Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos LXIX and LXX

This entry is part 55 of 55 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

Pound CantosThis post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one (or a few) at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series. I’m not sure whether the fiction project that inspired this series will ever come to fruition, but I’d like to try finish the Cantos just the same.

There’s also an (updated) index of all the Cantos (and related sources) I’ve discussed so far.

This is my second post on the Cantos after returnint to them following an eight month break. I do hope to finish the Adams Cantos by sometime this summer, since there’s only three left—not two, as I’d stated when I last posted in this series—including this one. Then I’ll be into the Pisan Cantos. I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to reach them, but I kept bouncing on the Chinese and Adams Cantos. Like many people, I suspect. 

Today’s post will be exclusively text, because I am sick and don’t have the energy to dig up the usual accompanying images. Perhaps at some point I’ll return and redress that. 

This post brings me one Canto closer to Pisa, so without further delay… 

Canto LXIX is profoundly concerned with money; with hustling to get a loan, with struggling against bad advice, with being abroad and having to scrounge, with concern about how those with money can control those without (this being the famous difference in concern between Jefferson and Adams, the former fearing “the one”—as in a monarch—and the latter fearing “the few”—as in a neo-aristrocracy based on wealth. Pound’s solution to these problems, the nonsense known as Social Credit theory, was generally agreed by anyone who knew anything about economics to be a mound of garbage already smoldering and well on the way to being aflame by the time Pound was writing these poems, but Adams’ concern nonetheless feels pretty timely these days. 

Of course, if you ask me—and I’m not saying this for the first time—Pound might be writing about John Adams here, but the more I read the Cantos, the more I feel like it’s some kind of refracted autobiography. Even before World War II broke out, Pound and Dorothy Shakespear (and Olga Rudge) were living in relative poverty in Italy; I half-suspect that by the time he set the Cantos aside and began to pursue his manic, self-sabotaging program of broadcasts in support of European fascism, and of Mussolini specifically, he probably was at least half-way nuts already.

Not just mad from the strain of poverty, but from the isolation he was experiencing, cut off from almost anyone of any shared culture or background, and the terror of seeing another war about to break out. He was welcomed in the Italian press, as Humphrey Carpenter tells us in A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (on page 581-582) but the editors typically left in the inevitable malapropisms and typos that creep in when one is writing in a language pone has not yet fully mastered: and so, welcomed, but as an oddity, a bit of a joke. In those kinds of circumstances, any kind of mental illness can blossom into something much worse than it might otherwise be.

Of course, I come to discuss and read, not to exonerate: this isn’t the foundation of any apologetics for Pound’s fascism or anti-semitism, so much as it’s an observation about how much we’re in denial today about the popularity of his beliefs in broader society. If people living in New York City and in Boston and in San Francisco and other major, diverse, and relatively affluent and stable centers were sucked in by this garbage, then Pound is less singular in his inexcusably ugly and stupid prejudices… and, I think, it’s probably fair to say that those ugly and stupid prejudices had an unusually powerful appeal to individuals who, like Pound, were living in poverty and instability, who felt hard done by and excluded by a revolution they helped facilitate. If this sounds like I’m comparing Pound to a Trump supporter in 2019, well… I think the mentality is probably comparable, though I also suspect Pound would have reviled Trump for being and illiterate, moronic aristocrat-by-inheritance. (I suspect this, but who knows?)

It’s just that… well, the kinds of decisions Pound made aren’t really the decisions of a sane, sensible person. If we admit that, though, we also have to admit that neither were the decisions of vast numbers of people at the time. Reviling a single, outspokenly antisemitic and fascist poet for his views—or a socially crippled SF author—because that’s safe: they’re screwed-up, broken individuals who had horrible views. But as Hitler comments (straight-faced) in the satirical film Look Who’s Back (Er ist weider da), this didn’t stop mass numbers of people from knowingly supporting madmen. Hitler even quips that he will “make Germany great again” during the course of the film… 

… and lest you miss my point, yes, there were Nazis in America back then too, as people are apparently finally admitting to themselves: 

The fight to destroy Nazism—failed though it apparently was—was not truly fought on American soil, and certainly was never won. It continues, and probably a big part of why it continues—and continues to fail—is because of how impolitic it is to admit that large numbers of human beings are simply fucking crazy. We can handle admitting it when it’s a small number of people, but when it is large masses of people, somehow we dare not do so, and have not, publicly, in a very long time.

