Pound’s Friends

Donald Davie

  • Pound’s Cantos by Peter Makin
    Allen and Unwin, 349 pp, £20.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 04 811001 9
  • To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos by Christine Froula
    Yale, 208 pp, £18.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 300 02512 2
  • Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing by Peter Nicholls
    Macmillan, 263 pp, £25.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 333 36159 8

Number ten in the Unwin Critical Library, Peter Makin’s book is very good. No one can say with any confidence that it will attract new readers to Pound ’s immense poem; and in fact one of its great virtues is that it doesn’t try to minimise how difficult The Cantos is, and always will be. The difficulties are of three kinds: first, those inseparable from the nature of the enterprise (i.e. epic); second, those inseparable from Pound’s temperament; lastly, those involved with the political and other vicissitudes endured by Pound through his more than fifty years labour on the poem. Devoted work by commentators through now several decades has in one sense ‘cleared up’ difficulties in each of these areas: for, though The Cantos have attracted a quota of pedants and loonies, that quota is surprisingly small, and most Poundians have worked harder and more responsibly than, for instance, the Hardyans have. But their clearings-up necessarily partake of the refractory and multifarious and arcane nature of the text that they work with, and of the sources of that text; and so mastering the elucidations is not much easier than mastering the poem. The Cantos is or are, and through any foreseeable future will remain, ‘caviare to the general’: and yet there they sprawl, a labyrinthine ruin (to put the case at its worst) plumb in the middle of whatever we understand by Anglo-American Modernism in poetry. Anyone may be excused for deciding that life is too short for coming to terms with The Cantos: but if we make that decision we thereby disqualify ourselves from having any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of this century.

What incessantly threatens to disable and demoralise commentators on Pound is precisely this clear-sighted recognition that the poet to whom they devote themselves can never have in any ordinary sense ‘a public’. It’s against the permanent drag of this dispiriting awareness that we should measure, and applaud, the élan that Peter Makin finds, nine times over, to impel him on to seven or nine or ten or twenty cantos at a time, from Canto One to Canto 117 – this after six chapters of preliminary and necessary throat-clearing. True to his briefing from Claude Rawson as general editor, Makin doesn’t restrict himself to summarising what previous commentators have uncovered (though he’s good at that, scrupulous and thorough – for instance, noting German and Italian writing as well as English), but he has pursued his own researches and presses his own line – nowhere to better purpose than on Canto 36, the translation of Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, where his elucidation of the psychology and metaphysics of Albertus Magnus is so far as I know unprecedented, and awesomely illuminating. Moreover, having to decide with each batch of cantos those that he will concentrate on, he honourably steers clear of those that are most winning, most ‘lyrical’ – scanting in his Chapter Eight Canto 17 for the more rebarbative Cantos 21 and 25; or in Chapter Ten passing over Canto 47, which can be, and has been, applauded by some to whom the thrust of The Cantos as a whole is unappealing.

Over quite long stretches it doesn’t appeal to Makin either. Written at speed in the last months before war broke out, Cantos 52 to 71, known to initiates as the Chinese History Cantos followed by the John Adams Cantos, seem to him as to many of us wrongly conceived as well as sloppily executed. His dislike of them takes a special turn, however, when for the failure of the Adams sequence he blames John Adams, not Pound: ‘What flatness, undifferentiation, the section none the less has seems to come from Adams. Both Adams’s morality and his aesthetic seem negative, stoic, Horatian ...’ I’d quarrel with this. The writings by Adams that Pound takes his scissors to can be shown to be repeatedly livelier and more humane as Adams wrote them than after Pound has performed his slapdash surgery. But in any case notice how Makin would bully us into accepting that in morality and aesthetics ‘stoic’ and ‘Horatian’ are self-evidently words of ill omen. A helluva lot of people through the centuries have thought them very honourable words indeed, as Peter Makin certainly knows. There is a brazenness about the manoeuvre which in an odd way I find engaging, as it is in the young Hugh Kenner from whom I would guess Makin learned it. But someone who so dashingly cuts his corners – he does so at one point about the iambic pentameter, and elsewhere (really rather deplorably) about the British Great War poets – has to be watched, all the more because he is trenchant, rapid, brilliant – that’s to say, persuasive.

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