Ezra Pound | Critical Essay by Laszlo K. Géfin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of Ezra Pound.
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Critical Essay by Laszlo K. Géfin

SOURCE: "So-Shu and Picasso: Semiotic/Semantic Aspects of the Poundian Ideogram," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 185-205.

In the following essay, Géfin examines the aesthetic and ethical concerns behind Pound's ideogrammic method, particularly the use of Chinese pictographs and literary allusion in The Cantos.

Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method" has had an uneven history during the last fifty years, some critics accepting it as the structural mode of composition of The Cantos, some accepting it but disparaging its use, others arguing against it in favor of other textual procedures, and still others dismissing it altogether. In the most general terms, the method denotes Pound's nontransitional, or paratactical, juxtaposition of textual fragments of varying length and complexity, such as bits of what appear to be poetry, historical data, quotations from or allusions to other texts, or autobiographical detail—in his own words, "first heaping together the necessary components of thought." Although Pound claimed to have discovered the method after editing in 1913–14 Ernest Fenollosa's essay, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," he began to call his poetic method "ideogrammic" only in the 1930s, offering his most complete definition in Guide to Kulchur:

At last a reviewer in a popular paper … has had the decency to admit that I occasionally cause the reader "suddenly to sec" or that I snap out a remark … "that reveals the whole subject from a new angle".

That being the point of the writing. That being the reason for presenting first one facet and then another—I mean to say the purpose of the writing is to reveal the subject. The ideogrammic method consists of presenting one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader's mind, onto a part that will register.

The "new" angle being new to the reader who cannot always be the same reader. The newness of the angle being relative and the writer's aim, at least this writer's aim being revelation, a just revelation irrespective of newness or oldness.

The passage may appear straightforward, but it invites closer scrutiny and clarification. For one, Pound admits to having a "subject" with "facets," but more importantly, that this subject precedes or preexists its presentation. Then the presentation is said to consist of Pound's serially adducing various "facets" of the subject in no apparent order but from different angles, directed toward "the reader." The latter is not some implied or ideal reader, but represents a variety of "real" readers ("who cannot always be the same reader") conceived as having minds with "surfaces" that have "dead" or "desensitized areas"—presumably areas of ignorance, repressed or forgotten knowledge, "false" notions about a "subject." At the moment when correct facet coincides with non-desensitized area, a "just revelation" supposedly occurs. Like the subject, the "writer's aim" to bring about such a revelation also appears to exist before the process of presentation.

It is this textual practice that Pound came to call ideogrammic. It complicates matters, however, that Pound recommended and used the "ideogrammic method" not only as a mode of composition applicable to poetry alone, but as a critical and pedagogic device. He even went as far as to say that the method is the "method science," and that he had "approached" the method as early as 1913 in "The Serious Artist." In that essay he juxtaposed some lines by Cavalcanti, Dante, Villon, Yeats, and from the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer," in order to demonstrate by example "that passionate simplicity which is beyond the precisions of the intellect." In another essay, entitled "The Teacher's Mission," Pound proposes the method be used in education; in answer to the question, What ought to be done [to improve the quality of teaching], he offers: "Dispassionate examination of the ideogrammic method (the examination and juxtaposition of particular specimens—e.g. particular works, passages of literature) as an implement for acquisition and transmission of knowledge." These "critical ideograms"—or his "musical ideograms" in the concerts he organized at Rappalo (putting together works by Janequin, Corelli, Vivaldi, Debussy, Bartók, and others)—differ from the poetic use of the method because they quite obviously were not created to form lasting or determinate wholes, "thoughts," of which they are the "necessary components." They can be assembled and disassembled at will; the components remain fluid, and not solidified into poetry, which is Pound's main intent in The Cantos: "that certain images be formed in the mind / to remain there" ("Canto 74").

My main interest in this paper is twofold. First, I wish to examine Pound's claim for what I call his "narrative of understanding:" that the gradual adducement of textual particles in a finite series or group can lead to a clear and exact apprehension of the right relationship between them, and then proceed to the formulation of a correct idea, concept, or general statement regarding a specific subject, or "thought," of which they were the "necessary components." Second, I would like to establish whether the ideogrammic method, applied expressly to literary composition, can qualify as poetry. I will proceed by looking at a group of text fragments from The Cantos comprising an "ideogram" in the light of certain seminal theories of language and signs, particularly those of Benveniste, Peirce, and Jakobson; Compagnon's investigation of citations; and recent text theory. While Pound had no formal interest in linguistics and semiotics, he was intensely involved with the practical aspects of language use, especially in literature. "Language was obviously created, and is, obviously, USED for communication," he wrote; it would appear that the ideogrammic method of writing is "obviously" intended for the communication of images and ideas to different readers, and privileged by Pound because he believed it to be a mode of communication superior to Western narrative discourse.