There are, of course, good reasons to be leery about doing so. Declaring vast swathes of people “insane” or “mad” is dangerous business. It can lead to the kinds of horrible places that we were led under the watchful gaze of eugenicists, like the very ones whose hare-brained ideas permeated European fascism and, everywhere, the moronic ideologies that accrete around thuggish, idiot racism. It can lead to hopelessness and despair, too: if some of our greatest creators in the arts could fall prey to such evil stupidity, is there any hope? 

I see it as ironic: the hope is right there, beyond the admission. You admit there’s something wrong, and then you can start the slow, painful work of trying to figure out what is wrong, and why. And if you pursue that, maybe you can move toward some kind of remedy for the problem. And yet here we are, in 2019, and English has been so warped by the horrors of the 20th century that even talking  about this stuff makes one sound like a fascist, a tyrant, a eugenicist. One longs to speak in a language not warped by the horrors of a history of cataclysmic stupidities, of mass genocides and oppressions, and yet we cannot: this is the only language I have for discussing such ideas, and somehow speaking of finding a way to heal society, of admitting that vast numbers of people are just not quite right in the head, that something has seriously gone wrong with us on a mass scale, always has the faint whiff of Zyklon-B about it. 

But then, that reticence may be the thing that divides the sane from the mad. Pound, after all, had moments of reticence, but not about his “views,” his idiotic and malignant politics and economics. And if The Cantos show us anything, it’s that “views” can mar one’s life’s work, can leave one’s art unwhole. 

Those who ask, “Why, then, do you read them?” will never really understand why, no matter how I explain. Saying, “Even crippled, they are an astonishing work,” will not convey it. 

In any case, I cannot say Pound was “mad” in Rapallo in the years leading up to the war… but I can imagine how it felt to be there, isolated and perpetually short on funds, watching what felt like an impending second great apocalypse (World War II) beginning to take shape all around him. I can imagine how he might want a strong man’s shadow to stand in, how he might be desperate enough to take a man like Mussolini and turn him into a heroic father-figure. Not because that would be my impulse, but because I, too, have on occasion felt broken and alone in a distant land, and even without a looming war on the horizon, even without grinding poverty and the sense of a life’s work already behind me with nothing to show for it, I struggled to keep perspective. 

I guess I’m once again returning to the idea that the Cantos can be fruitfully read as a form of exploded autobiography: Pound inscribes himself directly in fleeting moments, even in the earliest Cantos—on the steps of the dogana, talking to H.G. Wells, chatting with fellow travelers in London—but also in a more liminal way, as the poet speaking through other mouths and having other voices burst from his lips. (“Lie quiet, Divus…”) Specific chunks of the poem refract Pound’s experience of history, embodying his rage at World War I and the causes he felt underlay it in the “Hell-Cantos”; the tale of Niccolo d’Este’s madness at his wife’s infidelity a kind of puppet-show retelling of his own feelings about Dorothy Shakespear’s and her pregnancy with another man’s child. Surely Adams’ frustrations and sense of being backstabbed and thwarted along the way resonated for Pound for some reason, given how many pages he gives this—almost all of Canto LXIX.

