[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
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.
[I wrote this several years ago for the journal Kenning. I don't think I've put this online yet. I think the question posed to everyone was how one thought of oneself in relation to the term "poet critic."]
I haven’t found the term “poet-critic” very useful since it suggests that one could tack on hyphenated nouns endlessly to the phrase for every new activity that a poet might engage in (though I like the ring of “poet-programmer” since it’s a relatively new and confusing creature). A “poet-critic” is really not new, and most neologisms in criticism are bad (such as “poethics”). I think there could be a richer community of critical writers on poetry, people who are interested in creating flexible, lively terminology for further discussion and not keywords for academic roundtables, though there is often a fine line between these two categories. I think some poets could write very great criticism if they found a way of being excited about the language of criticism itself, but also about the drama of the critic in the world (searching for one’s own “lettre du voyant”). My sense is that the listserv critic would be a more interesting phenomenon were people more careful with their prose styles in emails; of course, since much of that writing is considered ephemeral, it’s understandable that many are not willing to take this extra step, and so I wonder if the listserv, rather than increasing our communal interest for extra-poetic verbiage, has in fact been detrimental to “criticism.” Impatience and a sense of wonder might be the two best qualities of a critic, though neither is very useful without a decent prose style. I guess, in the end, I would be interested in critical writing that had a theatrical bent, animating the entire stage of critical and cultural activity and how we work within it, shedding an optimistic light on the state of affairs while also providing a sense of urgency and focus.
[I have no idea how to stop the Viagra ads popping up in my comments section. Oh well. But here's an announcement for my next pubic impertinence, at the Zinc Bar on November 23rd.]
Issue 4 of Pompom magazine is here -- and so's a celebratory reading at zinc
bar in nyc this sunday the 23rd!
Highlights of the issue:
Etel Adnan's Moby Dick indicts Captain Ahab.
Lyn Hejinian poms herself.
Dana Ward and Karen Weiser go vertiginous.
The editors ponder the pom, pomming.
Plus artwork from Bill Marsh & Joel Lipman
Please come to the big pre-thanksgiving pom2tenanny
on Sunday November 23 at 6:59pm at Zinc
to celebrate in fine style the release of the latest POM2.
Our launch party features Issue #2 contributor Brian Kim "All the Trimmings" Stefans, issue #3 contributor Fred "Sweet Potato Pie" Schmalz, and issue #4 contributor Barbara "Cranberry Sauce" Cole. The editors will be on hand to discuss the magazine as well.
Zinc is 90 West Houston btw Laguardia & Thompson in Manhattan
Contributors to issue 4 include:
Etel Adnan | Holly Bittner | Daniel Borzutzky | Barbara Cole | Corina Copp | Brenda Coultas | kari edwards | Albert Flynn DeSilver | Marcella Durand | Betsy Fagin | Michael Farrell | Noah Eli Gordon | Jefferson Hansen | Carla Harryman | Lyn Hejinian | Joel Lipman | Sarah Mangold | Bill Marsh | Yedda Morrison | Sheila E. Murphy | Eileen Myles | Simon Pettet | Kristin Prevallet | Sarah Rehmer | Andrew Riley Clark | Camille Roy | Sara Smith | Chuck Stebelton | Christina Strong | Chris Martin | Lisa Samuels | Kerri Sonnenberg | Anne Tardos | Edwin Torres | Dana Ward & Karen Weiser
Visit www.pompompress.com for selections.
Single issue $5 / Subscription (2 issues) $9
Send check payable to Susan Landers to:
128 Noble St. #3
Brooklyn, NY 11222