Ezra Pound | Critical Essay by Frank Lentricchia

This literature criticism consists of approximately 36 pages of analysis & critique of Ezra Pound.
This section contains 10,733 words
(approx. 36 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Frank Lentricchia

Critical Essay by Frank Lentricchia

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound's American Book of Wonders," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 387-415.

In the following essay, Lentricchia examines the modernist ideals and Emersonian influence behind Pound's ambitious innovation in The Cantos. According to Lentricchia, "The form he invented is at once the representation of a culture he thought to be in fragments and an offering of hope for a different kind of future, rooted in the narrative of common lineage and destiny."

As a social and literary critic Ezra Pound is a celebrant of the intensely peculiar: the apparently primordial, autonomous force which he believed stood under and propelled all expression: what rescues Homer or Dante, Chaucer or Shakespeare—his chief examples—from what would otherwise have been their certain aesthetic and political fate as rank imitators, the lackeys of someone else's mind. Pound's word for this substance of substances was virtu. In his populist American logic: individuality, therefore virtue, and therefore (the aesthetic turn on his politics) virtuosity, and he saw it threatened at its virile heart by the culture of capitalism and its commodity-based economy. The virtuous artist was Pound's persistent emblem of the free individual, and his representation of a generous ideal of culture that he would see translated into the social sphere at large: "Having discovered his own virtue," Pound wrote, "the artist will be more likely to discern and allow for a peculiar virtu in others." This, Pound's live and let live company of literary worthies, is his measure of actual social decency at any given time and the basis of his political criticism of what he thought American capitalism had done to our fundamental political ideals.

When Pound told his story of virtu, a story he obsessively told, he talked the ahistorical psychology of genius; when he talked the dilemma of the artist in modern America he told another story: that of the vulnerability of genius to social pressures, the curious inability of the primordial and the autonomous to stay primordial and autonomous. This second story is the backbone of Pound's career, the backbone, in other words, of high modernism. The necessity of reimagining the social sphere is initially a literary necessity; social change pursued in order to ensure the life of the artist. Later, and more grandly, in Pound's theorizing of the 1930s, in an odd Utopian echo of a famous passage in Marx, social change is pursued in order to ensure that every man may fish in the morning for his sustenance and pursue criticism and poetry in the afternoons; social change on behalf of the artist in us all; society totally reimagined from the aesthetic point of view.

But if it is precisely as a celebrant of a linked literary and political virtu that Pound achieved his own virtu as a critical voice—he became the polemical engine of high modernism—then the oddity of Pound the poet is that he was haunted for his entire career by the suspicion that he was not original, that he was a poet of no virtu whatsoever. Out of this haunting by the spirits of literary history's virtuous powers he fashioned a practice from A Lume Spento through The Cantos more continuous than the usual views of his poetic evolution (including his own) have generally allowed.

If no virtu, then no self; if no self, then nothing to express: Pound's life as a poet is in constant, if implicit, dialogue with the archetypal and revolutionary American desire, announced in Emerson's "Nature" essay of 1836, for radical origination in a new land ("new lands, new men, new thoughts"), a desire for self-creation that Emerson thought would be realized only if we could forget history, rid ourselves of the old man of old thoughts from the old land. Emerson says, free yourself from tradition and you'll cease building "the sepulchers of the fathers." In order to kill himself off as an expression of history and simultaneously re-birth himself as the first man living utterly in the present—like a rose, as Emerson put it in "Self-Reliance," with no concern for past or future roses—a man must "go into solitude," not only from society but also from his "chamber"—the place where "I read and write," where though no one is bodily present, "I" am "not solitary," because "I" have the unwanted company of all those represented selves who populate my books. The "I" must therefore be emptied of everything, including its literary company. And the virgin American woods, Emerson thought, is the context which might induce the necessary ascetic action, the place where "I" may escape all mediation and confront nature "face to face"—the place where "I" can say, at last, "I am nothing." With the historically layered self presumably so negated, the "I"—this urgent and almost passive emptiness which is not quite nothing—becomes a capacity for reception ("a transparent eyeball"), a hollowed out space anxious to be filled: desire in its purest form—in Emerson, a no-self gratified, become filled up, and so rescued at the last moment from nothingness by the inflowing currents of the Transcendental Self.

Pound's effort to rethink lyric practice is inseparable from Emerson's dynamic of American desire, which in its turn is an expression of the quintessence of the immigrant imagination on its never-ending crossing of a real or metaphoric Atlantic, the immigrant who would leave "I" behind in the suffocating ghetto of a real or a metaphoric Europe (say, some small town in the Middle West), leave behind the "I" that is for a magically fulfilling self that we are not but would become—Vito Andolini become Vito Corleone, James Gatz become Jay Gatsby. In Pound the Atlantic crossing is reversed and (in the trajectory of his biography) taken all the way back, from Idaho to Philadelphia to Italy. An American expatriate who left his country because he believed its cultural and economic system denied him literary selfhood, Pound took his American desire to make it new, the "nothing" that "I am," back to European ground, and in a cluster of his earliest poems figured himself precisely as a determinate emptiness of literary longing seeking writerly identity in re-contact with international literary tradition, which is what he had in glamorous substitution for Emerson's Transcendental Self. What Pound learned very early was that the Emersonian promise of selfhood couldn't be delivered; Emerson's American woods, after all, was only natural, there was no literature there, no selva oscura, no Yeatsean mythological mystery. Our so-called virgin land was a nightmare to Pound precisely for its solitude and its purity.

So as a reverse immigrant he fled the literary death whose name was natural immediacy, fled an America where he enjoyed the sorts of freedoms and comforts that classic immigrants coming to America had sought, and went to Italy—his twenty-third birthday still several months off—seeking cultural life in the very period when millions of Italians from the south of Italy fled their homes (such as they were) for America in hopes of improving an economic base that Pound's family had already secured and upon which (thanks to his father's generous understanding) he could—and did—modestly draw in his expatriation. In effect, Pound replayed Henry James's criticism of America as a place whose cultural newness made a certain kind of literature improbable. James's key judgment of American society—he thought it "denuded"—signifies what for him and for Pound had been lost in the new world. James's solution was to drop the innocent American rose down into the context of European experience: "[O]ne might enumerate the items of high civilization," James wrote, "as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life until it should become a wonder to know what was left." The effect of such absence on an English or French imagination "would probably," he surmised, "be appalling." On himself and on Pound the impact of such absence provided the energy and often the structure of the writing they would do.

