Posthumous Cantos, by Ezra Pound: A Review

Posthumous Cantos, by Ezra Pound (Edited by Massimo Bacigalupo), Carcanet, ISBN: 978 1 pound784101 20 6, GBP£14.99

The Cantos is arguably the finest Modernist fragmented epic in English, and certainly one of the most important long poems of the last century in any language. Like any poem of such scope and ambition, it is uneven and its unevenness reflects the prejudices of its author. Nevertheless, The Cantos straddle the development of modern poetry; like the Alps, as Basil Bunting wrote “you will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them.”

In Pound’s case, prejudices is the operative word.  He admired Mussolini, disliked Buddhists, Taoists, Georgian poets, Rubens, and Christians and was frequently virulently Anti-Semitic to the point where whole passages of the poem are virtually unreadable because of the appalling attitude to Jews expressed in them. There are those who would dismiss Pound entirely because of this; however, I agree with Marjorie Perloff when she writes that this is a ‘ridiculous’ position. Perloff points out that a to insist on a stance of ‘Love my Politics, love my poetry’ would mean that much of the best writing of the 20th century, Neruda for instance, would have to be consigned to the rubbish heap.

Posthumous Cantos is the first major addition to the Poundian canon in 30 years.  Given the (initially at least) fragmentary nature of Pound’s method, it is appropriate that much of the work collected here by Massimo Bacigalupo takes the form of discarded drafts for and passages from  published and unpublished Cantos, taken from a huge mass of manuscript and typescript archive. The book covers every period of the extended composition of The Cantos, but the most interesting material comes from three key eras: the early Ur Cantos from 1915-17; poems and drafts in English and Italian written during WWII (before and at Pisa); the Prosaic Poems and Lines for Olga 1962-1972 sections that expands on the great final Drafts and Fragments Cantos.

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The early materials, consisting of the ‘Three Cantos’ published in Poetry in 1917, plus a fourth Ur-text and some short drafts, shows Pound working towards an idiom for his projected ‘long poem containing history’. The resulting Cantos owe much to Robert Browning and echoes Pound’s earlier long poems ‘Near Perigord’ and ‘Provincia Deserta’. However, half way through the third of these early drafts, Pound discovered the combination of Anglo Saxon, Homer’s Odyssey and Andreas Divus that was to be the eventual opening to the poem, an opening that set Pound on his chosen course, thematically and technically. What he cut away in the process has much to tell the attentive reader about how to read the poem as it came to be written, if only by showing what it isn’t.

In discarding these early drafts, Pound in effect set aside the idea of a single, unified narrating voice. His poem was to give voice to a multitude, layering perspectives one over the other; like Odysseus in the nekyia, Pound would summon up the ghosts of the dead, giving them voice so that they might illuminate the problems of the present.  Equally, in his adaptation of the ‘Seafarer’ line, he began to find a means of applying the Imagist dictum ‘to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’ to the particular requirements of the long, non-lyric poem.

In writing what would become Canto I, Pound did not stick rigidly to the four-stress Anglo-Saxon line, but he did use that line’s freedom as regards the number of unstressed syllables to create that tension between rhythm and meter that came to characterise the music of his long poem. Although the particular patterning that he used in Canto I does not reappear elsewhere in The Cantos, the lessons in adapting the Imagist line to longer structures clearly benefitted from this initial framework:

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly seas, and

We set up mast and sail on that swartship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

Straight away the iamb, iamb, anapest of the first line sets the tone, and the establishment and disruption of expectation continues through the whole section, establishing a method that could accommodate the full range of the poem’s disjunctive needs, from narrative, through adaptations of documentary sources, to visionary glimpses of the numinous:

I have brought the great ball of crystal;

who can lift it?

Can you enter the great acorn of light?

These lines from Canto CXVI, written some 45 years later than the Ur Cantos, show that Pound developed this tension to a point of great, subtle flexibility; they also demonstrate his skill in weaving vowel and consonant patterns through his lines to make a verbal music that is at once both complex and clear. It is, in my view, this mastery of the sound of verse that marks Pound as being one of the handful of 20th century English-language poets to whom the word ‘great’ can reasonably be applied.

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Towards the end of WWII, Pound was detained in a US detention camp near Pisa on suspicion of treason. Here he wrote The Pisan Cantos, probably the most widely read and admired section of the poem. The poignancy of the circumstances of their composition undoubtedly played a significant role in their positive reception. It is, therefore, interesting to see that many of the major themes that run through the Pisan sequence were already present in the poems in English and Italian that he had been working on since around 1940. Without question, the particular circumstances of his detention shaped this material as well as adding an additional layer of matter, but lines like these, inspired by Pound’s study of Confucius, could easily have ended up in the final work:

With a white flash of wings over the dawn light

with a flash of wings over sunset

thus cd/ a man learn wisdom

a man with sky in his heart

Bacigalupo also includes poems written in Pisa but later discarded, and these show that the poet’s instincts as an editor were as sure when it came to his own work as they had been when working with Eliot on The Waste Land. In particular, the decision to exclude two unpublished passages originally intended for Canto 84 was extremely wise.