The semiotic aspect of Pound's ideogrammic project is quite sensible: provide a poetic sign system that communicates better than others. On one semiotic level at least, Pound's method is similar to the Chinese written sign, in that the latter combines heterogeneous signs to form a new sign. A small number of Chinese ideograms are actually hieroglyphic—stylized images of objects and events—so that in Peircean terms they may be called iconic. Pound's preference for the Chinese sign over Western modes of representation derives from Fenollosa who disparaged the phonetic word because it "does not bear its metaphor on its face" in favor of the Chinese sign whose "etymology is constantly visible." True, Chinese readers would no more be aware of this "visible etymology" than would Western readers of the metaphoric roots of a great many words and phrases; but the point here is that Pound (along with Fenollosa) privileges iconic referentiality over abstract (in Peirce's word, symbolic) relations.

Pound makes it clear in his "narrative of understanding," however, that even if the subject precedes the act of presentation, his aim is not representation, i.e., some form of mimesis, but "revelation," the full and just revelation of the (supposedly concealed) subject. While the revelation takes place through the medium of language (it is Pound's "snap[ping] out a remark" that causes the reader "suddenly to see"), at the moment the "subject" is revealed, the medium presumably self-destructs, leaving nothing behind. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pound's narrative of understanding is couched in sculptural terms (facets, angles, surfaces) rather than those of language. Like the Chinese ideogram, a poetic practice of "presenting one facet and then another" of a subject would reconstruct (by reverse repetition) the process whereby concepts and ideas are created from particulars—particulars that are not arbitrary signs but still-fresh traces of their natural antecedents. The symbolic sign, though it is composed in the units of the non-referential western alphabet, would first transpose itself to the level of iconicity, and at the last stage of revelation merge with subject and mind, or more precisely, disappear at the moment when mind and subject are fused.

Pound's "narrative of understanding," then, appears to minimize and even negate the immanence of language affecting all aspects of poetic (and other) communication. The consequences of this (Platonic, hermetic, gnostic) naivete (if it can be characterized as such) would be far-reaching. The anti-language stance of the narrative may, however, lose its impact if Pound's actual practice of ideogrammic writing in The Cantos runs counter to the claims he makes. At any rate, it will be important to examine the particular textual components of a poetic ideogram not only semiotically (as signs in a system), but more decisively in terms of semantics (as words in actual use, in sentences as part of discourse). This is Benveniste's distinction of the "double signification" inherent in language: "La langue combine deux modes distincts de signifiance, que nous appelons le mode SEMIOTIQUE d'une part, le mode SEMANTIQUE de l'autre" 'language combines two distinct modes of signification, which we call the semiotic mode on the one hand, and the semantic mode on the other.' The processing of a sign/word according to these two modes moves on equally distinct levels; as Benveniste writes, "Le sémiotique (le signe) doit être RECONNU; le sémantique (le discours) doit être COMPRIS" 'The semiotic (the sign) is to be recognized; the semantic (discourse) is to be understood.'

Benveniste refers only in passing to the poetic use of language, which he sees as restricting language's "double signification" to the semantic level, excluding the semiotic or lexical. But his general distinction of semiotic and semantic helps to see how ideogrammic poetic composition passes back and forth between signification of the semiotic level to meaning in discourse. Pound's theoretical suppositions about the language of literature appear to correspond roughly to Benveniste's. "Literature is language charged with meaning," Pound writes; on the other hand, when he attempts to give a definition of poetry, he borrows from Dante—"'A canzone is a composition of words set to music'"—adding, "I don't know any better point to start from" because Dante's statement [he notes]

starts the reader or hearer from what he actually sees or hears, instead of distracting his mind from that actuality to something which can only be approximately deduced or conjectured FROM the actuality, and for which the evidence can be nothing save the particular and limited extent of that actuality. (Pound's emphases)

Pound appears to distinguish between a general (semiotic-lexical) significance and particular (semantic) meaning in the definition of literature/poetry, and to favor the semiotic formulation—foreshadowing Benveniste's added recognition and understanding as they apply to semiotics and discourse, respectively. This distinction is particularly important for interpreting poetic ideograms.