In a brief poem from A Lume Spento, his first volume of poetry, Pound stages the predicament of his empty American "I" gazing into the mirror of desire; he sees "I" represented as a series of incompatible images; the denuded "I" who is comes before the mirror and presumably "before" what is represented in the mirror as the foundation of representation. But this "I" is represented as somebody else, as the "he," the consciousness Pound would take on: "O strange face there in the glass! / O ribald company, O saintly host!" "On His Own Face in a Glass" stages the moment of self-awareness as a moment of some shock and anxiety ("I? I? I?"), a moment of self-awareness in which he comes to know that there is no self anterior to representation to be aware of and that all the self that can ever be exists in the magical medium of representation, in literature now envisioned, as the pilgrims and other immigrants imagined America itself, as a mirror of transforming desire. Pound's primary poetic tone for such knowledge was mainly confident, even grateful, as if in one stroke—the shape his entire career would take bears heavily upon the point—he had discovered a role to play which coordinated all of his impulses as poet, literary historian, critic, anthologist, and translator, with this last activity (the man was a graduate student in philology and what we call comparative literature) providing the cohesion which made the role unified, lent it identity, so that he did become a self of sorts.

In the concluding poem of A Lume Spento Pound represents his soul as a "hole full of God" through which the "song of all time blows…. As winds thru a knot-holed board." And in his first English volume, A Quinzaine for this Yule (1908), he represents the "I" similarly as a "clear space"—

     'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
     Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
     And into this some form projects itself:
     Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
     And as the clear space is not if a form's
     Imposed thereon,
     So cease we from all being for the time
     And there, the Masters of the Soul live on.

These early poems about poetry—so stilted, so unmodern in diction—escape mere conventionality by the extremity of their representation of the self seeking inspiration and poetic selfhood. As Pound figures it, his pre-poetic self is much less than that favorite romantic figure of self at home in the world, unanxiously dependent; self as aeolian harp awaiting the winds of nature that will stir it into music. Pound's pre-poetic self is in possession of no resources of its own. In what sense it is a self is hard to say: "Thus am I Dante for a space and am / One François Villon." But when not Dante or Villon, what then? Just who is this "I" who ceases to be when the virtuous and manly masters of his soul fill the hole of self? The self as translator, the self of no virtue, becomes a medium of the virtu of others, and Pound's poems, The Cantos most especially, become a kind of international gallery, a hall of exhibits of the originality that he lacked and which without his heroic retrieval would be locked away in a cultural dead space, of antiquarian interest only. Pound's famous avant-garde directive, "make it new," really means "make contemporary what is old." Pound is a man without a center in whom the old masters can "live on"; his poetry is the lifeline and medium of their persistent historicity. His poetry's "modernity" would lie in its creation of a usable literary and political past, exemplary in force: a model to live by and a cultural community to live in.

If the absence of virtu is no condition to be overcome in a search for an original self of his own but the durable basis of everything Pound did as a poet—an absence of identity that he came comfortably to accept as his identity, a trigger of poetic production, early and late—then in one important sense Pound never really "evolved" as a poet. The numerous and dramatic shifts in style we can note from A Lume Spento to The Cantos—and not only from volume to volume but often within a given volume—are not evidence of the dissatisfied, self-critical young writer groping toward his one and only true voice, but the very sign of his voice and all the maturity he would ever achieve. The word Pound frequently used to describe this persistent mark of change in his poetic writing was metamorphosis, from "the tradition of metamorphoses," as he explained in 1918, "that teaches us that things do not always remain the same. They become other things by swift and unanalysable process." Pound's theory of myth is based on an attempt to explain the moment when a man, after walking "sheer into nonsense," tried to tell someone else about it "who called him a liar." The man was forced to make a myth, "an impersonal or objective story woven out of his own emotion, as the nearest equation that he was capable of putting into words."

Among the manifestations of Pound's obsession with protean energy there is his radically avant-garde idea of literature as "something living, something capable of constant transformation and rebirth"; his doctrine of the image, which asserts that in the presence of the genuine work of art we experience "the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time and space limits; that sense of sudden growth"; and his statement in The Spirit of Romance that myth takes its origin subjectively, in a moment when we pass through "delightful psychic experience." In the period spanning the many stylistic changes from his earliest poems to his early Cantos, Pound changed not at all on the value of metamorphosis for the sort of writer (himself) who explained the process of writing to himself in his earliest poems as an experience of walking sheer into nonsense—becoming Christ, Villon, or Dante, God or a tree—a writer who would project the psychic value of his own aesthetic experience as the real value of reading his poems. Pound's reader would also be freed from the self of the moment, liberated into some strange and bracing identity, joining the writer in mythic experience in order to take on with Pound what he, like Pound, does not possess.

The unsaid assumption of Pound's poetics is that his typical reader is not everyman but an American like himself, in need of what he needs—a reader, in other words, not only with no virtu of his own but a reader who does not want to be fixed and crystallized with a "self," a reader for whom avant-gardism, though not known as such, is the ruling philosophy of everyday life in the land of opportunity and infinite self-development. From the delightful, because liberating, psychic experience of the poet and the parallel experience of his American reader, this projection: the reformation of literary history in his own (and America's) image via the bold antidefinition of literature as writing without historically prior and persistent identity, writing without a prior "self" to rely on—a nonidentity of sheerest possibility, an absence of essence: "constant transformation," constant rebirth into a newness of (these are equivalents) an American and a modern literary selfhood. Never mind that "constant transformation" also describes the dream of consumer capitalism, avant-garde of capitalist economics.

Metamorphosis is the unprecedented master category in Pound's literary theory. In spite of the explicit Ovidian allusion, the theory is not Ovidian. Nor does Pound draw upon a notion of biological metamorphosis: the man who comes "before" the glass cannot be traced, not even obscurely, as a surviving form in the new self (hence Pound's shocked "I?"). But if there is to be metamorphosis in any recognizable sense of the word, there must be a prior something which undergoes transformation. If the prior "something" is, as in Pound, a determinate nothing, a hole needing filling and fulfilling, valuable ("golden") precisely because of its amorphic condition, then Pound, like Emerson, has pressed metamorphosis to the edge of its limiting boundary: the classic American dream, self-origination ex nihilo. Pound theorizes metamorphosis, a process of self-emergence, as Emerson had theorized it: on a condition of potential-for-self only, not on the transformation of one self into another; a condition without a memory out of which a self might emerge which is nothing but memory, and so—the irony and paradox of Pound's career—no self at all.

