Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LVI & LVII

This entry is part 43 of 49 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos
A different cover than usual… why not?

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. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series.

This post marks a return to this project of blogging the Cantos after half a year away from it. I figured I might as well try to finish the slog through the Chinese and Adams Cantos, so that I can at least reach the Pisan Cantos, which it is said is worth the effort. We’ll see, though: the Chinese Cantos, at least, seem more often than not like pure slog…  Cantos LVI and VLII are no exception, and I have not much to say about them, but I thought I’d make a few observations.

As with my last posting, the overall impression one gets from Pound’s treatment of Chinese history in Cantos LVI and LVII is essentially like something out of a pulp fantasy epic: the bad guys are wickedly menacing eunuchs/castrati, budzers/foéists (Buddhists) and taozers/laozers (Taoists); there are fewer of the corruptive women, and more of the eunuchs corrupting emperors.

In the period that spans approximately 800-1560 C.E., Pound finds little of actual interest to comment about, though there are little nudges at things he seems to have found most worth bringing up: in Canto LVI there’s some intent focus on Genghis Khan and his descendants–including mention of a plan by one Mongol king–Kujak (Kuyuk/Güyük Khan) with a magnificent court who had planned to conquer Hungary and Poland, though the attack was called off when he died suddenly:

Güyük Khan.

There’s also some interest in the White Lotus Society, a secret society conspiracy that, according to Terrell, ostensibly formed for the worship of Maitryea Buddha:

Maitreya Buddha.

… but in fact was operating against the Mongols, just as later secret societies would form in opposition to the Manchu Qing rule of China:

These guys are apparently a later White Lotus Society founded to fight the Qing Dynasty, and not the original anti-Mongol group, but the martial imagery fits.

Even an allusive reference to, you know, flashing swords and gravity-defying kicks would be a welcome break from the tiresome litany of history we get, but Pound does very little with it, which I suppose is interesting–the omission, I mean. The positive corruption of a supposedly Buddhist group for this kind of political action seems like something that Pound would endorse whole-heartedly, but he just mentions it in passing. One wonders whether he had begun to regard the Chinese Cantos as some kind of obligation, some chore… and one wonders whether his comment about the Cantos and his having “botched it” might not refer to this stretch of uninspired work.

There are moments that shimmer, like a few lines snatched from Li Po:

Mt. Tai Haku is 300 miles from heaven
         lost in a forest of stars, 
Slept on the pine needle carpet

… and tantalizing references to individuals whom Marco Polo met during his voyage to China–but Pound doesn’t even talk about Polo in this poem (unless I missed that, which is entirely possible: I did struggle to maintain attention throughout my study of Canto LVI. There’s also an interesting moment where Pound excoriates the search for immortal life by Chinese alchemists, which is an interesting contrast to the (huge, if elusive) positive alchemical reference he’ll make in Canto LVII: metamorphosis good, immortality bad.

There’s also a bit on Kublai Khan, though Pound (not so surprisingly) avoids the obvious precedent in English poetry, of Coleridge’s poem about the figure. (Or, well, titled after the figure. It’s not really about the historical Khan, after all. But here’s the poem anyway.) Oh, and of interest to me, at least, a couple of very brief references to “Corea” (Korea, the name archaicized with a C instead of a K mainly for effect, but also because Pound’s primary source text is French), including one line that Koreans all seem to know, from some Chinese scholar:

'Coreans are gentle by nature.'


But all in all, there’s not much for me to say about Canto LVI, except, well… I got through it, finally. Sigh. Only Ezra Pound could make Genghis Khan disappointing and boring, I guess.

"Show me this American poet-man, I will kick his skinny white ass," says the Mongol emperor, rightly annoyed.
“Show me this little American poet-man, I will kick his skinny white ass,” says the Mongol emperor.

There are two things positive to say about Canto LVII: it is shorter, and it makes a few more references to the world outside the Chinese court, even if it’s just in terms of tribute missions returning from those places–one from Bengal, and the other from “Malacca.” In Canto LVII, there’s a kind of resurgence in the fascination with losers and flops that one sees in a lot of Pound’s work… something, I’ve just realized–perhaps because of recent readings (last month I listened to an unabridged audiobook of Burrough’s Junky, which I’ve yet to review here)–that Pound shares with the literary generation that inherited his work directly, namely, the Beats.