(Most accounts I’ve read of Pound on a personal level during these years describe him as affable and very social, as pleasant company and as being very resilient in the face of criticism… and yet here and there, one catches flashes of deep rage and resentment with the same people he was affable towards: how he comments about a book by the (extremely popular) author H.G. Wells, “Wells disgusts me,” in a letter to a friend. 1 Besides, from what I know of the psychology of writers, it would not be unusual for Pound to harbor unfair resentments of those more “successful” and “popular” than himself, and to be unwilling to recognize that perhaps the difficulty of his chosen forms and methods of writing had something to do with that.)

There’s another level, though, on which I think we can read the Pound/Adams parallel, related to Pound’s (and Adams’) money issues, and that’s this: both men were attempting to fund what they say as a revolution. Reading Adams’ expressions of frustration and rage at how hard it was to fund the American revolution, I can’t help but wonder if I’m seeing a refraction of Pound’s struggle to fund his life on the front lines of a literary revolution of which he was (or felt himself to be) one of the primary instigators and leaders.

Of course, Pound’s revolution was one not of guns and bombs, but of poetry. Still, it was no less an upheaval of the old ways, no less a disruption of a system which involved vested interests, interests that were energetically represented. The amount of energy Pound put into promoting other writers, into getting work for other artists and poets, into musical revivals like the one he and Olga Rudge helped bring about of Vivaldi’s work… this is something even people who disliked him often admitted grudgingly: he was committed to the arts, committed to changing the way literature worked. And yet every revolution requires funds, and on that account, Pound was sorely lacking. His time in Rapallo had not been particularly profitable in a financial sense, no matter what other benefits it afforded the poet. 
This, I think, is maybe another reason why Adams’ desperation in trying to secure a loan, and especially the way that Adams’ descriptions of being thwarted in the attempt, resonated so much for Pound that he devoted so much of Canto LXIX to it.

In any case, Canto LXIX is about money, about attempts to secure loans from European banks and about navigating toxic advice from supposed allies who turned out to be enemies. There’s some cloak-and-dagger business:

for a secret address you may send under cover 
          à
             Madame la veuve de M. Henry Schorn
              op de Agsterberg wal by de Hoogstraat

… and ranting about betrayal, shadowy plotting, and fickleness among allies:

Vergennes is fixedly resolved to commit himself to nothing
not even his treaty with the U.S. now existing
For the purpose chicaning the U.S. out of their liberty 
this congress proposed at Vienna with the two Emperors
               part of England's palaver 
La Coeur de ondres eludera autant et aussi long qu'elle peut
l'avenu direct
           ou indirect de l'indépendence des Etas Unis
Cornwallis' fate has emboldened the Hollanders

I think anyone with minimal interest in the Canto will probably make his or her way through it with Terrell at hand, so I don’t feel there’s much value in me simply rehearsing Terrell’s exegesis of those references. That said, I think a couple of things are worth noting to the interested reader, beyond what I’ve noted above.

First, the fact that Pound engages in lists. This is especially interesting to me because, long ago, when I was first introduced to the idea of a (Poundian) “Canto” as a poetical form by Canadian poet Tim Lilburn, he explained it as a kind of “kitchen sink poem” of extended length, in which one was especially likely to run across “lists.” My own first attempts at writing Cantos indeed in part were built out of lists. (I’ll spare you the tedium of seeing those drafted verses.)

That said, we never did get so deep into the form as to discuss the logic or reason behind those lists. But here, I think, Pound’s statement on the outset that the poem should “contain history” intersects with the influence of Dante, who—as I’m sure we all remember—peopled the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise with actual people, named directly. In this poem—and others—this seems an important function of the listing technique of the Cantos, in passages like this:

          Nous sommes en attendant charmés de voir
que les états des autres provinces et conséquemment la
république entière ont, à l'ememple des Etats de FRise
                                               reconnu...
         signed Les membres de la Société Bourgeoise
                                            de Leeuwarde
                                            W. Wopkins
                                            V. Cats

Or this one:

To T. Jefferson:
        ‘ You fear the one, I the few.’ 
In this matter of redeeming certificates
         that were used paying the sojers
                vignette in margine
                King, Sam Johnson of N. Carolina
                Smith (W.) S. Carolina, Wadsworth ( Jeremiah
                J. Lawrence, Bingham, Carrol of Carrolton
                gone piss-rotten for Hamilton 
                Cabot, Fisher Ames, Thomas Willing
                Robt Morris, Sedwick
                                            natural burella
                squad of the pink-haired snot
                traitors blacker than Arnold
                        blacker than Bancroft
                per l'argine sinistra dienno volta
                behind that mask Mr Schuyler (Filippo)
                these the betrayers, these the sifilides
                advance guard of hell's oiliness
                in their progeny no repentence
quindi Cocito, Cassio membruto

In the two Italian lines above, Pound makes the Dantean nature of this list explicit, in fact, hauling us back to the Hell-Cantos with their elided references to living people whom Pound accused of war-profiteering and historical crimes. Like in the Hell-Cantos, Pound slides toward the realm of sexual insult, calling these corrupted individuals “sifilides” (syphilitics) who are the “advance guard of hell’s oiliness.” 

I think these lists are intended to serve the same purpose: for Pound, these men have in then-modern America “progeny” who showed “no repentence”; in other words, there were people of the same corrupted type, profiting from the financial system that Hamilton set up but also from more direct forms of corruption. Pound seems less interested in differentiating between the two kinds of criticism, because for him, after all, it’s all of a piece, and traceable to Hamilton’s “cooperation” with the financial elite and, ultimately, his propagation of a corruption-fueled neo-aristocracy in America. (A bit like how, over here in South Korea, Park Chung-Hee allied with oligarchic family-owned corporations in the 1960s–1970s, supposedly because this was the “best” way to stimulate economic development and modernization in postwar South Korea… and with a similarly troubled legacy to the one we can see in America. 2)

(I’m curious whether this aspect of Hamilton’s legacy comes up in the musical, given how central it is to a lot of the problems that progressive Americans are stuck having to try address. One imagines that the fact Hamilton didn’t personally profit from his corruption exonerates him in some minds… at least enough for this nastiness to be swept under the rug. That is, assuming there’s any truth to this. I’m not well-read in this period of American history, so maybe someone can pipe in down in the comments if they know more.)

In any case, I feel like the reason Pound wants to bring this up in the Cantos—beyond his increasingly obsessive focus on economic theory at this point in his life—is because this aspect of American history was probably not common knowledge in the time when Pound was schooled, in the same way the realities of first nations’ people’s experience of treaties and residential schools in Canada was not really delved into in any meaningful way when I was a student in Canada in the 80s and early 90s. All of which is to say, Pound was probably alarmed and angry that this part of history was not part of living historical memory in American society.

The recent adulation of Hamilton suggests that the accusations of corruption remain somewhere in the ditch alongside the Via Americana today. Pound, I think, was doing his part to try make the historical record “accessible” and “known”—to whatever degree that sticking lists of names into the Cantos could achieve that is debatable, but it seems at least to have been Pound’s purpose in making these lists.

The issue involving the individuals, meanwhile, deserves some unpacking. Here’s the situation: during the Presidency of James Madison, there was a problem with payment certificates that had been issued by the individual states to soldiers who’d fought representing those states. These certificates had dropped in value, leaving the soldiers with certificates worth much less than their stated value. Hamilton proposed that a bill be passed—informally called the “Assumption Bill”—by which the federal government would redeem the certificates for their full value. I’m given to understand that this was the kind of thing that attracted Madison, because he felt laws were best written when they served general justice to disparate groups in society. But it emerged later that Hamilton had leaked these plans to his rich elite friends, who eagerly bought up the devalued certificates in the hope of redeeming them for full value and making a massive profit. In other words, Hamilton screwed over the common soldier for the benefit of the rich elites… at least, that’s the narrative we get from Pound (and apparently Adams and Jefferson too). 