Even as he turned out small poem after small poem and a shocking number of pages of prose, Pound was all along—perhaps as early as 1904, while a student at Hamilton College—working himself up to write a long poem of epic size, "long after" (Pound speaking) "mankind has been commanded never again to attempt a poem of any length." He apparently began work in earnest on this poem sometime in 1915, published his first three "cantos," as he called them, in Poetry in 1917, only soon thereafter to suppress them and begin anew. After an initial volume appeared in 1925 as A Draft of XVI Cantos, gatherings of cantos were published with regularity, to the end of Pound's life, including the infamous Pisan Cantos in 1948 and two volumes, in 1955 and 1959, written in the insane asylum. The least taught of the famous modernist texts, the collected volume, The Cantos of Ezra Pound—one hundred and seventeen cantos' worth—appeared in 1970, reprinted ten times as of this writing, this latter fact strong testimony on behalf of our continuing fascination with the high modernists, including this one whose major work is widely assumed to be unreasonably difficult, often pure gibberish, and, in its occasional lucid moments, offensive to most standards of decency.

Just what kind of literary thing he was writing Pound had trouble deciding. He was keenly conscious of his epic predecessors and often glossed their intentions as his own: to give voice to the "general heart," to write "the speech of a nation" through the medium of one person's sensibility. Yet for all his classic desire and expressed contempt for romantic poetry, Pound was also marked by its contrary aesthetic: "[T]he man who tries to explain his age instead of expressing himself," he writes, "is doomed to destruction." In Pound the poetics of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy are complicated by the poetics of The Prelude and Song of Myself: refocused by Pound in the lens of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Poe, The Divine Comedy becomes Dante's "tremendous lyric."

Classic ambition and romantic impulse would surface constantly through the long publishing history of The Cantos. An "epic is a poem including history," Pound wrote in 1935, in the midst of a decade during which he was writing cantos that "included" history and chunks of the historical record with stupefying literality: redactions of Chinese history in "Cantos 52-61," extract after extract from the writings of John Adams in "Cantos 62-71." In 1937, in Guide to Kulchur, he declared (with a nod to Kipling) that his long poem would tell "the tale of the tribe," but in the same book he also described The Cantos with analogy to Bartok's Fifth Quartet as the "record of a personal struggle." Then, in the middle of the journey, in 1939, he struck a new note, this one neither epic nor romantic: "As to the form of The Cantos: All I can say or pray is wait till it's there. I mean wait till I get 'em written and then if it don't show, I will start exegesis. I haven't an Aquinas-map; Aquinas not valid now." And with that nostalgic glance back at the cultural context of his beloved Dante, Pound approached the clarity he achieved in 1962 in his Paris Review dialogue with Donald Hall.

With over a hundred cantos done, he gave Hall a definition—antidefinition, really—of the poem's form that marked it "modernist" in strictest terms. Not Homer or Dante, but Joyce and Eliot stand behind Pound's search for a form "that wouldn't exclude something merely because it didn't fit." With this insouciant gesture Pound declares the classic concern of aesthetics for the decorous relationship of genre to subject matter beside the modernist point. He tells us that the literary form that can include what doesn't fit is the authentic signature of modern writing, the sign that the literature of our time has adequately taken the measure of its exploded culture.

Like Wordsworth, Pound felt himself an outsider in his society, a literary radical who knew that his poetry was unrecognizable as such by mainstream culture. As a consequence, he set himself the task (in Wordsworth's phrasing) "of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed." His project was to provide epic substance for a culture grounded in none of the assumptions that typically had nourished the epic poet: a culture no longer capable of issuing a valid rhetorical contract between writer and reader. In a culture that cannot read him—here is the motivating contradiction of The Cantos and much high modernism—Pound would write a poem that his culture needs to read in order to make itself truly a culture. "The modern mind contains heteroclite elements. The past epos has succeeded when all or a great many of the answers were assumed, at least between author and audience. The attempt in an experimental age"—he means socially as well as aesthetically experimental—"is therefore rash."

Rash or no, Pound persisted in epic intention because, as he told Hall, "there are epic subjects. The struggle for individual rights is an epic subject, consecutive from jury trial in Athens to Anselm versus William Rufus, to the murder of Becket and to Coke and through John Adams." So the poem that Pound had mainly written by 1962 found its home not in a specific Western culture and place, as classical epics had done, but in Western culture as a whole, as the grand story of struggle, not yet won, for individual rights; and it found its strange literary form in an age of experiment that demanded he invent his own. The form he invented is at once the representation of a culture he thought to be in fragments and an offering of hope for a different kind of future, rooted in the narrative of common lineage and destiny.

Pound knew that in order to tell the tale of the tribe he needed a tribe to tell it to, knew he didn't have one, and in The Cantos—a poem without unifying epic hero, or stability of cultural scene—he gave us the unlikely record of one poet's effort to create through means unclassical a new classical situation for writing. What he ended up achieving was a poem whose experimental character overwhelms all cultural and social goals, except those that bear on the welfare of writers. The Cantos would resuscitate a community of letters for modern writers, in order that they might join a tradition of radical experimenters and their noble patrons, all those who waged their struggle for individual (largely aesthetic) rights against the grain; a tradition brought to life for an age (our own) cut off from nourishment and patronage, a home for our contemplative (but only our contemplative) life.

In this light, Pound's title, The Cantos, is tellingly odd. It is the nontitle of a writer who apparently never saw the need to make up his mind—who, if he could have lived forever, would probably not have pinned a crystallizing title (like The Waste Land or The Bridge) onto his experiment. Calling a poem The Cantos (and shall we say The Cantos "is" or The Cantos "are"?, to decide that question is to decide much) is like calling a novel Work in Progress while you're writing it and then to publish it under that title, or maybe the title The Chapters; like a Renaissance sonneteer deciding to call his sequence The Sonnets. To publish sections of this poem, forever in progress, with the words "a draft of" included in the title only underscores the tentativeness of the writer's intention. Unlike all the epics we know, The Cantos names as its substance aesthetic form itself, without ever claiming, as Wordsworth and Whitman had in their romantic versions, the substantial coherence of a binding subjectivity.