Don’t laugh: Ginsberg was among those who made pilgrimages to visit the anti-Semitic poet, and even acted as an apologist for Pound in the latter’s elder years, claiming, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that Pound had repented his anti-Semitic attitudes, if not his support of fascism.

Pound and Ginsberg (and a woman I cannot identify) in Italy after Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s.

Personally, I rather wonder what might have happened if Ginsberg had managed to bring Burroughs along with him to meet Pound, since they rather seem like the diametrical opposites of one another–and, of course, as such, they share a certain number of traits, including a crotchety attitude and an anti-authoritarian streak. I imagine Pound would have refused contact (on occult-philosophical grounds, rather than moral ones) if ever he discovered Burroughs was both a “pederast” (I doubt Pound would have called him a homosexual, and rather wager he’d have used an archaic Greek-nuanced term, and he was deferential and respectful of other openly gay artists he knew, like Cocteauand an opium-eater. One or the other might not have horrified Pound, but both together, I think, could have… if Surette’s reading of Pound’s occult views on sexuality and usury, and creativity and the force of human will, are anything to go by. Then again, their shared experience of poverty, their hatred of the US government, and their mutual willingness to speak their minds directly and angrily, might have engendered some kind of respect between them? Again, one is tempted to imagine Burroughs fleeing to London or Paris, thence to North Africa, and crossing paths with Pound a few times. There’s some alternate history where that would be a fascinating thread in the story of twentieth-century literature…

Or maybe Pound would just have registered Burroughs as some kind of echo of some imaginary ancient Arab poet drunk on opium and fond of young boys? Who knows. And to be fair, Burroughs was in Pound’s later years not the imposing, crackle-voiced old fella we tend to remember him as today:

William S. Burroughs, the way most of us remember him.

Uh, this is the voice I’m thinking of, if you don’t know it:

I’ve veered rather far off course, which perhaps is telling, in terms of Canto LVI. Maybe scholars more familiar with Chinese history could do more with this stuff, but lacking my own reference works on the Chinese readings of these Cantos (and Pound’s misreadings of Chinese history) and his relative self-limitation–so much of this draws on a single source text–I’m inclined to say there probably isn’t even a great deal to be said in terms of programmatic misreadings: these poems read like the notes made in preparation for an exam a student hopes to pass just by the skin of his teeth.

One thing that catches one’s eye, reading it, is the contemporaneity of Pound’s language when it comes to references to Japan:

Japs burnt the salt works at Hai men
Oua-chi led troops against them
         who called themselves ' wolves of our lady '
And Japs feared only this lady Oau-chi
Pirates almost took Fou-kien

“Japs” is an epithet that would have currency in this time, though it’s worth noting that these Cantos were actually–contrary to what I’d thought before–completed by 1939, and almost certainly before the beginning of World War II. There is an eerie prescience in the lines, of course: “Japs” was a word that became very widely used in English, given that the Japanese would side with the Axis in the conflict. But here, Pound seems simply to tossing in a modern epithet, exhibiting his sympathy with the Chinese resentment of aggressions by Japan.

Even the echoes Pound does attempt–some mention of French towns, or the above reference to some troops “who called themselves ‘ wolves of our lady ‘” (which should remind us of the reference in an early Canto to the lycanthropic Peire Vidal (who dressed in wolf skins as a disguise to visit his beloved lady) and Actaeon (who was turned into a stag and hunted by his own dogs after glimpsing Artemis bathing in a pond)… but the reference is so shallow, so brief, so flat it is difficult to even feel motivated to find the passage earlier in the book.

There’s also one enormous character right at the center of the canto–right at the midpoint, I’d say (eyeballing it):

The character translates as “metamorphosis” which, of course, invokes the constant references to metamorphoses in so many preceding Cantos, the references ot Ovid, and, Terrell suggests, a positive rhyme with European alchemical ideas that I mentioned above, and which Pound explicitly notes before the character:

... another Lord seeking elixir
seeking the transmutation of metals
seeking a word to make change

Sure, there’s the tantalizing idea of a magical energy contained in a word, or, as Pound would call it, an “ideogram”–like the one that follows these lines. But its thematic and narrative significance is really unclear: what we see in the history of China laid out by Pound is not metamorphosis, but dull, drab repetition and repetition, theme and familiar repetition, barely with variation. What metamorphosis Pound invokes here, beyond alchemy, I’m not sure. The references seem to be lacking a subterranean echo… and there’s muddle since Pound attacks alchemists but seems to be in love with metamorphosis. Is he suggesting the alchemists sought the wrong kind of metamorphosis? Is he decrying their failure, like so many other failures decried?