Furthermore, consistent with his (elevated) view of the writer's role, Pound insists that the "justness" of ideogrammic presentation implies an ethical imperative, which subsumes the aesthetic. "Your language is in the care of your writers," he wrote, and "writers as such have a definite social function exactly proportioned to their ability AS WRITERS. This is their main use." Ethics and aesthetics are inseparable: the beautiful is functional, the functional is accurate, and accuracy is the sign of good writing. "Bad art," he wrote as early as 1913, "is inaccurate art. It is art that makes false reports," or as he later put it, "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear." Pound's insistence on the ideogrammic method, then, is commensurate with his "totalitarian" demand: writers are "good" because they can reveal subjects to readers in their totality, while the natural/textual traces that led to the revelation are capable of repeating the process for any number of new readers. In this movement from particulars to universals, from signification to meaning (and back again), poets, aware a priori of the subject as a whole before releasing a few select "facets" in writing, turn signs into words in order to reveal the specific thought in its totality and truth. Pound's ethics of writing is thus characteristically ambitious in that it promises to deliver interpretation from the bane of indeterminacy, since ideogrammic writing, in being faithful to nature's processes, cannot but be precise. What he maintained in general, that "a certain limpidity and precision are the ultimate qualities of style," ought all the more to be applicable to his own practice in particular. The entire narrative of understanding, after all, indicates Pound's frustration with contemporary reception of modern poetry, especially his Cantos, which he characterized as "an endeavour to communicate with a blockheaded epoch."


The Cantos provides nearly limitless examples to test Pound's practice against the theory. One passage, from the early part of "Canto 2," includes a variety of components. It is preceded by the beginning lines of the canto, which is a disputation between Pound's persona and Robert Browning: "Hang it all, Robert Browning, / there can be but the one 'Sordello.' / But Sordello, and my Sordello?" It is a brief scene of what appears to be an "anxiety of influence" about how Pound is to launch his own epic project without trudging over the same ground already mapped out by his precursor. Pound, however, without any real anxiety cuts off the dispute by the introduction of a line from a medieval biography of Sordello in the original Provencal, "Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana" 'Sordello was from Mantua,' as if to suggest that his own mode of dealing with the past will be more faithfully historical rather than fictive. The citation would thus prefigure the direction of Pound's own epic venture, at once "diagnostic" in its scrupulous historicity and "curative" in its evocation of enduring mysteries—proceeding along lines Browning had presumably failed or neglected to touch.

While a specific citation may thus be called "just," allusions are more diffuse, and resist immediate, uniform understanding. Allusions by their nature call into question the notion of accuracy, authority, and justness, as evident from the passage in "Canto 2" that follows the Sordello section:

      So-shu churned in the sea.
      Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
      Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
           eyes of Picasso
      Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean;

These five lines I would consider a discursive unit, or ideogram. Following the semicolon after "Ocean," the next line, "And the wave runs in the beach-groove," is a deflection from the composite image of seal and "lithe daughter." Furthermore, this line also provides a transition to a passage concerned with Helen of Troy, and although the seascape is reintroduced in more detail a little later, that scene may itself be seen as an introduction to Pound's transliteration of Ovid's tale of Pentheus and Acoethes, which takes up the bulk of the canto.

How does the reader ("who cannot always be the same reader") attempt to make sense of the passage? This group of lines is indeed a "heaping together," as Pound had said, but in what manner are these lines "components of thought"? What thought? And who can this So-shu be? Looking up various guides and annotated indexes to The Cantos makes it clear that So-shu as verbal sign is neither clearly iconic nor indexical, for every entry offers a different interpretation. According to Terrell, So-shu is the name of the Han dynasty poet Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju, "a representative of the rhyme-prose school criticized by Li Po in an allegory from which the line quoted is derived via a translation by Fenollosa in the Fenollosa Notebooks (inedit)," Ssu-ma being criticized for "creating foam instead of waves." So-shu is also the Japanese equivalent of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, but Pound may also be confusing him with Li Po. In Cookson's Guide Pound "told his daughter" that So-shu is a figure from Chinese mythology; but Cookson adds, somewhat incongruously, that "this is possibly a Chinese myth of Pound's invention." Christine Froula quite categorically states that the name is of Pound's making. Like the author of the Companion, she, too, derives her gloss from unpublished material in the Pound archives: "The name [So-shu] Pound used in this image, which is his own invention, is 'Ka-hu' (Yale MSS). He probably preferred 'So-shu' because of its onomatopoeic sound rather than for the sake of any allusion."