Not that there isn't a discernible subjectivity afloat in the poem: there is, but it doesn't congeal as a "self" whose autonomous presence is projected in the autobiographical narrative of a poet's mind. For much of the way, "Ezra Pound" appears to us in the shape of a desire: as a generous capacity for reception, a subjectivity virtually transparent, a facilitating vehicle, a literary producer (in the theatrical sense of that word, a gatherer of artistic forces), a man, by his own account, of no virtu, an absence of selfhood, a hole, a mirror for others. This tissue of masks, this incessant scholarly quoter—translator, alluder, medium of pastiche, tradition's own ventriloquist; this poet as anthologist, poet of the specimen, patron and exhibitor of styles, heroes, and cultural contexts which are given space in the literary gallery and curriculum called The Cantos, is an active and empathetic memory trapped in the dead present of his culture, casting a long lifeline into the past (tradition's own lifeguard) in order to rescue by transmitting tradition, and in so transmitting bring his own culture back to life again.

The Cantos approached as if they were written by a poet-without-a-self unveil themselves as a vast texture (text, textile, interweaving) of discourses lyric, satiric, narrative, dramatic, and nonliterary (historical, epistolary, technical); Pound's influential idea of the heterogeneous image (an "intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time") writ very large; an immense vortex; or, in the perfect metaphor from the discarded first canto (drafted in 1912), a "rag-bag," best form of all for a poet who didn't want to exclude something merely because it didn't fit; the form of a poetry by and for the culturally homeless.

And so the centrality for The Cantos of those storied modernist metaphors drawn from the visual and spatial arts: like montage, a stark juxtaposition which yields its significance in some third, unnamed thing to be construed (imagined, created), by an active reader in the process of interpretation, whose own imaginative life will be the force which brings Pound's cultural hope to realization, and who is charged with voicing the poem's otherwise unvoiced vision, with making the diagnosis, distributing Pound's medicine; who appreciates Pound properly and therefore earns his own entry into the community of letters by transforming himself from passive consumer in the culture of capital into resourceful, self-reliant free agent; Pound's critic become the reader as modernist, co-maker of The Cantos, and coworker in the enterprise of culture-making. And of course the metaphor of collage, surrealist version of the rag-bag, a composition whose diverse and incongruously placed fragments—drawn from all manner of media—ask us (as does montage, but now on the scale of the entire work) to take the thing as a whole, not as a narrative but as a form hung in space, in order to "view" it in its entirety: under the pressure of these metaphors, The Cantos become a difficult structure of fragments signifying not the imitation of fragmentation by the means of fragmentation but some missing total vision (or the desire thereof) whose presence in any given canto must be supplied by an engaged reader. So read, The Cantos become a vision of social and cultural health sporadically in evidence and constantly threatened by the historical process; a vision of the free individual gathering himself against history's gloom of diseased economics; a vision contemplated and disseminated by those who must read Pound in a thickening contemporary cultural darkness almost complete. The Cantos may be the clearest example we have of the doubled character of modernist literary desire: to pursue aesthetic innovation for the purpose of instigating social change; a poem whose unparalleled formal sumptuousness—a cornucopia of literary texture—calls forth those mediators who would join Pound's lifelong experiment in cultural hope to a world of possible readers.

"And then went down to the ship / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…." That is how The Cantos begin, in a strange world modified by gods, with Pound translating from the eleventh book of The Odyssey, the descent into the underworld. Assuming the mask of an epic hero already written, Pound voyages, "Heavy with weeping" (the tone is elegiac, the subject is cultural loss), to a place of darkness, dimly lit with torches, for a colloquy with the dead, the prophetic Tiresias in particular. Ezra Pound, Odyssean poet, makes his descent to the West's literary underworld in order to conjure the ghosts of writers past in a poetry of reading. Homer's hero summons the dead with the ritual blood of sacrifice; Pound, with the blood of scholarly poetic labor, would summon Homer via a Latin translation made by Andreas Divas in the Renaissance, period of classical recovery; presses his Latin Homer through the alliterative strong rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry and then into modern English—thereby producing the effect of a triple translation for the benefit of the modern English reader, an illusion of three literary traditions simultaneously present in culturally mixed traces of diction and proper names, a palimpsest, writing over writing for a period, his own, which Pound hoped would also be a time of cultural recovery.

The first of The Cantos begins the project of a new risorgimento as if it were already in progress—the first word of the first canto is "and." We are offered a stylistic exhibit of heroic endeavor, by a poet-patron, toward the end of which the stylistic exhibitor himself comes forward, breaking out of the mask of Odysseus. In an abrupt comic descent from the heroic decorum of his tone and diction Ezra Pound speaks—"Lie quiet Divas"—so revealing himself in that moment as a haunter of libraries and old bookstores—in the dramatic fiction of "Canto I," a man pouring over a rare book—searching for the traces of a usable tradition, and finding them in the text of Divas's translation.

The eleventh book of Homer's epic: Odysseus's youngest companion, Elpenor, asks Odysseus to provide proper burial, lest he restlessly and forever wander the earth's surface; and he requests a memorial so that he may enjoy afterlife in his culture's collective memory: just so does Pound grant Divas, another unhappy ghost, similar (if imagined) requests in order that Divas may "lie quiet." And Pound's autobiographically aggressive translation of Homer's epitaph for Elpenor ("A man of no fortune, and a name to come") links him to Elpenor and Divas both, and to a literary history merging ancient, Renaissance, and modern cultures in an overarching triplet rhyme of tradition-making, the point of literary history being its own transmission; the immortality of writers depending on other writers who remember long.

Pound, a bibliophile and cultural genealogist, gives the citation as a kind of epitaph: "I mean, that is Andreas Divas, / In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer." Divas and Wecheli (the bookmaker), those, too, are names of heroes in the commemorative world of The Cantos, heroes as significant as Odysseus. For one more line and a half Pound returns now in his own voice—the spell of recovery is broken—to the Homeric narrative, then (as it were) flips the pages to the back of the book that Wecheli made, this time quoting the Latin of Georgius Dartona of Cyprus, whose translation of the Homeric hymns was bound in with Divas's work: some enamored phrases about Aphrodite ("thou with dark eyelids"), who was assigned the defenses of Crete, phrases whose Latin will be strange to the modern reader, but much less strange than the idea they contain, absurd to the modern mind (Pound knows this), of art active in the world, beauty in defense of the city. At the end of "Canto I" Pound comes forward as a voice among old books, trying to breathe life into voices he feared silenced by his culture. In that act, he creates a voice of his own.

      Two mice and a moth my guides—
       To have heard the farfalla gasping
        as toward a bridge over worlds.
      That the kings meet in their island,
       Where no food is after flight from the pole.
      Milkweed the sustenance
       as to enter arcanum.
 
      To be men not destroyers.

