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of the work collected here by Massimo Bacigalupo takes the form of discarded drafts for and passages from published and unpublished Cantos, taken from a huge mass of manuscript and typescript archive.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.
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.
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.
In late 1967, Allen Ginsberg visited Pound in Italy to pay homage to the older poet. He published 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.
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
where the last
vestige of it
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.