This 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.
Well, here we are, folks, at the final Adams Canto! It’s taken some time, but the coronavirus outbreak has forced us all to stay home. I’ve had Wheelock’s Latin (plus some resources) at one end of my desk, and the Cantos and Terrell at the other, but had little time or energy to dig into either: unlike a lot of the ehat I’m seeing on Twitter, Korean employers (at least mine, and my wife’s) have mostly been concerned with ensuring nobody relaxes or engages in any mental health maintenance during the pandemic, and with no daycare available to us—by choice, admittedly, but its not much of a choice—it’s been impossible for me to dig back into The Cantos as I’d hope to spend February this year doing.
But, well… now it’s an April night and somehow I have a little energy and I watched Tiger King all the way through, so… well, that made me think of Pound—yes, really, I think Pound would have loved the show—and one thing led to another which led to me making my way through Canto LXXI once more. So here we are!
Canto LXXI is… well, it’s a melancholy sort of thing, at least to my ear and eye, as melancholy as any of the Adams Cantos could be. It’s still a patchwork, but a lot of the letters from which the snippets are taken come from late in Adams’ life. Well, maybe it’s mtea-melancholy: it’s not so much that Adams is melancholy, or that Pound is overtly so, so much as it’s something one feels knowing this is the last Adams Canto, and with so much of it feeling like the fractured reminiscences of an old man nearing the end of his life.
In ’45 as a boy I heard of the Cape Breton campaign and of British ingratitude Injustice of Shirley, of Braddock, of Abercrombie and of Webb and Lord Loudon especially. In ’59 Pitt, Wolf, Amherst enthused me, but it was short in ’61 came writs of assistance (...)
Years flash by in a few lines, and of course Adams turns to the business that concerns him—his opposition to the division of the nation—but we are left seeing the man thinking back on his life.
There are moments where we can think, “Lie quiet, Divus,” in Pound’s stead, like when Adams notes, “Vergennes said to me: Mr. Adams, newspapers govern the world.”
The poem swirls into the present, to the current President decrying “fake news” even as the public good depends on news being delivered. These poems—the Adams Cantos—were delivered to a pompous, authoritarian buffoon, Pound’s chosen Malatesta, which is to say Mussolini. I originally thought Mussolini was simply a buffoon who could no more have been mystified by them—and I still think Mussolini was unlikely to have gotten much out of the Cantos he did glance at, since Pound’s work was impenetrable even to native English speakers, even moreso the Chinese and Adams Cantos—but Mussolini was perhaps not the buffoon he’s been made out to be, so much as he was the first architect of fascism in Europe. He may have later been eclipsed by the authoritarian aura of men like Hitler and Stalin, but that Pound chose him, a supposedly-gifted writer and pioneer of fascism, is not surprising… and it leaves us wondering what Pound would have made of the rise of the far right in America now, and the doddering flag-bearer of that shift.
And then, like another chunk of melting icecap sliding into place, something else that is curiously timely: a rage by Adams against the banks:
Funds and Banks I never approved I abhorred ever our whole banking system but an attempt to abolish all funding in the present state of the world wd/ be as romantic as any adventure in Oberon or Don Quixote. Every Bank of discount is downright corruption taxing the public for private individuals' gain. and if I say this in my will the American people wd/ pronounce I died crazy.
(I could not find an easy way to create the solid black line that emphasizes the last four lines of the passage above, so… well, look on page 416 of your copy of the Cantos, I suppose.)
How strangely timely is that, as a thought to chew on while the world’s finance system has begun reeling and tumbling from the shocks of global pandemic? But of course, history always looks weirdly timely from the right angle: had I read this poem earlier, I might have wondered what Pound might have made of the Occupy Movement, or of the Asian Financial crisis and the “Confucian” (not really) approach to managing the fallout from that.
What I take from this is that Pound’s subject is, in a curious way, timeless and timely at once. I mean, maybe not truly timeless: it may be that in a few centuries, people will struggle to understand what all this business with banks was. “It’s about currency, right? Like likes and boosts and friendclicks online?” But banking and money isn’t as garish and odd a theme as one might have thought, for a poem about history, and about the modern world. Problems with banks, and problems with people failing to see the problem with banks, is timely anytime, because it’s something we’ve lived with for centuries now: “‘Ignorance of coin, credit, and circulation!'”
There’s also a melancholy for things that never happened, routes never taken: Adams’ realtionship with Native Americans, for example: I don’t know what it was actually like, but Adams seems to want to present a positive image, a chief asking him to ban the sale of rum to native communities and Adams’ line—”No indian’s hatchet raised while I was president”. Of course, it’s hard to read this from another angle, as a picture not of peace but of a successful subjugation—but of course neither Adams nor Pound intends such an interpretation, as far as I can tell.
Or the way America never developed a serious navy, not one that rivaled the British one, though it (according to Adams) could have done so. This is an old man’s poem, about an old man’s memories, not that Pound was that old by this point, but… well, here we are embroiled in pandemic, and I think everyone feels older than they are, the powerlessness and the exhaustion of worry and the regret that things could not have been done differently… no? It does seem a mood.
And then the thing comes to an end with a sort of divine invocation, which Pound translates for us back on page 256, at the end of the table of contents for the Chinese and Adams Cantos:
Note the final lines in greek, Canto 71, are from Hymn of Cleanthes, part of Adams’ paideuma: Glorious, deathless of many names, Zeus aye ruling all things, founder of the inborn qualities of nature, by laws piloting all things.
Piloting all things: it’s a comforting thought, that someone should be piloting anything in a world coming apart at the seams, and not for the first time in memory—and by this, I mean Pound’s memory, for it was by the light of a clearly coming war that he wrote these Cantos, just as it was by the flames of the last great war, the war reputed to have been so awful it should end all wars, and yet could not do so. This kind of melancholy comes up multiple times: Otis burning all his papers, and the lack of Greek type (and typesetters who could work with it) in all America at the time; the creeping influence of Continential corruptions and conflicts… there is a fascination with failures, with the center failing to hold (though Pound does not, of course, quote old Yeats in these pages, despite his fingerprints being on that very poem I’ve referred to).
And yet Zeus here is almost more a divine watchmaker, piloting by founding the inborn qualities of nature. “Glorious and deathless of many names”: what names? What is Pound gesturing toward in that line? I’m not quite sure, though of course for an arcane Pound, in an arcane story of magical conspiracy, there are many possibilities: perhaps he imagined Adams a dimocratiamancer (a sorcerer drawing his power from the energies of a nation) or something? Or perhaps some sort of thaumaturge who tapped into an unnameable, many-named divine power involved in instinct and nature and nation and all things?
I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll ever pen that book that was to feature Pound—or a Pound like poet—as its central, conspiracy-cloaked occultist. But the poems remain, waiting for me to press on, and perhaps, for now, that is enough.