That is how The Cantos end, with Pound writing lyric notes: on the forms of his confusion ("M'amour, m'amour / what do I love and / where are you?"); on his regrets ("Let the Gods forgive what I / have made / Let those I love try to forgive / what I have made"); on his econo-aesthetic obsessions ("La faillite de François Bernouard, Paris"—Bernouard, unsung, unknown in poetry until this moment in The Cantos, a contemporary version of Wecheli, a hero in the cultural struggle for risorgimento, a French bookmaker who went bankrupt printing the classics and who functions here as an incarnation of history's truth, Pound-style: the destruction of the honorable by a dishonourable economic system that will not permit the valuing of beauty and beauty's patrons). Notes on his unceasing hatred for the human costs of war and the cold-blooded calculation of the secure-from-battle ("the young for the old / that is tragedy"); notes on his sustaining confidence in the liberating power of the image as the bedrock of personal redemption, aestheticist life preserver of Pound's youth coming in handy at the end of a life of failed larger design ("For the blue flash and the moments / benedetta"); notes on his grandiose ambition ("I have tried to write Paradise"), his anchoring modesty, his disavowal of ambition ("Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise"); notes on his cultural deprivation, having to go it, as Dante did not, without a Virgil-like teacher for his guide ("Two mice and a moth my guides—"): all his notes the verbal condensation of desire, and desire, the gathering ambience of The Cantos, become palpable, the real subject of this last collection, Drafts and Fragments (1969).

In this final fragment of the final canto ("117"), a collage representative of virtually everything Pound thought about in The Cantos as a whole, the striking note sounded is not in some final revelation for poet and reader but in the variegated sounds of the poet's voice—in Pound's tonal agility, his compression of a range of vocal attitudes: the desperate old man, speaking painfully in the dark, sometimes in the curious mixed tones of prayer and imperative; sometimes in gentle self-directive; sometimes in fragments of amazement ("That I lost my center / fighting the world"; "That the kings meet in their island / where no food is after flight from the pole"); sometimes in desire's timeless infinitive ("To have heard the farfalla gasping / as toward a bridge over worlds"). Fragment following fragment, in a poem heavy with sharply etched perceptions and feelings freed (largely) from reason's habitat of correct English syntax: a poem of reason undone, and in its unravelment of reason displaying the constituents of a mind trying to strip itself of the authoritative power of utterance it used to command (half-wanting to fail, still desiring authority); wanting to enter the realm of the unspeakable with the monarch butterflies in need of no food—those king figures of the soul entering the last mystery. The final line is the one Pound (according to his lover, Olga Rudge) wanted to finish The Cantos with; a line impossibly poised in tone and form, hung between yearning and self-confident imperative; "To be men not destroyers."

Between the first and the last of The Cantos in a cluster which occupies the virtual center of the entire work—approximately fifty lie either side of it—fall the Chinese and American history cantos ("52-72"), a section nearly one quarter the length of the complete cantos, and presenting the one continuous stretch of writing to be found in The Cantos of Ezra Pound; a chronological span recounting some five thousand years of Chinese history, from 3000 B.C. through the eighteenth century A.D., mediated for America by the French Enlightenment (when Chinese texts began to be translated), an era in European thought which eventually passed formatively into the social theories of John Adams and the founding fathers.

There's a point to Pound's history, but the point is not easy to grasp because his history is told in a rush of names, dates, references, and events presented largely without explanation or narrative connection. The effect is one of relentless obscurity, which is maybe Pound's intention: to rub our noses in the fact that we've been cut off from the sources of what he imagines as social vitality, that we have no tradition, that we need to make another Odyssean journey back, to another cultural underworld, this one not Western, and that we can do it but it will take scholarly work. Such work would itself, presumably, be salutary, a sign that we are recovering (in both senses of the word), for in doing the work that Pound asks, we begin the process of self-healing. And if enough of us who do this work of recovery will only disseminate its findings, we will be on our way to cultural and not just personal healing as the active readers that Pound needs in the corporate effort to make the bridge between the isolated island of the modern world and the mainland of cultural history. The payoff will be a renovated economics, with justice for all, and a renovated language in which the word will bear the right name. Like an honest currency (in Pound that means an imagist economics), the word will not go the way of abstraction because it will be ligatured to real goods extant. And economics and poetics alike will be underwritten by a benevolent totalitarian (Confucius a more perfect totalitarian than Aristotle, Mussolini the hopeful modern instance), who protects money and words, properly ligatured, from manipulation by usurers, gun manufacturers, the fantastic international Jewish conspiracy, and other corrupters, financial and aesthetic, real and imaginary.

So do the Chinese and Adams cantos work in theory; in practice, and by the measure of Pound's aesthetic, they are a literary disaster. The aesthetic and the great majority of the cantos insist on heterogeneity in texture, voice, and form; the Chinese and Adams cantos present a homogeneous voice of didactic intent. The aesthetic and the great majority of the cantos insists on fragments and the surprising and delightful juxtapositions of montage which invite creative reading; the Chinese and Adams cantos progress by a principle of deadly smooth continuity which puts the reader into the passive position of a student listening to a lecturer with no dramatic talent. The literary project of The Cantos is modernist, but "Cantos 52-71" fulfill no one's idea of modernist writing, or even, perhaps, of interesting writing.

The Chinese/Adams cantos fail because they lack the anchor of cultural poverty that motivates Pound's project for redemption. The Chinese/Adams cantos give us a portrait of the poet comfortable in his views, speaking without duress from nowhere. But at their most riveting The Cantos evoke as their true speaking subject, however minimally, the presence of a writer—The Cantos are "about" a writer as much as they are "about" anything—a writer in struggle, working against the grain, under the inspiration of the muses of memory, those muses his only hope in a culture without memory. As in "Canto 1," for example, where, at the end, we finally see Pound, book in hand, meditating on ancient ideals of heroism and beauty from a place where those ideals are not honored. Or in "Canto 2" where Pound fictionalizes himself, Whitman-like, a brooder at the seashore, a man for whom all mythologies of the sea are simultaneously present, from Homer to Ovid to Picasso, but with no mythology of his own to be at home in. "And"—the linguistic sign of pound's consciousness, eager to bind together—here in "Canto 2" becomes the sign of a mind which says "and" because it cannot say "because"—because it cannot trace a logical path to its leap into Ovid's Metamorphoses, the presiding cultural exhibit of "Canto 2."