Of course, it’s a curious thing, trying to square Pound’s opposition to The New Deal and his revulsion at Hamilton: when it suits him, he’s a fan of robber-baron capitalism, and then suddenly he’ll be against corruption. But then, we should probably not be too surprised at apparently baffling self-contradiction from Ezra Pound by now, and I suspect there is one commonality between the two kinds of outrage: after all, Hamliton opposed and undercut the political/economic “project” of American govenrment as conceived of by Adams and other kindred spirits, just as Roosevelt’s New Deal would have appeared to Pound to be a similarly “treacherous” undercutting of the economic/political “project” of European fascism. 

That said, it’s also worth noting that Pound isn’t just listing off villains: the end of this Canto recounts how Madison sought to address Hamilton’s misdeed, proposing that certificates only be redeemed at full value to the individuals to whom they had originally been issued, and how the proposal failed when put to a vote… and how it was later discovered that, out of 64 members of the House of Representatives, 29 representatives were themselves “security holders”—people who stood to profit by Hamilton’s corruption. But Pound takes a moment to also praise those who blew the whistle on it:

Maclay and Jim Jackson stood out against dirtiness ’
        smelled this stink before Madison
smelt it or before he told Tom about it.

That’s William Maclay and James Jackson; I’m guessing in Pound’s time, these were names recalled by a scarce few people… or that, at least, Pound felt too few people remembered them. (And, again, perhaps he felt this was the fate of all those who stand out against corruption, and feeling himself to be of a like type to them, perhaps he feared deep down that he might face the fate of being similarly forgotten.)


That brings us to Canto LXX, the penultimate of the Adams Cantos, a somewhat shorter poem of only four and a half pages. This one seems to be about Adams’ role as a politician, and begins with Adams commenting on how he felt in his role as vice-president of the United States: 

‘My situation almost the only one in the world
    where firmness and patience are useless ’ 
     J.A. vice president and president of the senate
                              1791

The canto jumps around, of course, lurching forward almost instantly to the “XYZ Affair” with an observation by Adams only a month into his later Presidency. I’m not American, so maybe the scandal is well-remembered, but in case it’s not, my understanding (based on a quick read of Wikipedia) is that relations broke down between the U.S. and France. When diplomacy was tried, the French (specifically, the French foreign minister, Talleyrand) essentially told the Americans that they’d be willing to sit down and talk it over… but put conditions on this negotiation that offended the Americans: bribes and a loan. 

(Apparently this kind of thing was normal in Europe, but the Americans were having none of it and the breakdown in relations became so bad that a “Quasi-War” broke out between the U.S.A. and France. This was one of the big incidents of Adams’ presidency, so it’s not surprising it’d come up in one of the Adams Cantos, but even so, its inclusion is interesting, and again makes me want to go hunting for more information about who Pound might have felt betrayed him.)

That summary scratches the surface of it, of course. Hamilton and his buddies were itching for a real war with France—presumably because where the misery and death of war appears, so appears profit. Pound still hasn’t quite come out and accused Hamilton of “usura” directly, but I feel like he’s all but done so by this point. In response to all that, Adams instead appointed William Vans Murray as minister to the Hague, and Murray, as Terrell tells us, “helped prepare the way for recognition of an American minister to France,” 3, and of course complains of “Hamilton’s total ignorance (or whatever) / of practice and usage of nations.” Adams pursues a course  that clearly appealed to Pound (and, as far as I remember, which Pound soon would be preaching to American troops on the radio in Italy) of America’s need to maintain “eternal neutrality in all wars of Europe.”

Twice in this canto—the first time is right after this material about the XYZ Affair—Pound invokes Adams’ wry observation of the plit vote between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson: each man got 73 votes out of 146 for the position of leadership in the Federalist party, and Adams’ low opinion of that faction in general. 