Supposedly, a Chinese Taoist alchemist.

For this poem feels at times like a marching series of losers and outcasts of history, joined by the corruptive monks and taoists and eunuchs (and the filthy luchre they steal) and the march of history–not quite forward, so much as round and round in a circle. Pound’s aesthetic of history–of writing a poem containing history, and perhaps also constraining history–is interesting when he has the chops to fake together a compelling collage of “rhyming” historical events. When he lacks the chops, you get a sort of one-note-samba that spins and spins and spins, leaving you wondering when, and if, it will stop anytime soon.

I’m far from alone in feeling this way, I’ll note: in the sole biography of Pound that I have on hand, A Serious Character, the author (Humphrey Carpenter) spends about of four pages on the Chinese Cantos, noting that even Pound seems to be bored with his subject matter and plowing through the source material like it’s a job.

So shall I plow, I suppose. I’m on page 316. The Chinese Cantos conclude on 340. The end of this torture is in sight… though the Adams Cantos? Here’s what Carpenter has to say about those:

At least in the Chinese History Cantos the reader has a vague idea of what is going on. By comparison, the John Adams Cantos which follow (numbered 62 to 71) are three-quarters opaque. (pg. 572)

Not the most encouraging words.

But as I’ve noted, many describe the Pisan Cantos as sublime, and they’re next after the Adams (and a couple of random Italian Cantos), running from Cantos LXXIV-LXXXIV (and in my edition, pages 443-560). I think it’s doable… but I also think that I’ll collapse the remainder of the Chinese Cantos (LVIII-LXI) into just one or two posts. (Probably two, in the interests of doing a decent job of it.)

If you’re not a Poundphile, though, you should skip the Chinese Cantos, or you’ll never make it to the Pisan Cantos.

As for my fictional Pound: I’m thinking life is full of distractions, and he’s desperately searching for the answer to something, or for some hidden jewel of poetical power in Chinese history… and failing to find it. I dunno. It’s hard to explain why Pound would write these poems this way, I mean the real-life Pound, but at least in a work of fiction, one can focus on the dramatic implications of other elements of the plot line: a foiled search for power, personal life in uproar, or whatever.

Anyway, I’ll be back soon, hopefully to finish off this section of the Cantos or at least bring myself to a single step away from doing so… Until then…

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LV (Plus, What Do Ezra Pound, Robert Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and Sun Ra Have In Common?)Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIX >>

6 thoughts on “Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LVI & LVII

  1. Thank you so much for this amazing work you do reading Cantos and freely sharing ideas, doubts, feelings, links with Fantasy, etc. Currently living in China, interested in Pound’s relation to Confucianism, and also a kind of (French) poet myself, I’m in reading Chinese cantos and really appreciate your help ! Your explanation of Canto LIV as fantasy telenovela switched on the light… So please don’t give up before the Pisan Cantos! (I cannot assure you it’s a must, but I would be glad reading forward of you about them! (Excuse my English))

    1. Hello Pierre,

      Wow, another Western expat reading the Cantos while sojourning in Asia–I used to think it was rare, but it seems to be more common than I thought! (I think you’re the second or third such person I’ve come across now.) Thanks for the encouragement!

      My serious study of Pound actually started in Korea, with one expat and one Korean colleague at work. I’m very glad you appreciate the posts. Et puis, n’apologiser pas pour votre anglais; moi, je ne parle pas bien le francais, même si j’avais etudié en école. Quand j’essayer parler en français, mon bouche est plein des mots coréen, comme si: “Est-ce que vous 말할수있어요 le nom de ce bon p’tit 역관 que vous avez 말했어요?” So, I stick with English now! :)

      I put The Cantos down when that group in Korea folded–one of the people in the group left, and then I moved away from the city–and only came back to it years later, when I was trying to research a fiction project that was to be centered on Pound. (Which I have reconsidered, because I’m not sure there’s an audience for an occult fantasy adventure with Pound as the protagonist. Maybe… but I feel like if Pound’s a minor player, and someone else is at the center–H.G. Wells, say–there might be more of an audience. That, or some story set in another world with a Pound-like figure. Somehow using a real historical figure like Pound seems to turn people off–either because of his horrible politics, or because they feel like they don’t know enough about his life to follow it.) A couple of friends have suggested that they thought it would be less of an issue at novel length, but… I dunno. I guess I haven’t given up the idea 100%, but it’s very much on hiatus now. :)

