- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985
SIR: Now that Donald Davie has informed myself and other members of the public that, not having read Pound’s Cantos, we lack ‘any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of the century’ (LRB, 23 May), perhaps you could persuade him to name the ‘arcane’ novel, play, autobiography etc holding a similarly privileged status. Until then, my mouth is sealed. (I must confess that I find Pound’s poem repellent and unreadable, but I promise to try harder.)
By the way, congratulations to Tom Paulin for his welcome piece on Geoffrey Hill (LRB, 4 April); I’ve enjoyed the indignant squealings it provoked as well. I trust you can assure me they’ve all read their Pound. I wouldn’t want to be misled by any commonplace opinions.
Vol. 7 No. 16 · 19 September 1985
SIR: To the books and articles occasioned by the Pound centenary it may perhaps be worth adding a word from his quondam English publisher. I first met Ezra Pound when he came to London with Olga Rudge to attend the Memorial Service for T.S. Eliot in Westminster Abbey on 4 February 1965. He had wanted to come to the funeral a month before but had been persuaded not to attempt to travel from Venice in early January, especially as the funeral was to be a small private ceremony. Pound sat in the stalls in the Abbey while Olga Rudge was in the nave with her brother Dr Rudge, who was then living in East Anglia. I didn’t speak to them after the service but felt that I should call on them while they were in London. I was at the time Vice-Chairman of Faber and Faber; the Chairman, Richard de la Mare, was in Australia on business.
I arranged to go to Durrants Hotel, near Baker Street, where Ezra and Olga were staying. Olga met me in the lobby and took me to the bar, which was rather a small room. She ordered two glasses of sherry and I wondered why there were not three. Suddenly Ezra appeared at the door and Olga almost immediately left. Ezra and I sat at a table in the corner and I felt that everyone in the bar could hear every word we said. I tried hard to make conversation, about the Abbey service, the English weather, and anything that came into my head. There were long silences. Ezra suddenly said he had been to the Tate Gallery to see Epstein’s Rock Drill; it was not displayed, he thought, as well as it had been originally. At last I felt I could ask the main question that was in my mind. Would he consider making a selection of the Cantos to provide an easy introduction to the poems for readers coming to them for the first time, rather on the lines of Eliot’s selection Introducing James Joyce? After a pause, Ezra said – or I thought he said: ‘Why not publish them all together?’ To which of course I replied that we did and always would publish a complete volume of the Cantos. But I had misheard him. ‘I said, why not abolish them altogether,’ was his rather startling reply. I can’t remember how I answered this, but in fact he did make a selection for me, which Faber later published. A marked volume of The Complete Cantos arrived with side-lining in red ink by the parts he wanted included (which we carefully followed) and further side-lining in pencil for a possible larger volume, which perhaps might still be considered for publication.
Before he left London he came to the Faber offices at 24 Russell Square to see what had been Eliot’s room; he was photographed leaving the building. He also visited Mrs Eliot in Kensington. It is well-known that at the last minute Ezra and Olga decided not to return at once to Venice: they went to see Mrs Yeats in Dublin. So the visit must have revived many memories.
My second visit to Pound was in Venice. My wife and I were attending the third International James Joyce Symposium in Trieste from 14 to 18 June 1971. I telephoned to Olga to ask if we might come to see them while we were so close. She had been asked to bring Pound to Trieste during the meetings and was uncertain what to do. I have to confess that I advised her not to come; I hated the idea of Ezra, who at that time remained silent in public, being paraded like a performing bear before the assembled Joyceans. At any rate they didn’t come and we took the train one morning from Trieste to Venice, a delightful journey along the northern coast of the Gulf of Venice.
When we arrived at Olga’s tiny house in San Gregorio we went upstairs to the sitting-room where Ezra was sitting in his big basketwork chair. He had a pad of paper on his knee and a pencil in his hand. Words were being arranged on the paper and I felt I had a glimpse of the creative spirit that couldn’t stop attempting to build a structure of words, even if no satisfactory result could any longer be achieved.
Olga took my wife to a bedroom to leave her coat and as soon as Ezra and I were left alone he started to talk volubly. He was anxious that Olga should be properly provided for after his death. I did my best to reassure him, not really knowing what was to be done. (I believe she is in fact well looked after.) After Olga and my wife returned Ezra was silent again. They took us out to a pleasant lunch at a small restaurant close at hand. Ezra walked well and looked splendid: tall, handsome, erect. But he remained silent. My wife sat next to him and offered to pour him some wine. Poco, poco, he requested and those were the last words we heard him say.
Peter du Sautoy