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In late 1967, Allen Ginsberg visited Pound in Italy to pay homage to the older poet. He CL Anthpublished his diary of the visit and their conversations in 1974 in the City Lights Anthology. By this time, Pound had stopped working on the Cantos, and the last section, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX—CXVI would be published about a year and a half later, put together by his publisher James Laughlin, of New Directions books.

Pound’s conversations with Ginsberg reflect the tone of failure that imbues the Drafts & Fragments poems. Amongst the errors and failures that Pound confesses to, one stands out. After Ginsberg offered him his Jewish Buddhist blessing, Pound replied ‘my worst mistake was the stupid suburban prejudice of antisemitism, all along, that spoiled everything.’

This admission is of a piece with what Bacigalupo terms Pound’s realisation in the late work as his fatal lack of compassion. This is captured in the following lines from a 1959 typescript draft of what would become From Canto CXV:

I have been a pitiless stone —

stone making artwork

and destroying affections.

These late poems of failure are, ironically, amongst the most achieved work Pound ever published, and the five or six drafts reproduced here from this period help round out this achievement. They are, however, not comprehensive. Another draft of Canto CXV was published in the Belfast magazine Threshold in 1963. For interest, I reproduce it here.

CXV

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It is somewhat misleading to represent the Drafts & Fragments poems as Pound’s final work. Since 1995, editions of the Cantos have ended with a short verse called Lines for Olga, addressed to the poet’s long-time lover Olga Rudge who was his companion for the last ten years of his life. Bacigalupo prints here a set of six short poems under that group title, dating from the last 10 years of Pound’s life, when Rudge was his constant companion and minder. The poems are a testimony to late love, and Bacigalupo sees them as the return of the Venus of Canto I. To an extent, he has a point, but the Olga poems are more than that. Having spent a lifetime writing an epic, searching for the grant gesture, the illuminating instance from history, the vision of the numinous, Pound finally arrives at the realisation that it is in the ordinary that life has its deepest significance:

bearing it all

finding beauty

where the last

vestige of it

still was

In this extended form, Lines for Olga are the perfect coda to the Cantos, a Nostos that could only be achieved after both the ambition and failure of Pound’s voyage after knowledge had been exhausted. Readers of Pound owe Bacigalupo a debt of gratitude for recovering these poems and bringing them into print.

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26 thoughts on “Posthumous Cantos, by Ezra Pound: A Review

  1. I admired Pound at arm’s length because of 1, his virulent anti-Semitism, and 2, what seemed to be his coldness. Thanks for offering a deeper look into Pound’s own realizations of failure. The draft of Canto CXV from Threshold takes us into the pain of his own self-awareness; and his lines for Olga are witness to an opening that came late, but came at last.

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      1. Yes, Pound had the gift of incantation. One marvels at it. I’ll be studying a long time to figure out how he does it.

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  2. It is abhorrent to me, your bringing in and trashing of Neruda – i.e. literally, “consigned to the rubbish heap” and of course I understand what you are saying; however, Neruda’s communism was always laced with love and compassion, and enornous respect for indigenous peoples (see his extraordinary sequence of his late-life visit to Rapa Nui (“A Separate Rose”), and of course with Pinochet and his thugs in power, he paid the price for his beliefs. I do not question that a fascist can be a great artist (Riefenstahl being the most obvious example perhaps). Anyway, thanks for the new Pound-text heads-up.

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      1. Billy, not sure what you are referring to with “Perloff’s thrashing of Jerusalem”? A poem by Neruda? In the Perloff piece she only says “a Stalinist like Neruda”?

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        1. Two quick points, Pierre:

          1: I’m not thrashing Neruda, I’m saying ‘if A, then B, but not A’.
          2: I was trying to summarise Perloff’s argument, and so used Neruda as an example because she did, albeit with that careful ‘like’. I could as easily have said Yeats, Eliot, Auden or Milton.

          Anyway, it’s interesting that what is essentially an illustrative aside should generate heat. I guess we’ve forgiven Pound.

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  3. Great review! I too appreciate the glimpse of Canto 115.

    I don’t know if we’ve forgiven Pound so much as the internet has eroded our willingness to hold famous people to such a high standard, since, well, now we’re constantly confronted with evidence of their mediocrity, stupidity, etc. (And, of course, for anyone who’s been active online for a while, it’s not hard to find evidence of one’s own past mediocrity, stupidity, and so on… amid abundant reassurance that at least nobody’s alone in any particular form of foolishness.