Then the canto swerves off into discussion of “Mrs Warren” and

… sea nymphs
Hyson, Congo, Bohea, and a few lesser divinities
Sirens shd/ be got into it somehow.

It’s one of two sudden lurches into what seems like oddly classical trappings, and we suddenly wonder if Pound is once again invoking historical echoes, though both times it’s very brief, and turns out to be something to do with costumed tea-parties that Adams mentions in his letters. Here, one suspects, is a trace of Pound’s state when working on the Adams Cantos: a younger Pound might have made some effort to link up these “sea nymphs” with things brought up in Canto LXIX, like the issue of fishing rights, or the spermaceti whale and its fat that was burned for light (which in turn might have occasioned a reference to Plotinus or some other philosopher of Neoplatonic light); Sirens would have been invoked as the risk of early Americans’ relative lack of interest in securing fishing rights, say. But here, Pound invokes the classical references and then moves on, as if he’s not really even interested in finding those linkages anymore: he’s too busy scrapbooking bits of Adams’ letters to bother with that stuff.

Thus we have comments on the agricultural cooperation of Virginia (which sowed “wheat instead of tobacco” in support of the United States’ self-reliance, spurning British trade for the latter), but not weirdly occult reference to vegetation rites. We get “Quincy’s knowledge of Boston harbor,” but no recurrence of sea nymphs or Sirens; a little riffing on the rights of men and women, but no invocation of ancient legal codes addressing the same question. Russians ready for war, something about a salary being procured for Adams, a request for news jammed sideways into a comments about wild game and a preference to remain by the sea, Adams’ feelings about corruption in the Amsterdam court and his loneliness as a man of letters abroad, fix boxes and the French constitution and corruption in the American elections and lying monarchs all swirling around, and then, beside the short line:

I am for balance

… we arrive at a single Chinese character:

 

 The character—”Chung” (meaning “middle”)—is one with a special significance to Pound, as he translates it to mean “The Unwobbling Pivot.” Whether any Chinese person associates such a profound meaning to the character matters less than the fact that Pound understood Chinese characters as “ideograms,” semi-pictographic inscriptions of ideas, since it’s easy to see a kind of spinning top when one looks at that character.

That casts the kaleidoscopic whirl of everything before it into a kind of sense, too: if Adams is the unmoving pivot, the still point in the middle of a tornado of engagements and concerns, the one man concerned with true balance, then it makes sense the contents of his letters and of his life should be thrown into this kind of kaleidoscopic frenzy. 

Pound takes this moment to highlight what made Adams different from his contemporaries, with a sudden ply-upon-ply structure worth quoting:

and know not how it is but mankind have an aversion
            to any study of government 
Thames a mere rivulet in comparison to the Hudson river
73 to Jefferson, to Mr Burr 73
            DUM SPIRO
nec lupo committere adnum 
         so they are against any rational theory
            DUM SPIRO AMO

To break that down, line by line:

and know not how it is but mankind have an aversion
            to any study of government

This is from a musing by Adams in a letter where he observes bafflement at the way most people are not interested in studying government, whereas for him “no romance is more entertaining.” Adams, Pound is reminding us, is singularly passionate about government and its study and refinement. It seems to me Adams was probably talking about common people, and maybe Pound intends this to be read this way too… but it also feels like Pound is slyly indicting people like Hamilton, and Adams’ other corrupt contemporaries. 

Thames a mere rivulet in comparison to the Hudson river

This is from a letter from by Adams to Thomas Brand-Hollis, Terrell tells us, but I think Pound intends it to mean that America has a greater, vaster destiny than England, that it is an entirely different sort of place and that it must be led in an entirely different way. The Hudson, which flowed through much of New York State and into the Atlantic at New York City, was for Americans in the 18th century a place of symbolic and literary importance alike. (Washington Irving—America’s first internationally celebrated writer, wrote a lot about the area, for one thing.)  

73 to Jefferson, to Mr Burr 73

Again, Pound is invoking Adams’ dubious, sarcastic comment on party affairs among the Federalists.

