November 26, 2003

Ezra Pound Again

[Some people have been writing to me asking whether the St. Mark's review I wrote of the two new editions of Pound were online. Alas, it is now. This version doesn't include a few edits Marcella Durand made nor the additional book info -- but I'm getting out of the office, so I'm slapping this up quick. You can find most of the book info you need online.]

The Pisan Cantos
New Directions

Poems and Translations
Library of America

Pound introduces one of the lesser celebrated themes of the Cantos in another poem entirely, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” in which he writes: “He had moved amid her phantasmagoria, / Amid her galaxies… / Drifted... drifted precipitate, / Asking time to be rid of... / Of his bewilderment...” What the “phantasmagoria” is might be one of the most contentious questions surrounding his poetry, since one’s understanding of this field – a rhythmical mesh of “luminous detail” which either does or does not find its place in a closed matrix of meanings, the forerunner of Olson’s own sense of the geography of the page – goes a great way toward explaining the Cantos as a “political” poem.

The phantasmagoria clearly has nothing to do with “free association” – that’s what the Surrealists claimed they were doing, though their associations were conspicuously reproductive of the convulsive effects of Lautreamont and never as boring as dreams often are. Is it the “broken bundle of mirrors” of “Near Perigord,” the “dim wares of price” of the “Portrait D’une Femme” – seeing as he got the word from Henry James (“Of course I moved among miracles. It was all phantasmagoric...”), and the latter poem, about a woman, is an exercise in the Master’s sentence (in both meanings of that word), that sort of helps. Is it the “swoon” of Charles Bernstein’s poem “The Klupzy Girl,” the one that “brings you to your senses”? Bernstein himself argues that Pound “was obviously unsatisfied with anything but a complexly polyphonic style,” and that, despite his “fear of indeterminacy,” created work “filled with indeterminacy, fragmentation, abstraction, obscurity, verbiage, equivocation, ambiguity, allegory” – practically a short-list for all the good bad things that Bernstein has found so useful in his own work (“repetition” and bracing lyrical purple being notably absent).

The French poets think of Pound as a mystic in the Symbolist tradition, or so the American poets think the French poets think – I’ve never got a straight answer on this one, but Denis Roche translated both the Pisan Cantos and the A.B.C. of Reading – the latter, a glossed assemblage of “luminous details,” the only critical book that could be classed a “phantasmagoria” – suggesting he felt that “The Pisan Cantos” had some didactic function as a repository of useful knowledge. Some poets worked the worked the wild thingness of the “phantasmagoria” into an intellectual backbone for some nativist, anthropological or shamanist poetics, a channeling of the material unconscious – this might be the Rothenberg/Joris approach, branching off from New American poetics of Ginsberg and Sanders. One academic critic (I forget his name) related every image and symbol in the “Cantos” to the images on the American dollar bill – either an insult to the Quark team that designed the dollar bill or a justification, in an Oulipian frame, of the entire project.

The questions raised above come back to life with these two new volumes, beautifully edited and glossed by Richard Sieburth, a scholar more known for his translations of Hölderlein than for his work on Pound (though his first book, Instigations, on Pound and Remy de Gourmont, is one of the best ones I’ve read on the poet). Sieburth’s introduction and notes on “The Pisan Cantos” make the poem nearly intelligible on conventional levels -- you can read it in the park! -- and passages that I never bothered to look up because they seemed to correspond with other passages that I never understood in the first place -- my Beavis and Butthead version of the “fugal method” -- obtain a new clarity, granting some of the slighter gestures, such as the Dada turn of the line about “urine” below, an aesthetic charge that might have been eclipsed:

and Mr Edwards superb green and brown
              in ward No 4 a jacent benignity,
of the Baluba mask: “doan you tell no one
       I made you that table”
               methenamine eases the urine
and the greatest is charity
to be found among those who have not observed

Pound’s patronizing attitudes toward African Americans -- saying Edwards had a “Baluba” mask made him both a character in a real-life Noh play and a figure out of Frobenius’ Congo -- is tinged with affection (anyone who says anything nice in a Pound poem is clearly a good guy), though also tinged, as Sieburth clearly explains, by further racist attitudes about Americans and the “melting pot.” What is important, for our purposes, is the ease the glosses give in clarifying what might be called the narrative of “The Pisan Cantos,” making room for an appreciation of when the cunning technician -- the strong, provocative rhythms of the first lines of “Tenzone,” the play of the Dada “buffoon” (in his own word), or the drop to contemporary bathos in “Homage to Sextus Propertius” -- resurfaces here in the line about “methenamine.”

