In the years since their publication in 1948, Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos have given rise to interpretative bad faith on a scale unusual even by the lofty standards of literary criticism. The reason for this is not some special failing on the part of Pound’s adherents, but rather the burden of expectation laid from the outset on a sequence of 11 poems written in the US Army’s Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa in the summer and autumn of 1945.
The initial hope was that the Pisan Cantos would finally bring Pound’s epic poem to a conclusion that would make apparent the philosophical principles informing it. In January 1940, Pound had published Cantos LII-LXXI, which survey the purgatory of human malevolence and error awaiting any conscientious effort at good government. He now wanted at last to get his poem out of ‘dead matter and negations’ and into the light. He made it clear that he planned one further volume only, which was to be his Paradiso: a resolution modelled on Dante, and on classical epic (the Aeneid as well as the Odyssey), and incorporating Confucius, Scotus Erigena, hymns to Aphrodite, and much else besides. The much else besides turned out to include, by 1948, the defeat of the Fascist regime whose spokesman he had become, and its mortifying consequences: arrest, imprisonment in the DTC in Pisa, and then, back in Washington, psychiatric examination, and transfer to St Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane.
In 1957, Forrest Read put forward the view that the movement within the Pisan Cantos from hell through purgatory to a glimpse of paradise recapitulated a similar movement within the poem as a whole, and thus brought it to a triumphant conclusion (though Pound rather thoughtlessly showed no desire to leave off, and indeed published a further sequence, Thrones, in 1959). Crucial to arguments of this kind was the conviction that Pound had undergone a fundamental change of heart in Pisa. Robert Fitzgerald, reviewing the Pisan Cantos in the New Republic in August 1948, was glad to find the poet ‘for the first time expressing a personal desolation and a kind of repentance’. The trick was to imagine a desolation so extreme that, whatever Pound did or did not say during it, or about it, it could only have led to repentance. Read supposed that desolation had made Pound the hero of his own epic. ‘He is “Old Ez” in the stockade; the sufferer “au bout de toutes mes forces”; the self-critic who has been “hard as youth sixty years”.’ For some reason, Read was particularly touched by what he saw as Pound’s change of heart towards Winston Churchill. The Pisan stockade remained on active service in literary criticism for rather longer than it did in the US army’s penal system. The opening paragraphs of the relevant chapter in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971) read like an extract from the script for a Hollywood biopic (‘they existed from today’s exercise liberty to tomorrow’s, from this meal to the next: the heavy padlock opened, the door swung a little to admit the tin plate and receive the latrine can’).
The other thing the Pisan Cantos were supposed to redeem the poem from was its own previous lack of poetry. Most readers had found Cantos LII-LXXI hard going: in large part it took the form of transcriptions from de Mailla’s 18th-century Histoire générale de la Chine and the writings of John Adams, the head of a great Confucian American dynasty. What awaited them now was a reviving cocktail of Pound’s trademark bohemian-pantheism. The inspiration for the Pisan Cantos was a visionary encounter on a hillside near Sant’ Ambrogio with a barefoot girl and a group of ghostly companions including the troubadour Sordello’s lover, Cunizza da Romano, who in Pound’s view had transmitted the atmosphere of Provençal lyric, with its basis in Hellenic mysteries and a pagan ‘cult of Amor’, to Cavalcanti and Dante. Pound thought that the troubadours had, ‘in some way, lost the names of the gods, and remembered the names of lovers’. In his paradise, he wanted to be able to remember both. The gods and goddesses are back in the Pisan Cantos, as both stimulus to and evidence of poetic renewal; along with various Amor-related items kept in storage in the early lyrics, or on loan from Keats and Swinburne (vineyards, olive groves, emblematic minerals, pards, maelids, bassarids, the pad of furry feet in the undergrowth). This looks like dionysiac kitsch. But it was considered an improvement on the documentary rigours of Cantos LII-LXXI.
Most reassuring of all, to Pound’s critics, was the fervour with which he now approached the natural world. The Cantos, he had said, was to be a poem including history; now it also included sunrise and sunset, cloud over the mountains, birds on the wire:
and as for the solidity of the white oxen in all this
perhaps only Dr Williams (Bill Carlos)
will understand its
its benediction. He wd/ have put in the cart.
There is poetry in the white oxen (all the more, perhaps, for the cart’s omission), and humility. The poet, as Read put it, ‘contemplates the world of nature as the source of possible redemption.’ More solid even than the oxen, in moral and poetic terms, was Brother Wasp, who, in a wonderful passage in Canto 83, performs his own epic descent into the underworld, to ‘carry our news’ to Tiresias and Persephone. Pound had been brought down low, to insect-level; henceforth, his aspirations would at least have the ground beneath them. ‘When the mind swings by a grass-blade/an ant’s forefoot shall save you.’ Saved by the ant’s forefoot at once from too much Fascism and from too little poetry, Pound also found in that fragile talisman a philosophical principle: his paradise would be a terrestrial one through and through.