            DUM SPIRO

This, and the final line of the Canto that presents it slightly more completely, is taken from this Latin motto: “Dum spiro spero. Dum spero amo. Dum amo vivo.” (“While I breathe, I hope. While I hope, I love. While I love, I live.”) Note that Pound has slightly bowdlerized it, putting “amo” with “spiro” rather than with “spero”… or maybe he’s quoting another source.) That said, the first third of the longer motto was adopted as a state motto in South Carolina, but I have no idea whether Pound is making a reference here that I’m not grasping.

nec lupo committere adnum

This translates to something like, “One does not entrust a lamb to a wolf”—a line which Adams tells Brand-Hollis is his “fundamental maxim of government.” Here, again, it seems as if the lamb is the American people, and the wolf is… well, anyone Pound would like to accuse of “usura”: probably Hamilton, but also his corrupt cronies, and Roosevelt, and countless others.

         so they are against any rational theory

Here, Terrell provides us with a pretty sobering comment from Adams on the nature of humanity and his own political legacy:

But… the feelings of mankind are so much against any rational theory, that I find my labor has all been in vain.

Go ahead and try to convince me that Pound isn’t quietly telegraphing his own misgivings and fears about his life’s work. And if you want a rather glum presentiment of why I think so, go ahead and flip forward to the Notes for CCXVLL et seq. section contained on the last few pages of the Cantos (pahe 821 in my edition) and think about those lines about the “paradiso terrestre.”

            DUM SPIRO AMO

“While I breathe, I love.” But of course, Adams did eventually cease to breathe, and with one more Adams Canto left, I imagine we’re going to get treated to what Pound has to say about that, and the legacy Adams left behind when he did cease to breathe, and hope, and love.

That’s next time, when I’ll dive into the last Adams Canto, number LXXI. Perhaps soon, if I can swing it.

Oh, and one more thing about reading the Cantos: it’s worth noting that while I’ve read fully 70 of the 109 cantos contained in the book, I’m only at page 412 of approximately 820—that is, I’m only halfway through this text. I know the Pisan Cantos are longer, and deeper, and much more work to unpack, so while I am gathering a little momentum here, I think this project will still continue for quite some time. 


I don’t know how much this contributes to the fictional, supernatural Pound-as-broken-magus figure the assembly of which first inspired this reading project, but I think a couple of things are clear:

  • Lagging in commitment to the magical poem is a natural and probably an inevitable thing. The poet keeps writing, but loses the will and the energy to truly work magic with his words. Anyone who’s read the Cantos has felt this flagging in the Chinese and Adams cantos, I think, and I’ve commented on it a lot.
  • This flagging of creative energies is likely tied to daily life concerns: if you’re broke, or dealing with a messed-up marriage, or having nightmares about the prospect of a coming war, or feeling terribly isolated or betrayed or left-behind by a movement you sort of helped to found, then this is going to have an effect on how your writing goes. 
  • Pound, and my imaginary Pound too, needs to have tendency to conceive of the world in oppositions, and to loudly take sides. Sometimes, his choice of side should look self-contradictory… but it should also be possible to see how the choice makes complete sense to him on grounds one might not at first imagine. 

That’s it for now. I have a bad cold and was just at the dentist for post-root-canal treatment (it’s an extended process now, apparently), so I’m also experiencing a flagging of creative energies. But if anything else occurs to me, I’ll add it here later on.  

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXVIII

  1. I can’t remember to whom that letter was written, and no longer have the collection of letters in which I saw it, but the line stands out starkly in my memory, especially since the only other reference to Wells as a decade earlier, and rather more positive.

  2. There’s a line pretty much directly from that policy to the expectation of unchecked privilege on display in incidents like the Korean Air “nuts rage” incident, to pick one example of many—the example probably most familiar to Westerners.

  3. (324, n.19).