      And I’m working on something else, so I’m a bit sidetracked right now. That is, I’m deep into working on a different novel–and trying to get a first draft finished before the end of the summer–but I assure you, I have not given up on the Cantos. Indeed, I did a preliminary reading of LIX just the other week. I’ve slowed down, but surely not stopped… and I do intend to read the whole thing, even if it takes me another year. (Which it probably will, at the rate I’m going now. One thing I’m trying to decide is whether to just post canto-by-canto now, or to try kill off all the remaining Chinese Cantos in one shot, since I’m finding them pretty unrewarding. The Chinese Cantos do reward close reading, but only minimally… but then, I don’t expect a great amount of joy from the John Adams Cantos; as you hint, it’s kinda desert from here to Pisa, really. Sigh.)

      Oh, and your blog looks fascinating enough to make me wish my French were better. :)

  2. Hello,
    I don’t know about American, German or English people but I think I can assure you I’m in Shanghai the only French guy currently trying to read the Cantos ! And I’m really glad to hear you won’t give it up…
    I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not to make Pound a character in a fantasy novel, because I don’t read fantasy and I don’t like novels, but what I can say is that the possible or expectated ‘audience’ is certainly not the right criterium to determine the value of a text, or if you should write it or not, especially regarding to Pound himself whose readers in South Asia are currently reduced to two or three !

    1. Pierre,

      Yeah, I definitely will continue with the Cantos blogging, it’ll just take some time before I can really do it in earnest. :) Probably in the fall I’ll be able to return to it more regularly. (Till them, I’m working on a novel that has nothing to do with Pound at all!)

      As for Pound in fiction, well… it’s complicated by a few things. For one thing, I already have a novella with Pound as a protagonist, which not only could I not sell, but which on top of that, got feedback from editors that led me to think the subject matter itself was just too prodigiously niche to actually be saleable: that is, a lot of editors praised the quality of the story, but said they felt as if they didn’t know enough about Pound to understand what I was doing with his life story. It was in response to that, that a friend of mine suggested it’d work better as a novel, since one could sort of get used to Pound and his temporary ally H.G. Wells as a sort of odd couple adventuring across Europe (well, across multiple Europes, really).

      But–while you’re right that guessing about possible audiences isn’t a great way to think about the value of a text, one also tends to write a novel with an audience in mind… especially in the kind of “popular fiction” genres in which I’ve built the beginnings of a name for myself. There’s also the fact that writing a novel is a major investment of time, so I’d like to focus my efforts on things that seem like they might actually interest a publisher, if you know what I mean.

      Anyway, I feel like if I can succeed in developing a name for myself as a novelist, maybe people will be more likely to give a Pound novel a try. I feel like that’s the sort of book that might attract some readers because of its content (because the idea of an occult-mystery-adventure featuring Ezra Pound is just so crazy it might just work), but would attract most of its readers because they know of the author and are willing to give it a try on the strength of his earlier writing, or something. I don’t know. I feel like maybe it’s the kind of book that needs to be 1000 pages long and sort of incorporate some of the processes of the Cantos into it–jumping around in time, thematic rhymes, stuff like that… and I’m not anywhere near ready to be tackling a project of that size yet anyway. :)

      I’m also tempted to just do a whole set of stories featuring different figures in the milieu, since the piece I wrote about Igor Stravinsky, set in the same world, sold immediately and even got a positive reaction. Maybe a short story collection would work better anyway. Or at least be a good way to work my way into that world mentally. :)

  3. Hi,
    More than a year has passed since your last post on The Cantos. Don’t get bogged down in the Chinese History Cantos, they are fascinating reading compared to the Adams Cs that follow. Just get through them and onward!
    But then, the The Pisan!
    And Rock Drill! Just beautiful, interesting stuff.
    Don’t give up now, you’re at the middle.

    1. Hi Roxana,

      No worries, I haven’t given up… it’s just been a crazy year. We moved countries, hunted for work, moved out to the countryside, and then discovered my wife was expecting. And that’s just stuff that happened before March! I’ll get back to The Cantos eventually… though my posts may have to be a bit shorter, so I can fit them in between diaper changes and feedings.

      Thanks for the encouragement! :)

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