It is not surprising, given the burden of expectation thus laid on them, that the Pisan Cantos should now be the first part of the poem to receive the benefit of a proper scholarly edition. And it is, for all Pound’s feeling that poetry should not become the property of scholars, a benefit. Dense with allusion not only to literature in several languages but to historical event, and to Pound’s own life story, the text needs to be glossed in order to be read at all. The annotation Richard Sieburth has provided is ample without being fussy, and his introductory essay offers an informative account of the sequence’s genesis, themes, methods and critical reception (not least from the judges who awarded it the prestigious Bollingen Prize, in 1949, amid much controversy).
Before his arrival at the DTC, Pound had written little during the war that was not in Italian, and not in support of Italian Fascism. As the tide turned against the Axis, his endorsements became ever warmer: none more so than Cantos 72 and 73 (the so-called ‘Italian Cantos’), which did not appear in the collected Cantos until 1986. These were a response to two events of December 1944, the death of the poet and ardent Fascist Tommaso Marinetti, and Mussolini’s last public speech, a stirring call for a counter-attack against the Allied armies. In Canto 72, Marinetti’s spirit appears to the poet, demanding the temporary use of his body for unspecified martial purposes. In Canto 73, Guido Cavalcanti returns from the sphere of Venus to witness the heroism of a young woman who has sacrificed her life for her country by leading the Allied soldiers who had raped her into a minefield. The note of bloody-minded defiance, though far less explicit in the Pisan Cantos, is never wholly absent from them.
Pound had intended to conclude the sequence with Canto 83, a vision of terrestrial paradise. However, when he learned in October 1945 of the death of the poet J.P. Angold, Pound was provoked into a further expression of sorrow and disgust. Canto 84 mourns the following: Alessandro Pavolini and Fernando Mezzasoma, officials in the Salò Republic, shot by partisans in April 1945; Pierre Laval and Vidkun Quisling, executed for treason in October 1945; Philippe Henriot, minister of propaganda for the Vichy government, shot by the French Resistance in June 1944. There was a place in Pound’s poem, it seems, for more or less any minor Axis celebrity who came to grief. And he was through with being nice to Churchill, that ‘sputtering tank of nicotine and/stale whiskey’. At the same time, he added a new opening to Canto 74, the first of the Pisan Cantos, expressing his sorrow at the death of Mussolini, who was executed in April 1945 while attempting to reach Switzerland, and hung ‘by the heels at Milano’. These poems are, among other things, a Fascist book of martyrs.
It has been suggested that Pound’s fondness for order and authority should be set against his equal and opposite fondness for a bohemian-pantheist or bohemian-anarchist insouciance. The Pisan Cantos constitute a diary and memoir as well as a martyrology. They allude approvingly to François Villon’s Testament, and could in large part be understood as obeying its injunction to remember the jovial comrades who once ‘sang so well, talked so well/and so excelled in word and deed’. The poem as a whole sets out to identify and praise excellence in word and deed: the achieved object that is a permanent addition to the world, and the ‘dynamism of the man who did get things DONE’ (Thomas Jefferson, in this formulation, but it could be Sigismundo Malatesta, or Mussolini). The Pisan Cantos, however, are often at their most engaging when they remember comrades who didn’t excel in word and deed, or weren’t even comrades to begin with: a salesman in Limoges; a head waiter in Verona (restaurants and cake shops receive their due); Madame Pujol at Excideuil; Mrs Jevons and her bug-ridden hotel at Gibraltar. It is the obscurity of these people, the way the business they conduct fails to be the luminous detail revealing a civilisation, that enabled Pound to conceive of the Pisan Cantos as, among other things, a diary and memoir. Madame Pujol, unknown, is as much of a talisman as the ant’s forefoot.
‘The form of the poem and main progress is conditioned by its own inner shape,’ Pound told the base censor, when about to send the manuscript of the Pisan Cantos to his wife for typing. ‘But the life of the DTC passing OUTSIDE the scheme cannot but impinge, or break into the main flow.’ Sieburth attributes Pound’s self-renewal to his ‘ethnographic observation’ of the life passing outside the scheme of his poem. Pisa DTC was the only integrated command in the Mediterranean theatre, and its prison population was overwhelmingly African American. Black Americans constitute the sequence’s ‘crucial informing presence’, Sieburth argues. The ‘single most moving passage’ in Canto 74, he says, is the celebration of the kindliness of Mr Edwards, a black soldier who, with a fine disregard for camp regulations, built Pound a writing table out of a packing-case. ‘The ground Mr Edwards supplies is at once ethical (the exemplification of charity), linguistic (the black vernacular), and material (the very table Pound writes on).’ Edwards fills exactly the place filled in previous exonerations by the natural world (as ethical, poetic and philosophical principle).