2 thoughts on “Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos LXIX and LXX

  1. I loved your post. I totally agree with you that the cantos are an exploded autobiography (a diary of his thought without the dates) and I was so happy to see someone actually trying to reconstruct what EP may have felt when finding himself poor in Italy on the brink of WWII. And it was not a new thing either, as EP had felt war approaching since around 1931, if not earlier (I’m thinking of canto 35 and 38). Like Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony, you hear the calamity approaching and there is nothing you con do (and nowhere you can go) until you literally get trampled.
    The idea of canto as list is very old. Even in the discarded cantos of 1917 you see the list principle in action: not names, but scraps of info. It was primitive and no one liked it (cantos as carpet bag, that was the earliest criticism) and Pound learned to hide it to a certain extent. Indeed in the best-loved cantos, it is not at all visible. EP learned to be flexible and put the lists to new uses.
    I too think of whether EP would approve of Trump and can’t decide. He would love the “America first” principle. But anything else? Especially when T declares himself a militarist? Gives tax breaks to the rich? And… [lol] antagonises China? He’d be very conflicted!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, it’s always a work of speculation to guess what someone’s thinking, but I feel like the farther into the 1930s we go, the more the panic is distracting Pound and making it difficult for him to work. The difference in energy and focus is hard not to notice, and yes, the Shostakovich, the sense of an inevitable horror about to unfold is palpable.

      Canto-as-list: yes. I’ve also suspected for a long time that Pound is also slyly punning on the word “cento”. I’m sure you know the form, but for those who don’t, it’s defined (on one website) thus:

      From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources. Early examples can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil.

      His Cantos aren’t true centos, but they are patchwork and do draw on the poetry of other writers. Canto as a modernist twist on the Cento, maybe.

      On Pound and Trump: it’s difficult to get a read, because it was such a different time and context, not that Pound didn’t embrace garbage politics and garbage politicians and garbage ideologies back then. I’m not sure it’s worth thinking about what Pound would think of our own modern-day garbage politics and garbage ideologies and garbage politicians, though it might be useful for us to recognize just how very much they share in common with those of Pound’s day. (And many of the things that horrify thinking, decent people about Trump also horrified decent, thinking people about Hitler and Mussolini, two men whom Pound unfortunately revered.) I agree, though, that he would have liked “America First” and “Make American Great Again”… at least until he caught wind of what Trump actually means when he says those things. That said, I do strongly suspect that Pound would have liked Trump better than he would have liked any other president since his death, assuming a Trump frozen ideologically in 1972 or whatever.

      What I really wonder is what Pound would have had to say about, say, Richard Spencer, or Ben Shapiro, or even Steve Bannon. That might have been more interesting… and even more distressing. And I suspect Pound would have been glued to Youtube if he were still around and coherent today.

      One of the more useful observations I’ve seen is that political ideologies, especially totalizing ones, often function like religions for those who buy into them whole hog: one can do extraordinary mental backflips to justify insanely self-contradictory positions and beliefs as long as it’s in the service of a belief system with which one has identified oneself, and in which one finds some form of empowerment and a useable (if incoherent or crazy) model of the world that one uses to make sense of the chaos. The deeper the chaos and the deeper one’s fear of it, the more one is susceptible to nonsense. Which is to say that people—Pound and many others—were probably more susceptible having seen the horrors of the First World War. Or so I suspect.

      Oh, and while Pound was a fan of “China” (as in, the China of his imagination) I don’t know how he’d like the Chinese government of today. Strong-arm tough guy authoritarians, he liked… but the CCP is no neo-Confucian meritocracy, and that was what Pound seemed to prefer to think of China as… something that was easier when relatively less information was available to him about Chinain the practical, big-picture, daily-news sense. He’d have been inundated with far more information about China if he were around now, and it would have made it harder for him to maintain a sense of the China of his fancies having anything to do with the actual place. Or, again, so I suspect.

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