"And by Scios": Pound becomes a first-person participant in the story of the kidnapping of the young Dionysius by sailors who would sell him into slavery (not knowing who he was). The episode retold from Ovid is a story whose chief characters, in many variants, dominate The Cantos, a story of money lust and mythic power; poetry turned against and vanquishing greed (usually the story ends badly in The Cantos, but not here); Dionysius unleashed, and Pound in attendance, awestruck, retelling the consequences for the ears of worldly power ("Fish scales on the oarsmen," "Arms shrunk into fins"): "And you Pentheus, had as well listen … or your luck will go out of you." "Canto 2" concludes with a return to the brooding poet in his place on the shore. With his vision lapsed into the desolation of the present, and the Ovidian memory fading fast, now only an afterimage mediating his experience of the sea, Pound presses Homer's epithet of the wine-dark sea through Ovid's Bacchus ("wave, color of grape's pulp"); Pound, a writer whose detailed and life-endowing memory of literary tradition unsettles him for life in his own world.

Can these, or any of Pound's literary exhibits, make our dry cultural bones dance again? Can his specimens of cultures past make any difference? Do Pound's heroes from ancient and Renaissance worlds (forerunners all of Il Duce?) translate as our heroes, or do they best remain where they are, exemplars for his imaginative life, beacons in his struggle through cultural darkness? In his last canto Pound says, "I have tried to write Paradise": a line whose force lies not in the vision glimpsed, nor even in the vision glimpsed-and-then-lost, but in the effort of writing a Paradise that can be lived only in the act of writing, sustained in and by a writing that cannot sustain it for very long. The quintessential fact about Pound's paradise is that it cannot be culturally transported outside The Cantos. The most moving (if implicit) image of The Cantos is of a writer working mightily at the retrieval of the West's great cultural highs, who believes that if he can only talk eloquently enough, incessantly enough, about what he loves, the subjects of his love will spring to life before him, talked back to life, if only he would not lose heart (as so frequently he does), lose vocal energy and intensity (this, too, part of the image), and in so doing remind himself and us where we all are.

One of the strong, comically pathetic moments to The Cantos occurs in the Pisan group when Pound admits defeat and in the same breath tries to build out of defeat's humble gifts a new paradise. If Il Duce is the summation of the heroic tradition, then what can Pound save of tradition with "Ben and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano"? And he answers in "Canto 74:"

        Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel
    but spezzato apparently
    it exists only in fragments unexpected excellent sausage,
      The smell of mint, for example,
      Ladro the night cat

And the reader's equivalent, the unexpected excellent literary sausage of a broken paradise, lies in scattered but numerous moments of individual elegance, sudden interventions of Pound's virtuosity in the midst of his historical labor of recuperation. As in "Canto 13," where he presents in doctrinally constrained dialogue the Confucian ethic and social ideal, a canto intended to make a point about order, personal and public, and who underwrites it:

      If a man have not order within him
     He can not spread order about him;
     And if a man have not order within him
     His family will not act with due order;
      And if the prince have not order within him
     He can not put order in his dominions.

Pound assigns those lines to Kung himself, the man whose authority stems from the wisdom that cannot be questioned, an oriental voice drawn through Western timbres of biblical propheticism: the constant Poundian conjunctive ("and") now marking unshakable certitude ("And if a man," "And if the prince," and you better believe it). And we will hear that supremely self-possessed voice again, whenever Pound feels his doctrinal oats. But in the midst of this canto about the origin and dissemination of right political authority, we watch the poet in pursuit of something else, like a bloodhound after the irrelevant detail—in a long aside going off the doctrinal tract, seduced by the unfolding, self-pleasuring movement of his own conceit; the familiar Poundian conjunctive now marking lyric momentum:

      And Tian said, with his hands on the strings of his lute
      The low sounds continuing
       after his hands left the strings,
      And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,
      And he looked after the sound….

Within the doctrinal program of "Canto 13" these lines move with the grace that passes the reach of doctrine; the unexpected and unexpectable gift of cantabile, for no ends beyond the singing itself.

Elsewhere—strikingly so in the Malatesta group ("Cantos 8-11")—Pound's minor beauties engage major preoccupations, not as food for isolated aesthetic indulgence but as medium of historical work. "Cantos 8-11" concern the exploits of an obscure fifteenth-century Italian professional soldier of fortune, Sigismundo Malatesta, complete political cynic with a singular passion for art and artists: just the sort of passion for which Pound will forgive anything (and with Malatesta there is apparently much to forgive), a type of the Poundian hero who achieved what he achieved "against the current of power" and found his truest expression of selfhood as patron par excellence, in unswerving devotion to the building of the Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini: Malatesta, in other words, as figure of the poet Pound would be in The Cantos, building in the Tempio, as Pound would build, a "little civilization," part pagan, part Christian.

Pound's method in the Malatesta group is cagily documentary: he quotes heavily from chronicles, letters, legal documents, papal denunciations; inserts his own retelling, sometimes as on-site narrator, in recreation of scenes for which no documentation exists. These cantos take the shape of a boiling polylogue, some voices friendly, most not, to Sigismundo's person and desire; they give off an ambience of thickest treachery—of men (including Sigismundo) willing to do anything, he for the love of art, they for the love of power. The arrangement of the documents is dramatic: Pound's purpose is to conjure his obscure hero ("Canto 8" opens with incantatory rhetoric), show him in the act of emerging from corruption, his voice freeing itself, sailing above, somehow uncontaminated; a voice elegant, dignified, gracious, lyrical, and promising violence, a man whose passion rescues him even from the evil that he does. The strength of Pound's showing lies not in the narrative of Sigismundo—its confusions overwhelm even Pound—but in the rhetorical effects he manages in honor of his hero. Pound loves the man, and his love creates a verbal habitation that insulates him from the garbage of his circumstances. We know not Malatesta but Pound "writing Malatesta"—not "of" or "about" Malatesta, but writing Malatesta as in "writing poetry"; or "writing Paradise"; or in this translation of one of Malatesta's letters concerning what he would do for Piero della Francesca:

     So that he can work as he likes
     Or waste time as he likes
     (affatigandose per suo piacere or no non gli manchera la provixione mai)
          Never lacking provision.