    It was easier to consign Pound to the rubbish heap for his anti-Semitism when one could choose not to notice how many of his contemporaries were also anti-semitic and expressed in, to varying degrees, in their work. (We’d have much less literature overall if anti-Semitic attitudes were punishable by canonical erasure—no Chaucer, arguably no Shakespeare. You’d even have to cut Tolkien, since he said his “avaricious” dwarves were “of a Semitic cast.”) I feel like maybe literature chose Pound—for having been so overt about it—as a scapegoat for a much more generalized ugliness, and it made literary scholars feel better about reading and praising work with less-evident (but still noticeable) traces of anti-Semitism, or work by authors whose anti-Semitism was no secret.

    It’s funny how this isn’t an issue in music: Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were both basically horrible people to be around most of their adult lives, and most people are comfortable admitting that but also loving their music. People don’t seem to care whether Stravinsky was a racist. Whether that speaks to the (real or perceived) difference in our relationship with literature, I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

    As an aside, you’ve also provided me with some inspiration to get back to my own Canto-blogging, though I suspect that’ll have to wait till a bit later this year.

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    1. Thanks, Gord. You raise some interesting points, especially about the different attitudes to musicians. Maybe we expect them to be drug-ravaged monsters or something, or maybe it’s because words are in a way less subjective than notes? I don’t know.

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      1. I suspect it’s because—since so many more people pay attention to music than literature, much less poetry—we’ve already been desensitized to musicians being (at best) the usual assortment of weirdoes and assholes that the general population is.

        I’m not sure if it’s right to trace the differing attitude toward literature back to Gosse and the whole push to make English literature seen as a subject worthy of scholarly study and teaching in universities—along of course with the whole Victorian embrace of literature as an engine of edification—but it seems to me the fact authors are still pointing out literature is not the greatest source of moral or political philosophy (as they sometimes do) probably says something about the weird assumptions we have about fiction and verse and those who craft them.

        (Certainly saying the same of music or of musicians would get funny looks, because it’s so self-evident to us.)

        Whether further exposure to authors online will erode that illusion for the general public remains to be seen, but I can say the last decade or so has certainly split the science fiction world into a few camps, several of which are very much invested in the idea that authors who are jerks online should not be read, or, at least, that our choices about what we consume should be informed by how well or badly authors behave on social networking sites.

        (To be fair, I’ll admit I pruned one author from my list, about fifteen ago, because he was a complete prick to me and some friends online. But it was direct and personal, whereas I feel since social media sites emerged, it’s kind of become a mass, canon-formative activity to out authors as jerks and argue they should be ousted from the field and the canon altogether. The way some authors do seem to fall prey to it, and others seem immune, is interesting, but beyond the scope of a comment… and the effect, anyway, is somewhat exaggerated on the social network sites. Plenty of those crucified have “bounced back” and are doing fine in terms of sales and publishing. In-groups and out-groups, I guess, and… well, yeah, much more than we have space for in a comment, except to say I think maybe over time, those who really care about literature will come around to the reality that people can be awful individuals and still create amazing, if flawed, work.)

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          1. Well, don’t forget, SF is still also a commercial genre too, and an authors’ online persona is (in a lot of important ways) like a brand. Which is to say, it’s not solely a judgment of authorial merit, any more than the decision to boycott Nike or Forever 21 is necessarily based solely on the quality of the product. The degree to which one’s merit as an author is extricable from the question of whether one wishes to help give someone a platform (and a viable income in the field, and a special status within the community) can vary considerably.

            SF is also a social phenomenon, and its fandom is an identifiable community (albeit sometimes a very dysfunctional one) in some sense, within which authors enjoy a special social status: when people attend SF conventions and listen to panels, authors are more often not talking about fiction but about social issues, ideas, the future and how we should shape it, and soon. So there’s also a degree to which social behaviour of esteemed authors also is subjected to special scrutiny because of the status those authors are afforded socially, both internally and as spokespersons to the rest of the world. Fandom asking itself, “Is this behaviour acceptable within our community?” can be a fair question, and I can think of cases where authors have been justifiably voted off the island (as it were) temporarily or (rarely) permanently. Also, SF tends to have an especially strong tendency to tolerate poor writing and didacticism and (overt) soapboxing in fiction. (Unfortunately, this has also led some readers to be incapable of reading protagonists as anything other than thinly veiled representations of the author, leading to depressingly unsophisticated critiques of books that deserve better.)

            So anyway, in SF at least, the separation between writer and work is not always clear: some of one of the genre’s (still) most celebrated authors have, very clearly, written deeply racist and misogynistic and xenophobic and homophobic narratives. They’re usually not very good books. Some of them are celebrated, though. H.P. Lovecraft is an interesting case, and pretty comparable to Pound in a lot of ways, in fact, and the SFF world is still struggling with how to think about old Lovecraft, but he’s also enjoying more popularity than ever.

