, onto Pound’s own vision of Olga.

While this fetility magic stuff is not new, it seems to have reached a kind of fever pitch here; one higher than ever before in the Cantos, and while portions of the poem are actually also necromatic–they are translations of older texts, and the resurrection of lost, dead voices–much of this poem focuses on the other magic, that of fertility and birth and generation of life.

This is an odd turn of events, given the content in the earlier two Cantos: a basically heroic portrait of Martin Van Buren and arms merchants and the economic conspiracy theories that, more and more, were occupying Pound’s correspondence and thoughts. Of course, if we took vegetation as a mythic paradigm, and were to metaphorize it to fit Pound’s agenda, Van Buren would be a wise organic farmer, while Zaharoff and the other arms merchants/bankers would be earth-toxifying agribusiness owners. The funny thing is that Pound doesn’t really bother to bring all this together into a single metaphor: economics and vegetation magic never really meet, except implicitly. At least, so far.

Here, it is interesting to note a few parallels between Pound–the signal modernist poet of his time–and H.G. Wells, whom many consider the signal science-fiction author of his time. Aside from the fact that both men lived world-spanning lives, traveling to distant places and showing an interest in at least the useful tidbits of news from far away; and setting aside the fact that both men had extremely complicated love lives, with at least one child born to a mistress for each of them; beyond all of that, there is the impact that their political and economic beliefs had on their work.

Wells, by this time, was not longer really much of a fiction writer, much less an SF writer. Rather, he was a pamphleteer, a propagandist, a sort of village explainer (to use Gertrude Stein’s phrase) of the same sort as Pound–the used the phrase for the latter, but it applies equally well to Wells. Both men had fairly extreme political ambitions, though not ambitions involving office; rather, they saw themselves as advisors to men of power, as philosophes of importance in their ability to prophetically warn great men of disaster, and to help herd the masses of the earth in safe, sensible directions, rather than into the horrors of more war and poverty. World War I was a crucially important trauma for both men, though neither served in the war; the trauma, for them, was one linked to social doom, to the collapse of great civilizations and to the malfeasance of those in power. Wells had a much better reputation, of course, but he considered himself a socialist, whilst Pound by the 1930s was signing off his letters dated by the fascist calendar used in Italy at the time, and, as we shall see in my next post, Pound was already by this time quite worshipful of Mussolini.

But what runs parallel is that both men succumbed to the lure of giving literary qualities a backseat to didactic function in their writing: they made their books so much “about” the ideas they wanted to spread that the literary quality of their work began to suffer. And yet, we do not say that about the writing of Orwell, so that seems not to be precisely the problem either. Rather, it seems that they let their own pedanticism regarding their personal convictions poison the work; both men began to refuse to let the reader draw the obvious conclusions, but instead took it upon themselves to herd their readers from point to point, in a way Orwell doesn’t, or at least does more subtly.

Doubtless, though, Pound suffers more because a good socialist tradition survives, and not only in literary circles, after World War II… whilst pretty much nobody admits openly to fascist convictions after the defeat of the Axis. The fascists were enemy number one, and fascist leanings became unforgivable, whilst a sympathy with the Soviets or communism in general was much less heavily punished in the literary world. Paul de Man was demonized, while Sartre’s relationship with Stalinism and the USSR was in general viewed much less harshly. (I remember a talk a professor gave when I was in grad school, railing about this; I wanted to ask whether we, as literary scholars, ought them to castigate and, hell, cauterize Shakespeare out of the canon for his implicit support of monarchy despite its horrors. I mean, while we’re politicizing literary canons, and all…)

Of course, it’s not just his fascism that troubles us: it’s also his truly virulent antisemitism, along with his annoying economic loonery. The story is more complex than just one dimension of messy, nasty gunk.

But Pound’s life at the time when he was writing these poems must almost certainly have felt not so much like he was allied with anyone or anything, so much as like being alone: he was isolated from the Anglo literary world to a great degree, and getting them to listen to him about economics must have felt–to him–as much like banging his head against a brick wall as it felt that way for others trying to get him to talk of anything else. Louis Zukosfky apparently was one of the lucky few who, in visiting him around this time, got the man to talk of poetry right off the bat (as least, according to one of the biographies I’ve been reading). Others were not so lucky.

But there must also have been something idyllic about this life, for Pound to set it down as he does in Canto XXXIX: cats on the roof, miaowing, taking food from him, and some thoughts of sitting in the ingle at Circe’s pass through his mind; he is like Elpenor, somehow isolated from the action of the world, its hubbub and chaos, resting and relaxing, while all sorts of things happen below.

Soon, Pound will throw himself into organizing concerts, and his rate of correspondence will soon tax his friends and contacts even more than before. But for now, he feeds cats, and obsesses about economics, and of War, and the sons of bitches (bankers, arms merchants… Canto XXXVIII makes clear that there is not much difference to Pound between the two) who manipulate the latter so they can steal the benefits of the former. And he listens to the looms weave, and perhaps, in the back of his mind, he thinks of the loom at Ithaca, wondering how any of us can ever lead the whole lot of us finally home.

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