The prose meaning of Pound's English captures the prose of Malatesta's Italian, but with its arrangement into a versified parallel, like two lines of poetry with a full caesura at the end of each line, the translation adds an eloquence beyond the touch of its prose sense. Pound's translation becomes a stylistic index, the verbal maneuver that directs us by dint of its phrasing alone to the generous soul of Malatesta. And the sandwiched Italian original proves Pound's translating fidelity, his capacity for living transmission:

       With the church against him,
     With the Medici bank for itself,
     With wattle Sforza against him
     Sforza Francesco, wattle-nose,
     Who married him (Sigismundo) his (Francesco's)
     Daughter in September,
     Who stole Pesaro in October (as Broglio said "bestialmente"),
     Who stood with the Venetians in November,
     With the Milanese in December,
     Sold Milan in November, stole Milan in December
     Or something of that sort,
     Commanded the Milanese in the spring,
     The Venetians at midsummer,
     The Milanese in the autumn
     And was Naples' ally in October,…

From this swamp of political confusion, this comic litany of the months and seasons of Byzantine betrayal, spoken, no doubt, in some smoke-filled backroom, comes a line from another level, elevated in syntax and tone, with a Latin phrase at the end (like an anchor of final authority) telling us what Malatesta did—the Latin working for Pound (as languages other than English often did) as some talismanic discourse, the facilitator of magical transcendence from politics to the plane of art: "He, Sigismundo, templum aedificavit." "He Sigismundo"—a phrasing repeated often in the Malatesta group—not only clarifies just who it is among these obscure political actors that Pound is talking about, but adds the sound of awe, like an epitaph which registers the shock of the memorialist, that in the midst of all this, he, Sigismundo, did what he did: "In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it."

In his introduction to the Active Anthology Pound says that experiment "aims at writing that will have a relation to the present analogous to the relation which past masterwork had to the life of its time." He insists: "[W]ithout constant experiment literature dates." He means that literary experimentation is the response to the challenge posed by social change that writers come to terms with a new world. The implication is that the true history of literature is the discontinuous non-history of experiment, a series of modernist revolutions (what Pound means by "master work") in evidence across the ages, whose relations to one another lie not in content, form, or value, but in the incomparable fact of radical originality. Radical as in "root"; originality as in deriving from an "origin": a literature rooted in an origin, the origin here being the writer's salient historical situation. The severe discipline of a modernist aesthetic relegates "literature" as such, or "literariness" as such, to the status of empty concepts, because no writer who would be modern (original) in any age (rather than the voice of some other time) has anything to lean on. Original writing (the essence of which is that it has no essence) proceeds, as always, in the dark, driven by difficult questions, the answers to which are never known in advance: What is it like to be alive now? What strange, new forms has human being assumed here, in this place? Would we, if we could, do some social experimentation? New World writing—the project of an "American" literature—is the exemplary moment of modernist literature.

Pound thought Eliot insufficiently moved by the experimental spirit. Of Eliot's modernist benchmark, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," he wrote: "This kind of essay assumes the existence of a culture that no longer subsists and does nothing to prepare a better culture that must or ought to come into being." If Western culture, as Pound told Donald Hall, is the struggle for individual rights, beginning with jury trial in Athens, then ever since the late eighteenth century we have been living in an age of revolution for individual rights in relation to which Eliot's "existing monuments" of literary tradition can have no organic significance. Pound thought "existing monuments" a contradiction, thought we needed "something living" and might have sought (he would have been stunned by this suggestion) support from Emerson for his political reading of the course of the West; the necessity, as Pound put it, to respect the "peripheries" of the individual.

The chief sign of the times, Emerson wrote in "The American Scholar," is the "new importance given to the single person. Everything that tends to insulate the individual—to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state—tends to true union": he meant, tends to just community. Emerson thought the revolutions of democratic change he was witnessing had implication for revolutions of cultural freedom, the individual and national rights of intellect and imagination. "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close…. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." Or, in the equally clarion call from the opening paragraph of "Nature": "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition …?"

Emerson, in the optative mood, spoke on behalf of the American cultural achievement he hoped would come to pass, an aesthetic birth which would, in Pound's words, bear relation to its present that past art bore to the life of its time. Pound's criticism of Eliot sounds suspiciously like the criticism of a nativist leveled at an expatriate who in fleeing his country has also fled Emerson's challenge to American writers (whether here or abroad) to resist the seductions of Old World culture, to make the cultural journey over the Atlantic to America, to come home, not in order to embrace the American imagination but in order to create it.

But Pound, like Eliot, was a reverse American immigrant, an unlikely ally of Emerson, who seemed all along to have intended to seek out those courtly muses who inspired no revolutions on behalf of any individual. Emerson probably had Longfellow in mind when he wrote the following, but the stricture implied seems to fit Pound even better: "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia, what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." Pound's theory of experimentation is in the American grain, but his practice in The Cantos, his pamphleteering of the 1930s, his Rome Radio broadcasts during World War II—are they not betrayals? Had not Pound written, in the outrageously entitled Jefferson And/Or Mussolini: "The heritage of Jefferson … is HERE, NOW in the Italian peninsula at the beginning of fascist second decennio, not in Massachusetts or Delaware"?

Perhaps, though, the failure was less Pound's than Emerson's, whose visionary essays of the 1830s and 1840s on the future of the American writer, who would be nourished in experimental freedom by an original culture, do not come close to comprehending what would become the crisis of the modern writer, whose classic situation in the age of revolution is one in which he feels himself irremediably outside, in uncertain relation to the culture of his time. Pound in New York, in 1910, on the eve of decisive expatriation, gathers his data for his first and most sustained critical meditation on American culture ("Patria Mia"). He reflects upon life in a democratic culture and concludes (in effect) that there has been no improvement upon the situation of cultural deprivation Emerson had observed in the 1830s. He leaves America, confirmed in his judgment that we are a people committed to the exigencies of the practical life and the cash nexus; with a sense that the cost of a new land was severance from the cultural past of Europe, a loss enhanced by the dry imitations of English verse he read in the organs of the literary marketplace; and with a belief that the marketplace is the instrument of amnesia, the great barrier to the past which would seem to ensure, for those who did not take Pound's expatriate option, the permanent triviality of American writing, and for those like Pound, who would not or could not write to its demands—for all writers in America's post-aristocratic culture, of modest middle-class means (or less)—permanent anxiety about economic survival; the choice of the literary vocation a choice of poverty and the contempt of mainstream society.

The exciting new culture Emerson had prophesied turned out to be mass culture, engineered by a culture industry feeding its commodities to democratic man, not a culture, as Emerson had hoped, organic with the life of the ordinary man. Pound, not alone among American writers, believed that the American common man (in Emerson's exultant phrasing: "new lands, new men, new thoughts") was of no literary interest except as he might serve as the object of the ridiculing satiric gaze.