            Anyway, all that’s to say that there’s a lot of other stuff that comes into play, from peculiarities of various segments of SF/fantasy fandom, to the (over-long, and disturbing) tolerance of a lot of inexcusable behaviour by some of the best-known white male authors in the field, to the way a very US-centric identity politics (“social justice” as the Americans like to call it) has kind of engulfed the progressive wing of the SF world (and choked off any other conceptualization of “progressive”), to the pigs on the other end of the spectrum publicly spouting MRA and KKK rhetoric proudly. (Google “Sad Puppies” and “Hugo Awards” if you’d like a glimpse at the maelstrom, but it’s a true rabbit hole, in more than one sense.)

            There certainly are a few authors whom I don’t buy, because I don’t feel I want to direct money their way. One, a friend of mine had to take out a restraining order against, despite only knowing him online, after he directly threatened her children following a disagreement about the interpretation of one of her books on an online mailing list. Another, his books clearly reflect his bigoted mentality. These are both top-tier SF authors of the 90s, and both are people about whom many I know explicitly specify, “Do NOT put me on a discussion panel with this person” when they are in attendance at a con.

            I guess I’d ask: would you buy and recommend the work of an poet you knew who’d sexually assaulted a friend of yours (or, perhaps, you)? Would you recommend a living author widely known to be that sort of person? If you were booking a reading, would you invite such individuals to read? Would you recommend a grant to an author who was in the habit of referring to a nonwhite poet as an “animal” because of her race (or because of her criticism of how people constantly excused his racist tirades)? How about an author who had a habit of getting teenaged girls drunk at readings and bringing them back to his flat, or one who had gone out of her way to exclude gay writers? The question is intended seriously, and I do think things start to shift when you hitch evaluating someone as an author to the question of the allocation of limited resources to members within the local poetry community, right?)

            To me, not wanting to support those authors as people kind of dovetails with not wanting to read their work (or consume it in financial terms), when there’s just so much out there. But also, because our community is often dysfunctional and embarrassing enough without them.

            My sympathies of course are progressive and inclusivist, and there certainly are a few authors I avoid consuming mainly out of a desire not to support someone who was an asshole to me personally, or who has spewed undeniable bigotry (as opposed to saying something stupid one time once); that said, I’m frustrated (and I’m not the only one) at how somehow identity politics and critique of authors-as-people, and a lot of antisocial, bigoted posturing, have essentially overshadowed any discussion of the stories and books themselves. It sometimes feels as if it’s becoming more important who the author is than what the author has written, let alone any sort of sophisticated thought or discussion about what’s actually being said in a text. Plus there’s the growing tendency to define people by whatever they did at their least flattering moment in the public eye.

            I don’t know, it’s really complicated, and a mess.

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            1. I feel inadequate in my responses to these very detailed comments. I really don;t know the SF world very well, but I can sympathise with the general point. Having said which, some of my favourite living poets (or recently dead ones) are not people I’d care to share a pint with. And on a personal level, I would have hated Pound, Eliot and Yeats, to name but three. It is, as you say, a complicated mess.

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              1. Yeah, sorry for changing the subject, which I kind of did… I, too, would have hated Pound, Eliot, and Yeats—and, for that matter, H.G. Wells, an SF author I admire deeply who was kind of despicable as a person—and there are living authors whose work I admire but who, as people, disappoint me.

                I guess it all comes down to the weirdness of us either being quick to exonerate or to condemn writers for things that clearly aren’t unique to them. Does the mantle of artist really necessitate that? The question is harder to answer than anyone would like, I suspect.

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                1. No problem with changing the subject, especially when the digression is so interesting. And yes, Wells is another one. On some level, each of us finds a place to draw a line between the person and the artist, and it is inevitably subjective.

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  4. Apart from some lovely translations, I have never understood Pound’s reputation as a poet. (His reputation and influence as a critic is another thing.) He seems to have precious little to say, and no one poem is fine. More particularly, a good line of verse does not turn up in what is quoted in this article.

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    1. That’s a valid opinion, of course, even though I disagree. If anything he had far too much to say. More importantly, he wrote some of the best verse in the language. The Drafts and Fragments alone are worth more than most of his contemporaries produced.

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  5. It may be worth reminding those who don’t know of at least one reason that New Directions published Drafts & Fragments of Cantos 110-117 in ’69: Ed Sanders’ Fuck You Press had published a pirate edition of Cantos 110-116 in ’67. (And a couple of years later New Directions would publish H.D.’s Hermetic Definition following a pirate edition of Hermetic Definitions from Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press.)

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