Reading the Cantos: A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound by Noel Stock

Well, the first book I finished (but not the first book I began to read) in 2013 was Noel Stock’s Reading the Cantos: A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound. (It’s a little library hardback, one my soon-to-be-former employer’s library by all rights shouldn’t have on hand, but since they did, I decided to plow through it while I could.)

I’m not sure I have much to say about it, though it is a funny little book. At 120 pages, it seeks to tackle the whole of the completed Cantos–those available when it was written in 1967, at least.  However, it reads somehow as a record of what I imagine some scholar not affiliated with Miskatonic University might experience reading The Necronomicon, if such a thing existed.

To read Ezra Pound is, of course, quite naturally frustrating in and of itself. But Stock is unlike most of the scholars I’ve read in how much frustration he allows into his text about The Cantos. And of course, in 1967 there was no Terrell reference: most of the little allusions I’ve traced out in my posts on The Cantos, I would have missed without Terrell, and Stock misses many of them too, unsurprisingly. Indeed, there are places where he simply states that while he could  trace out the repetitions in this or that Canto, he doesn’t feel it is worth it since even when one catches the allusion, the point is impossible to figure out.

In a sense, Surette’s A Light From Eleusis now appears in my memory as a text both structurally similar, but far superior to the Stock. But the text is amusing nonetheless, if one is willing to skim a little and focus on Stock’s constantly-expressed annoyance at Pound.

However, there is one interesting moment that I feel deserves some attention: that is when Stock takes on himself some of the blame for Pound’s later arrogance and its effect on his work:

From 1945 to 1958 Pound was in St. Elizabeth’s hospital, Washington D.C. Both Rock-Drill and Thrones were composed there, although Thrones may have been added to or revised after his release in April 1958. Indications are, however, that the book was more or less in its present form before he left the hospital and returned to Italy. In St. Elizabeths [sic] Pound was the victim of unusual circumstances. As soon as the young and not-so-young began to write to him from all corners of the world, as to a martyr, he took up again where he had left off in 1944. I will not dwell on the rubbish which we, his correspondents, fed to him, or the rubbish which he in turn fed to us. Some correspondents, I have no doubt, did better than this. But a good number of us, because we believed in him and (not least) sought his praise, helped to confirm him in the belief that he alone possessed a kind coherent view of the truth. It was his duty, therefore, to hold out against The Enemy. I remember him speaking in all seriousness of the Cantos as a ‘political weapon’. The Enemy understood this, hence the efforts to silence him–and a great deal more along the same lines. This may help to show why, after the humanity and breadth of much of the Pisan [Cantos], the twenty-four cantos that follow are so false, pandering, as they do, to the poet’s self-esteem. No longer is he following his bent, but proving himself right. Human perhaps, but not in itself enough to produce poetry. (pg. 91-92)

The dismissal we see all through the book, but it’s a rare critic who admits to having come under Pound’s sway in his youth, and to having contributed to Pound’s delusions of competence in fields such as history and economics.

The book is, on certain levels and in certain places, implacably hostile to The Cantos, and yet it comes at this hostility after walking a path that seems compassionate enough. Stock is not averse to praising Pound’s lines on occasion, but for him the book is not a single long poem, and indeed the cantos themselves are not unified enough individually to warrant the name “canto”; there are plenty of places where he draws attention to a passage, idea, or phrase. His book approaches Pound’s work with a sense of balance, at least as as much balance as can be expected for a text that has him tearing his hear out sometimes.

In any case, Stock’s commentary is a fascinating read above all because it helps one to imagine how it would have been to read Pound without concordances, or other such intellectual safety nets. It was, I imagine, a heady, difficult, and ultimately and extremely difficult experience. That Pound got read at all in those days is somewhat amazing… let alone the apparent miracle that his work was valued enough for the concordances and companion texts used for decoding The Cantos ever got written.

Indeed, I cannot think of a real-world book more like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon than The Cantos, now that I think about it. Both books are more often discussed than read, are written by madmen in exile, and both books give voice to minds other than human–the voices of demons speaking through insects in Lovecraft’s book, and the many voices of history, of gods and spirits and nature in Pound’s.

Fun little book, as long as you skim it.

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