Froula's conclusion, with her "probably" conveying doubt, seems to me to be evasive and inadequate. Since it is not necessary to pretend that I am reading "Canto 2" for the first time, it may be revealed at this point that the name So-shu comes up again some one hundred lines later ("And So-shu churned in the sea, So-shu also, / using the long moon for a churn-stick"). In Froula's view, "The So-shu image, an invented Orientalism, personifies the moon and the shaft of light it casts down to the ocean." This is hasty and unconvincing, not the least because in the cluster of lines under discussion "churned" in no way implies the presence of the moon as churn-stick. Nonetheless, what may be clear at this stage is that "So-shu" does resist semantic integration, i.e., understanding; it can only work as a verbal sign and must be recognized as such. Even with the above scholia, it may be unsafe to go beyond the statement "So-shu: unidentified Chinese-sounding name." But it is doubtful that we are dealing with an instance of chinoiserie here, some vaguely suggestive (of what?) onomatopoeia. If this were the case, one would have to infer that Pound never wanted the verbal sign "So-shu" to be anything but a lexeme, arresting its potential to be turned from sign into word in discourse and activated as meaningful—an unlikely proposition. In contrast to Froula, I would suggest that Pound would not want to stop here, nor want readers to dismiss the line as nothing more than a (tantalizing) sign without referent. Taking Pound's narrative of understanding seriously, we may conclude that the first "facet" he has presented of his "subject" has met with "desensitized areas" in the minds of most readers, including those of learned exegetes. The inconclusive recognition of So-shu, when seen as churning in the sea (especially since it is not certain at this point whether the verb "churned" is to be read as transitive or intransitive), may produce such reactions as absurd, nonsensical, or at best, "provocative." The reader perceives the line, not as a "thought," but only as its component, and goes on reading, exactly as Pound would wish.

The next line, a "natural image" of a seal moving vigorously in the sea, lets us re-read the line on So-shu in terms of the seal in the water, more than likely compelled by the parallel construction of "So-shu churned" and "Seal sports"; and we may attempt to make them cohere, this time semantically, taking the verb as intransitive and figurative ("So-shu churned," i.e., moved in the sea with great agitation), even noticing the difference in tense, that So-shu churned, while the seal "sports." We may conflate the two actions, in which the sporting of the seal resembles the churning movements of So-shu. So-shu, however, does not stand for "seal" in Chinese…. At any rate, this So-shu performed something in the sea in the past that the seal is performing at the present time, a churning motion. Human and animal activities may thus seem to partake of a common ground, a relationship similarly integrated with larger and wider natural processes. Moreover, the past tense of "So-shu churned" when contrasted with the present tense of "Seal sports" may suggest the unique historically of human action, while seals sport outside time, or in all times: So-shu's time (in an unknown past time, or, if we provisionally accept the Companion as a guide, in the 2nd century B.C.), Pound's time (in 1922 when he was writing the canto), and our own.

However, if "churned" is a transitive verb, denoting that something solid is being produced from a liquid, the apparent resemblance turns into difference. And the difference is ironic: the verb "sports" suggests a pleasurable action, frolicking and playing in the water, something that is natural to the animal, in the light of which So-shu's churning may be seen as mad or futile, or, at least, "unnatural." Furthermore, juxtaposed to the sporting seal, the image of a certain So-shu actually involved in churning the water may give way to a purely figurative rendering, in which case churning in the sea ("futility") is just another (more exotic?) way of saying "beating a dead horse." More importantly, depending on whether "churned" is read as transitive or intransitive verb, two diametrically opposed meanings may be generated of the sentence "So-shu churned in the sea"; and the image of the sporting seal may be coerced to sustain either interpretation with equal force. (And even if the more complete reference to So-shu and the moon as churn-stick are brought forward to dispel the indeterminacy and intransitive reading, it may not succeed completely, for as soon as we "stop thinking" of So-shu with a churn-stick, the verb "churned" reverts back to being undecidable.) The line "Seal sports" may be a new "facet" of the subject, but instead of clarifying what had been stated in the previous line, it has made So-shu and his(?) action indeterminate. It would seem "the reader's mind," though not as "desensitized" as before, is still far from being able to grasp the meaning as distinct from significance.