Sieburth obviously agrees with the contention of Christopher Hitchens (citing Robert Conquest) that “lousy poetry was a good if not exact predictor of bad faith in politics,” but whereas Hitchens’ approval rating for a poem drops it strays too far from an Auden/Larkin line, Sieburth clearly believes that Pound had the right idea about poetry itself: “As is often the case, Pound is his own best critic: when in the late thirties and forties he writes ‘kikery’ or ‘judeocracy’ as a synecdoche for usury we need go no further than the imprecision of his terminology to know he is utterly wrong, utterly in violation of his own doctrine of le mot juste or cheng ming.” ( Instigations, 103) The “phantasmagoria” of “The Pisan Cantos,” in light of the overlapping cultural maps of the Poems and Translations, force the question of whether an aesthetic compass can ever be a stay to an ethical compass that has gone haywire. When lost in a eyes-glazed-over dérive through the 800 pages of the Cantos, the fact of a compass of any stripe becomes important.

The story of the “Pisan Cantos” is well known – I won’t waste precious space here since you can all Google it if you’d like. At the same time, Pound was working on a complete translation of the works of Confucius, kind of like the Plato, Homer and Ben Franklin of Asia wrapped into one (you can Google him, too). Unlike his other translations, such as the “Sextus Propertius” (Google) and “Cathay” (Google), these were idiosyncratic but struggled to be loyal to the meaning of the texts as they were set down – i.e. he didn’t start smashing different parts of the texts together to make new poems. Poems and Translations make an impressive, if unspoken, argument for the plausibility of a part of Pound’s project that is occluded by discussions of his politics: his efforts to piece together an American “renaissance” – Confucius, he felt, was key to it.

Any comparison of Pound’s early poetry to that of the latter parts of the two-volume Library of America Nineteenth Century American Poetry – spirited but staid work by Richard Hovey, Madison Cawein, George Cabot Lodge, Trumbull Stuckney, and a small host of American poets who tried to reach Europe but died either too young or before Modernism exploded – will show that, even when Pound was imitating Browning and Yeats and churning out “Canzoni,” the liveliness of his line – the budding “polyphony” – was setting fires under the feet (literally) of more rule-based metricists. Pound’s early “stale creampuffs” were punk rock compared to the prudent stanzas of the American adherents of Parnassianism and Decadence. That he would add to these early studies, not simply discard them, and thus begin the sketchbook of meters that would be “our” – that is, us poets’ – inheritance is why, in the fifties and sixties, there was a sort of idolatry around Pound despite the repugnance of his social views. The early parts of Poems and Translations dart from idea to disparate idea, many of them eventually brought to completion; the “Pisan Cantos” reads, with the help of Sieburth’s glosses, as the outer galaxy that the Hubble telescopes of “Mauberley” and “Near Perigord” pointed to. No poet before or since has left so much for other writers to work with while emphasizing that, indeed, that was the point of his voyages -- to jump-start a renaissance by putting as much on the table as possible to work into something “new.”

Compare this variety, optimism and excitement to the expressions of cultural exhaustion prevalent now in the United States, in which you would think -- after a century of the most manic and ambitious explorations into the most divergent writing styles, from Derek Walcott to Barrett Watten, going back to Emily Dickinson and coming up to now with Christian Bök -- that there are only two flavors of writing: “post avant” and “official verse.” What Pound asked of poets was that they peek out of the hole, partake in some intellectual “dissociation” -- certainly beyond any tedious question of “lineage” and beyond the borders of our own self-centered country -- to set the stage for this “renaissance.” Our lack of concern with metrics beyond occasional lip service paid to the repetition of vowel sounds and like matter (here on Silliman’s Island) regardless of a phrasing’s cultural base or an examination of the larger corpus from which a cadence arose, has been detrimental to our present culture of poetry, in which the line is often equated with some statement of cultural allegiance, rather than the bow and viola that Pound would have us believe.

Posted by Brian Stefans at November 26, 2003 04:03 PM | TrackBack

Methinks you protest to much
should the sound be not clear
It then has no music

Have you not listened to
the sound of falling thirds?j

Perhaps you would like to tell me your name.

Posted by: Rod at November 27, 2003 06:36 PM

Forrest Read is the name you forgot. It would behoove you to read Laura (Riding) Jackson. Prosit!

Posted by: Frank at December 4, 2003 03:15 PM

When the machine compiles your code, however, it does a little bit of translation. At run time, the computer sees nothing but 1s and 0s, which is all the computer ever sees: a continuous string of binary numbers that it can interpret in various ways.

Posted by: Hercules at January 19, 2004 02:51 AM