Far from being the expression of an American who had forsaken his culture, The Cantos are the work of an American experimenter standing at cultural ground zero. This experimenter is a man not unlike Henry James's archetype of the American, who works himself curiously up to cultural snuff—the archetypal modern as major autodidact, of no cultural patrimony, who by sheer effort of discipline acquires all there is to know and whose typical vocal posture before the great European cultural treasures is one of stunned awe; who will address Homer, Ovid, and Dante, talk to them in worshipful apostrophe, speak their names as only an adoring American could speak them, as the names of gods; an American who will find certain moments in these writers so excellent that he will repeat them over and over in The Cantos, as if he were recording them in a notebook of the most important quotations of the great writers I have read. For all its complexity, The Cantos is often the book of wonders of a precocious American student.

By the measure of the ambitious desire of culture-making that moved their writing, The Cantos are a failure. They do not engender (or recover) a unified vision or a single narrative; rest upon no stable foundation of concepts; offer no odyssey of character; and for these failures we probably should be grateful. The Cantos "are," not "is." The Cantos narrate, quote, translate, dramatize, sing, and rant—as literary montage and collage they invite readers to supply the missing totality which would make sense of all the fragments, but what is missing, or only subtly present, is not some deep-seated story that binds all the pieces together into a social whole, but the writer in the act of trying to make sense of his circumstances. In Wallace Stevens's words: "[T]he poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice." It may be that there is a sense in which every age is an age of experiment, and that all writing proceeds in the dark in an effort to find the socially companionable form, but the modernist believes (in this believing is being) that he proceeds in darkness apparently total. Dante and Milton had the cultural gift of the Christian map: Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, and Pound believed their cultures had little to give; believed that they were living in a time when all the stage sets (again Stevens's figure) were being struck (being struck: they were witnesses to various dissolutions). They found that the privilege of living in an age of revolution was more than matched by the burdens of modernist culture; they found that they could take nothing for granted; that every thing would need to be re-imagined.

The world of The Cantos is close to the world of the later Yeats, who saw the destruction of the great country house as the socially symbolic moment of modernism's inauguration: the end of the politically and socially privileged class and all the artistic life (in all senses) that it ensured and supported (in all senses); the end of the writer's security, the underwriting of his vision blotted out in social upheaval. Adrift in a new world, Yeats is left with his memories and Pound, passionate American reader of the classics, is left with the desire for memory within a new social system—secular, democratic, capitalist—which has no use for the past, and offers no structural support for its artists, whom it does not believe can defend its cities. And it is much worse for Pound, because unlike Yeats he never saw the gracious old American estate which is also cultural matrix—there is no American experience of this; we have no exemplary Coole Park for memory to cherish in the lineage of our American cultural blood, no Coole Park which in unforgiving recollection can be the measure of modernist loss. Unlike Yeats, Pound nurses no delicious and bitter nostalgia (no return-pain), unless we choose to credit his longing (as I do) as a paradox of nostalgia—a New World desire to return to the cultural home he never had.

In the notorious Pisan Cantos ("74-84") the poet as modernist steps forward, holding back nothing. Written in a military detention camp in Pisa at the end of the war, and awarded the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, to the shock and anger of at least half of the English-speaking literary world, these poems as well as any in the modernist tradition figure forth the modernist writer as the quintessential outsider, in prison now, which is just about where the modernist has always thought he was; literally old, which is what modernist poets often feel even when they're young (as if they had never experienced vaulting zest for life: culturally desiccated from the start, Prufrocks all—a figure Eliot invented as an undergraduate); an old man without a country whose open subject now is himself incessantly in conversation with himself, in elegiac remembrance of writers ancient, Renaissance, and contemporary, friends all, the literal ones also now all dead: Ford, Joyce, Yeats "to earth o'ergiven"; talking his favorite opinions: how economic justice can be ensured through just distribution and reform of the money system; how to collar the "buggering banks"; the role of the "yidds" in the world's exploitation; the cattle-like nature of the "goyim"; the death of Mussolini and the failure of fascism; the desire to build the ideal city; Pound, an old man quoting his favorite phrases poetic and political, and then quoting them again and again; remembering his earlier cantos, alluding to the heroic figures therein; quoting his own lines, especially the one in the first canto about losing all companions: all this talk as if (Robert Frost's phrase) "the talk were all," and it is.

The Pisan Cantos are jail-talk from solitary confinement (who at Pisa could Pound talk to?), jail-talk gone about as far as the modernist can take it. In the saying of his memories, in their linguistic retrieval and preservation of cultures past (especially the cultures made by writers, recalling what they wrote and sometimes what they did) Pound projects an image of the modernist writer working from the shards of tradition and frustrated political obsession but not working them up into a new culture—placing them, instead, side by side, as he counts the losses. Pound-the-modernist is a writer in extremis because extremity is his norm; a writer who creates in his experiment a poem precisely adequate to the cultural circumstances of a man, unlike Homer, without a story to tell.

No one will take Pound, after what he has revealed, as hero, or moral guide. The Pound in the Pisan Cantos is the best answer to the Pound who venerated heroes and thought Mussolini would underwrite economic justice and the independence of the individual. The Cantos are a poetry full of heterogeneity to the point of chaos, an indescribable mixture whose ingredients of anti-Semitism and fascism are not of the essence because, in this experiment, nothing is of the essence. The most typical moments of The Cantos are those which defy the expectations of typicality: like the moment when out of nowhere we hear a black man speak (blacks in The Cantos appear as "coons," "niggers," and "negroes") and we learn that Pound has been done (by this black man) a risky act of charity—against regulations he has been spoken to, and, more, has been built a box upon which to set his typewriter: "[D]oan you tell no one / I made you that table," words that will be repeated through the Pisan Cantos, in the same way that phrases from the literary giants are repeated, until Mr. Edwards-who-made-the-box assumes the status of Sigismundo-who-made-the-Tempio. Mr. Edwards takes his commemorative place with Malatesta because, like Malatesta, he achieved what he achieved against the current of power. (What Mr. Edwards calls a "table," Pound calls a "box"; Mr. Edwards is an imaginative writer of another order.) He, Mr. Edwards, boxum aedificavit. And the significance of this act of patronage and charity for the whole of The Cantos? Only that a poetry which was written with no encouragement from its culture, and with no possibility of gaining cultural centrality, was helped a little along its way by a patron of the arts who couldn't read it, and who could have no intention, surely, of helping this particular poem come to life and to print.

(read more)

This section contains 10,733 words
(approx. 36 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Frank Lentricchia
Follow Us on Facebook