Is the obstacle of indeterminacy (transitive/intransitive, literal/figurative) insurmountable? Are we faced with a "rhetorical" situation in discourse when, according to de Man, "it is impossible to decide by grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely incompatible) prevails"? In de Man's view, the figural, or what to him denotes the same entity, the rhetorical potentiality of language may be equated with literature itself. De Man points to Monroe Beardsley's assertion that "literary language is characterized by being 'distinctly above the norm in ratio of implicit [or, de Man would say, rhetorical] to explicit meaning.'" While the nature of poetic discourse will be discussed below, it may be said at this point that figurality is a potential of language that already exists explicitly on the grammatical level; its presence neither proves nor disproves whether the text in question is literature. While aware of the differences inherent in semiotics and semantics, de Man fails to consider the Benvenistian distinction of "double significance," or what Sándor came to call "diaphoricity," the unstable ("purely differential") nature of the verbal sign when considered semantically. However, Sándor (rightly) goes one crucial step further. In his view, "meaning at the lexical level is diaphoric"; and "[a]t the sentence level … literal or figurative or both according to intention, and if the intention is unclear (on either side), meaning will be diaphoric even at the sentence level. The possibility that language can be given without clarity about how it is being used, and how it is to be used, renders it fundamentally diaphoric in nature." Indeterminacy, then, is specific to language, not to literary discourse alone. In other words, it is not only the reader's mind that contains "desensitized" areas; language, seen from the level of discourse, is similarly "desensitized," i.e., resistant to meaning production. The reader's mind remains "desensitized" because a sign is always differential. Although "activation" (transposition of sign to word) may appear to delimit radical polysemy, as Sándor suggests, "it is impossible to know what is being activated without knowing the context in which it is meant to be done." Even syntagmatic contextuality is not sufficient to do away with diaphoricity. Assume the case of a reader who reads "Canto 2" for the first time, without fast-forwarding to the second reference to So-shu. The fact that So-shu's churning took place in the sea, coupled with the seal in the next line seen in a similar activity, may tip the balance, however slightly, toward taking "churned" as an intransitive verb, thereby assuming a resemblance between the two acts. But the sea as mutual environment ("context") may not be enough to generate a single meaning: there is no reason why the same verb ("churned") in the sentence "So-shu churned in the yard" may not be read intransitively, especially if reinforced by "Dog sports in clouds of dust" or some clause like it. Similarly, intention, whether clear or not, as deducible from language does not by itself guarantee unambiguous interpretation. On the one hand, Pound may himself assume that the particular "facet" he releases is precise in its referentiality because it corresponds exactly to his "intention," as the latter appears to him; in this case he would be blissfully unaware that words can (and will) disrupt intention. On the other hand, his insistence on the ideogrammic method, especially in his narrative of understanding, attests to his latent suspicion that le mot juste is a mirage, and the production of meaning a precarious process.

Both Benveniste and Sándor assert that when verbal signs are turned into words, the syntagmatically generated meaning of a word "depends on the other words in the sentence, and, ultimately, on the total idea of the sentence." So-shu churning and seal sporting may thus depend on additional units of the "total idea" of the ideogram in order to attain meaningfulness in themselves. Readerly interest is sustained, not because a safe and comfortable meaning derives from the juxtaposition of the two lines. Rather, readers experience the excitement/irritation of simultaneous resemblance and difference uniting them, the sole source of comfort being an awareness of the obtuse and desensitized nature of both language and human consciousness, the latter also in part constituted by language. In this awareness we may in fact have made the first tentative move toward a "sensitization" of both.

In the next line, "Sleek head, daughter of Lir," quickly reread together with the first two, the proliferation of sibilants ("So-shu churned," "Seal sports," "Sleek head") reinforces a sense of unity between the lines. "Sleek head" may thus at once be connected to "seal," although "daughter of Lir" is uncomfortably close to permit such convenient allocation. Does "sleek head" belong to the seal, to "daughter of Lir," or to both? Who is "daughter of Lir?" Who is "Lir"? The Companion entry asserts an "Old Celtic sea-god. Pound regards seals as being Lir's daughters [cf. chapter 'Branwen the Daughter of Llyr' in Mabinogion, where Branwen means 'White Cow']." The entry is of little help, for glossary becomes interpretation (an endemic weakness, incidentally, of the Companion as a whole) and substitutes a presumption to know for facts. Even if Pound did "regard" seals as daughters of Lir, could he, with all his insistence on precision and clarity, deliberately conflate and confuse a white cow with a black seal? It seems more "natural" to regard, simply, "daughter of Lir" as sea-nymph, and "sleek head" as something belonging both to the seal and to the nymph. This would, after all, be an instance of how Pound conceived of the poetic image, as a "superposition," i.e., "one image set on top of another"—a definition, incidentally, coming right after his acquisition of the Fenollosa manuscripts.

Thus, So-shu and his/her churning, even with the moon as chum-stick, appears to be neither a meaningless Orientalism nor a deprecatory allusion. Sporting seal and sea goddess are united both for having sleek heads and for being creations of a sea-god, "churning" the sea (like So-shu?) and producing solid beings. Whether So-shu is a Chinese myth of Pound's invention or not, the verbal sign is filled with at least some meaning because of the proximity of Lir, his daughter/seal, and the sea. Pound presents both oriental and western "facets" of mythology, as if to alert the reader by this juxtaposition/conflation that mythic consciousness is our universal heritage, even as he treats the seal itself as real, actual, and un/demythologized. The identity of So-shu as a nature deity or a metonym for the transforming energy of nature is augmented by the context of the name in its second occurrence. To the story of the kidnapped Bacchus's exacting his revenge by metamorphosing the pirates into fishes and other sea creatures (though not expressly into seals), Pound tags another myth of his own, of a sea nymph turned to coral as she was fleeing "a band of tritons." After the sea-nymph's "smooth brows" lie in "ivory stillness" under the water's surface, come the lines:

      And So-shu churned in the sea, So-shu also,
        using the long moon for a chum-stick …
      Lithe turning of water,
        sinews of Poseidon,

followed by a return of the seascape. It seems likely that just as So-shu received a semblance of identity by the proximity of Lir's daughter in the first ideogram, in the same way the presence of Poseidon's name performs something similar. Both the descriptive phrase "Lithe turning of water" and the kenning "sinews of Poseidon" signify "waves"; and even if the "…" after "churnstick" are inserted to suggest a cut to another scene, the waves may still be seen as the result of So-shu's churning, "also" involved in transformation alongside other, western deities. Yet diaphoricity is not annulled, as some readers remember So-shu's attempt to ape divine potency as ludicrously pretentious.


Nonetheless, the "superposition" of seal and sea-nymph is an important new "fact." The Ovidian fusion-in-distinction would be neatly completed by "Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean" ("Ocean" in Liddell and Scott is Okeanos, god of small waters, i.e., another Lir), were it not for the insertion of "Eyes of Picasso." Why Picasso? How "just" is the sudden intrusion of this proper name, and his "eyes"? The Companion relates that "the reference to Picasso's seal's eyes evokes the artist's faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees," and adds a non sequitur: "In ancient mythology the seal is the animal most closely linked with Proteus, who among other things used to assume the shape of a seal." Among other things, indeed. As for the other guides, Cookson does not even bother with an entry for "Picasso," and in Brooker we learn merely that Picasso was "the painter and famous instigator of Cubism. Pound at one time contemplated a book on Wyndham Lewis, Brancusi, Picasso and Picabia." Thus "illuminated," and as desensitized as ever, we turn to Froula, who writes: "Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), whose eyes Pound thought resembled a seal's." Again, the troubling inference about "Pound thought." No wonder that Froula, too, follows up with a non sequitur: "Pound saw a good deal of his [Picasso's] work while living in Paris, and admired it." But is this sufficient reason to include reference to his eyes, we may ask, even if Pound did think that Picasso had eyes that looked like a seal's? What if "Eyes of Picasso" does not mean "Picasso's eyes," but refers to certain eyes the painter painted (and Pound "admired")? Is it enough to say, as does Peter Makin, that "Eyes of Picasso" and "black furhood" are "specificities of texture"? Or, as Hugh Kenner "explains," the reference is legitimate, for Picasso was a "metamorphoser of vision"? But was not every great modernist painter, or every great painter for that matter, just such a "metamorphoser"? All entries beg the question: if "Eyes of Picasso" is meant to communicate as a signifier, what is its signified? And if activated as a verbal sign, what is its meaning in its semantic context? Is the context provided by Pound a "sufficient phalanx of particulars," as he insists in "Canto 74," that would prevent its dispersal as a "facet," never finding a "sensitized" area in a reader's mind where it could register with a certain "justness"?

Before attempting semantic activation, it might be useful to establish the status of "Eyes of Picasso" as a verbal sign. In his discussion of Peirce's semiotics, Roman Jakobson has suggested that the division of signs into iconic, indexical, and symbolic is based on the dichotomy of contiguity and similarity. An icon is a sign of factual similarity, an index a sign of factual contiguity and symbol of imputed [i.e., artificially designated] contiguity. But, through the interpretant, symbolic signs may acquire a certain measure of iconicity and indexicality; there may arise certain semiotic hierarchies within symbolic signs as well. Thus, the symbolic sign "seal" may be said to be iconic for readers who "know" seals, the sign on the page evoking a "factual similarity" between itself, the interpretant in their mind, and the actual seal somewhere in the sea or zoo. If seal is made to "stand for" "daughter of Lir," it becomes an index and the relationship is that of "factual contiguity." So-shu, on the other hand, is indeterminate by itself; only by relating it to its contextual neighbors "daughter of Lir" and "sinews of Poseidon" is it possible to confer a meaning, however ephemeral, upon it. The sign thus hovers between "factual" and "imputed"; it takes some form of conscious decision on the reader's part whether So-shu, like Lir, will be taken for a sea-god.

"Eyes of Picasso," however, seems to fit none of these categories. Jakobson has said that the intersection of the two dichotomies of factual/imputed and similarity/contiguity "admits a fourth variety" of relations between signifier and signified: imputed similarity. Jakobson assigns this fourth relation to music, glossolalic poetry, and abstract art, indicating a "message which signifies itself." Taking this cue from Jakobson, Antoine Compagnon postulates that the Chinese characters (pictographs and ideograms) inserted by Pound in the text of The Cantos constitute just such a sign: "un graphisme asignifiant ou un signifiant sans signifié" 'a nonsignifying graphic mark or a signifier without signified.' Inexplicably, Compagnon disregards readers who recognize such signs (because they read Chinese), and would make an effort to activate the sign in an attempt at meaning formation. Compagnon names Jakobson's unnamed fourth term symptom, and comes to invest it with much more than an absence of referentiality:

ce qui manque au symptôme et ce qui fait le propre du signe, c'est la signification, la pensée de la separation ineluctable du langage et de l'être, du mot et de la chose. Ignorant la signification, le symptôme présume de la coincidence rigoureuse de la parole et de ce que'elle designe. [Le symptôme corresponde] à la collusion du langage et de l'être: il est lui-même objet réel, c'est à dire être.

[what is missing in the symptom, and what is essential to the sign, is signification, the idea of the ineluctable separation of language and being, of words and things. Ignoring signification, the symptom presupposes the rigorous coincidence of language and what it denotes. The symptom corresponds to the collusion of language and being: it is itself a real object, that is to say, it exists in its own right.]

This conjunction of sign and referent, signifier and signified is close to Pound's own aesthetic and ethical intentions. His adoption of the ideogrammic method for poetic composition indicates a desire to find a mode of poetic expression where sign and referent will eventually coincide. His definition of the poetic image—"that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time," giving a "sense of sudden liberation … from time limits and space limits"—is nearly identical to the revelatory qualities he claimed for both Chinese and poetic ideograms. Kenner may be correct in averring that for Pound "Chinese written characters are neither archaic nor modern. Like cave paintings they exist now, with the strange extra-temporal persistence of objects in space."

The problem is, of course, that as soon as such pictograms are copied from a dictionary and are inserted in an alphabetically organized sign system or text, they lose a measure of their extra-temporal persistence and willy-nilly become part of that text. Pound did not intend it otherwise: as one may glean even from a cursory look at a page with Chinese characters in The Cantos, pictograms invariably repeat, and thus emphasize, the sense provided by the English text. Correctly or even approximately identified, their semiotic status quickly loses that of a "nonsignifying graphic mark;" they become instead thematic reinforcers to western modes of signification whose effectiveness Pound, following Fenollosa, considered inferior to that of Chinese writing.

If, as Compagnon asserts, Chinese signs in an English text are "symptoms," they are still "symptomatic" of something else. For Fenollosa (and Pound) they signify a more "natural" (in Peircian terms, iconic/indexical rather than symbolic) mode of communication. Even though they are not "real objects," "existing in their own right," (neither Fenollosa nor Pound would make such a claim), they are closer to objects than alphabetic signs. As Fenollosa wrote,

Chinese notation is something much more than arbitrary symbols. It is based upon a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature. In the algebraic figure and in the spoken word there is no natural connection between thing and sign: all depends upon sheer convention. But the Chinese method follows natural suggestion.

The juxtaposition of unrelated pictograms results in the formation of ideograms. "In this method of compounding," writes Fenollosa, "two things added together do not produce a third thing but suggest some fundamental relation between them." This is the process of metaphor, "the use of material images to suggest immaterial relation"; and metaphor, "the revealer of nature, is the very substance of poetry." Here lies the root of Pound's ideogrammic method, which he thought proceeds according to the Chinese method of juxtaposition. Its main virtue is that of a "just revelation," analogous to the power of ancient metaphors in Chinese picture writing, because these "primitive metaphors," Fenollosa declared, "do not spring from arbitrary subjective processes. They are possible only because they follow objective lines of relations in nature herself."

Pound, following Fenollosa, refuses to acknowledge that in spite of what he sees as "natural suggestion" in certain pictograms, the compounds (ideograms) are without exception conventional. And just as the Chinese ideograms in The Cantos are neither self-signifying "graphic marks" à la Compagnon nor icons/indices as Fenollosa had thought, so Pound's poetic ideograms fall short of revealing nature and her processes without residue. In the ideogram of So-shu, seal, and Lir's daughter, the line "Eyes of Picasso" as a verbal sign is diaphoric rather than metaphoric—even if one were to accept Froula's suggestion that Pound "thought" Picasso's eyes resembled those of a seal. In fact, diaphoricity may have come about precisely because the mode of association has been so subjective and private (perhaps a kind of in-joke). Thus, even if "Eyes of Picasso" is "recognized" on the semiotic level, on the level of discourse it eludes understanding. One can of course speculate and offer various hypotheses. The phrase may be taken to mean the presence of a kind of Emersonian-Fenollosian "transparent eyeball" fusing the vision of oriental and Western gods and goddesses with the world of humans and animals into a complex. Or the phrase may mean the disruptive human presence in the world of creators and creatures. Or it may have a host of other meanings. One thing, however, seems to be certain: instead of mitigating the endemic disseminate effect of diaphoricity, by inserting "Eyes of Picasso" in a barely intelligible semantic context Pound in fact amplifies it. Now, as Sándor argues, "the indeterminacy of diaphors may also result, of course, from intention and decision…. It is possible to produce sentences by which nothing is actually said." Clearly, such a notion runs counter to the very nature of Pound's poetic project and his "narrative of understanding" outlining the values of the ideogrammic method. "Eyes of Picasso" fails the litmus test of his own cherished ideals of precision and accuracy in meaning formation, making in the end of the entire ideogram, in Sándor's words, "just a heap or sequence of unconnected (and unconnectable) verbal signs." Such sequences may still be endowed with meaning by readers; Sándor allows for the activation even of a shopping list as a poem. Such sequences, however, cannot properly be called poetic; according to Sándor, "poeticity" consists in certain texts' being "processable at large, not as an idiosyncratic chiffre that has a certain effect in a single mind due to unique associations." It is the "nature" of allusions to operate in the manner described by Sándor, even if they alluringly conjure up a network of interconnected (and interconnectable) loci of meaning. "Eyes of Picasso," in being just such an allusive chiffre, prevents the ideogram in which it is placed to function meaningfully.


Although Compagnon's notion of the symptom does not bear close scrutiny, it is significant that his idea of the ideogram as "itself a real object" that "exists in its own right" is close to Pound's own aesthetic ideology. Yet Pound's beliefs in the dissolution of the materiality of "facets" and "aspects" in the moment of revelation, and so in the concomitant disappearance of the abyss between res and verba, are belied both by his practice and by some of his rhetorical devices. Latent doubts about the ideogrammic method persist. In Guide to Kulchur, for example, he cites at length Gaudier-Brzeska's "Vortex," follows with a discussion of his own theory of Great Bass, and then adds sections on Leibniz and Erigena. At this point he interrupts the presentation and writes, "These disjunct paragraphs belong together. Gaudier, Great Bass, Leibniz, Erigena, are parts of one ideogram, they are not merely separate subjects." Or, after a similar presentation of unconnected "facts" in the same book, he again explains: "Let the reader be patient. I am not being merely incoherent. I haven't 'lost my thread' in the sense that I haven't just dropped one thread to pick up another of a different shade. I need more than one string for a fabric." Here, as in his "narrative of understanding," Pound again allegorizes his practice. Deliberately or not, but in any case revealingly, he obscures the linguistic nature of his enterprise: he is involved neither in presenting sculptural "facets" nor textural "threads," but in a project of discourse, composed of signs and words, that never coincide with the subject they intend al best to evoke or allude to. The very nature of the image as symptom/ideogram is a desire to erase the difference between "facet" and "subject"; in that, Pound's modernist image is not far removed from the Romantic image where, as Kermode put it, "there is no disunity of being," ultimately betraying, in de Man's words, a "nostalgia for the object," which has become "a nostalgia for an entity that could never, by its very nature, become a particularized presence."

Pound's nostalgia for an ideal poetic writing has from the beginning had ethical implications. Hence his insistence on precision, control, and accuracy as indispensable attributes of a mode of discourse the aim of which is a "just revelation." "Good writing," he stated in 1913, "is writing that is perfectly controlled, the writer says just what he means. He says it with complete clarity and simplicity." And there arc "various kinds of clarity":

There is the clarity of the request: Send me four pounds of ten-penny nails. And there is the syntactical simplicity of the request: Buy me the kind of Rembrandt I like. This last is an utter cryptogram. It presupposes a more complex and intimate understanding of the speaker than most of us ever acquire from anyone. It has as many meanings, almost, as there are persons who might speak it. To a stranger it conveys nothing at all.

"Eyes of Picasso," in contradistinction to "So-shu churned in the sea," is too private an allusion ever to make the journey from "the Rembrandt I like" to "ten-penny nail." And since The Cantos are studded with a vast number of private and cryptic allusions similar to "Eyes of Picasso," the text as a whole, apart from its historiographic dimension, resists the transposition of its verbal signs to the level of words, which is the level of discourse. An excessive reliance on allusions in poetry as is evident in Pound's (and the early Eliot's) writing may stem from their ostensible exactness and specificity when compared to concepts and abstract statements; it is in fact easy to perceive them as iconic/indexical signs or, as tropes, metaphors rather than diaphors. But allusions do not arrest diaphoricity; on the contrary, allusion is the diaphoric trope par excellence, a device of simultaneous nostalgic substitution and dislocation.

The ideogrammic method of juxtaposing disjunct textual fragments may continue to offer possibilities for poetic composition; it will, however, have to do without the ideal of a "natural" precision Pound had envisaged for it, as a way to "write Paradise" in a language that would ultimately transcend its materiality and fuse with its subject in a moment of "just revelation."

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