The difficulty with this argument is implicit in the term ‘ethnographic observation’. Pound took delight in the ‘prevalence of early American names’ among the soldiers passing his tent, ‘either of whites of the old tradition … or of descendants of slaves who took the names of their masters. Interesting in contrast to the relative scarcity of melting-pot names.’ The ideology operating here is that of an American nativism working back to the ‘old tradition’, to an America uncontaminated by modern (19th-century) immigrations. The life of the DTC does not pass outside the ‘scheme’ of a poem whose ethnographic observations are entirely compatible with its authoritarianism.
That isn’t quite the end of the story, however, because in the Pisan Cantos Pound did revive, and adapt to his own purposes, an anti-authoritarian emphasis within American nativism (Concord branch). In Nature (1836), Emerson famously expressed the wish to become a ‘transparent eye-ball’. The best redemption, in this view, was immediately to apprehend God’s word written in – or on – the American wilderness. But Emerson also took an interest in towns and villages, and in what was to be apprehended there by some means other than transparency. We might think of that interest as an interest in the virtual realities produced either by a change in the position of the observer, or by a machine:
The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women, – talking, running, bartering, fighting, – the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealised at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings.
Substance was precisely what Walt Whitman, Emerson’s disciple and companion in transparency, was to find in the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys and the dogs all going about their everyday business. Here, Emerson finds something else in them: a puppet-show, an appearance at odds with everyday business, a ‘dualism’. He delights in the unrealising force unleashed by a change in the position of the observer. In such moments, he says, ‘Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.’ Could it be that Pound delighted not so much in the solidity of the white oxen as in the pictorial air given them by the view from the DTC (a consequence, perhaps, of leaving out the cart Dr Williams would have put in)?
Thoreau reported that the night he had spent in Concord jail for non-payment of the poll-tax was ‘like travelling into a far country’. ‘I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village-inn, – a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town.’ There could be a politics in such changes in the position of the observer, as Pound, watching the oxen from inside the DTC, was no doubt aware. Pound reread Thoreau with enthusiasm in the early 1940s. One thing they had in common was an admiration for the motto supposedly inscribed on the Emperor T’ang’s bathtub: in Thoreau’s version, in Walden (1854), ‘Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again’; in Pound’s, in Make It New (1934), ‘AS THE SUN MAKES IT NEW/DAY BY DAY MAKE IT NEW/YET AGAIN MAKE IT NEW’. ‘The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day,’ Thoreau wrote, ‘is the awakening hour.’ Pound evidently agreed. The dawn-songs which had been a feature of his work from the beginning return with renewed force in the Pisan Cantos. He may also have been struck by the several occasions in Walden on which seasonal change provides an unrealising change in point of view:
The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind a glass, and the water is necessarily always smooth then.
The first ice may be transparent, but it does not encourage a similar transparency in the prone observer. Instead, Thoreau, like Emerson before him, stresses the pictorial air given to the world by a change in point of view. The reality thus revealed – the picture behind the glass – is a virtual reality: ‘There are many furrows in the sand where some creature has travelled about and doubled on its tracks; and, for wrecks, it is strewn with the cases of caddis worms made of minute grains of white quartz.’
Other aspects of Walden may well have caught Pound’s attention: its interest in economic theory, for example; or its violent denunciation of the Irish immigrant family at Baker Farm whose slovenliness is a blight on ‘the only true America’. The ‘culture’ of an Irishman, Thoreau said (or of a Jew, Pound might have added), ‘is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe’. Pound brandished the moral bog hoe even more vigorously than Thoreau. He also understood the purpose of an unrealising change in point of view.
In an essay on Cavalcanti in Make It New, Pound described his fascination with ‘the matter of Dante’s Paradiso, the glass under water, the form that seems a form seen in a mirror, these realities perceptible to the sense’. In Du côté de chez Swann, the narrator recalls the freshness evoked for him by bottles which had been sunk in the river as traps for small fish, thus becoming ‘at once a “container” with transparent sides like hardened water and a “content” immersed in a larger container of flowing liquid crystal’. There is as much Proust as Dante in the virtuality produced by Pound’s gaze down into the sea from the cliffs at Sant’ Ambrogio:
Lay in soft grass by the cliff’s edge
with the sea 30 metres below this
and at hand’s span, at cubit’s reach
the crystalline, as inverse of water,
clear over rock-bed
In the Pisan Cantos, virtuality became Pound’s method as well as his topic. He felt able to be ‘inverse’ in verse: to gaze down into the ‘crystalline’ of the poetic tradition reanimated for him in Pisa by the discovery on the ‘jo-house seat’ of a copy of M.E. Speare’s Pocket Book of Verse, an anthology of ‘Great English and American Poems’. The passage I’ve quoted is by no means alone in the Pisan Cantos in its use of the doubled – that is, ghostly, or virtual – iambic foot (two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed). Pound has produced in these lines an image of English prosody as seen underwater (or under Whitman).
After Pisa, Pound was often at his most secular, and therefore at his best, when hunched over water. In the Pisan Cantos, sapphire has paradisal associations derived ultimately from its appearance in Dante’s Purgatorio. Not so, or less evidently so, in Canto 91:
The water-bug’s mittens
petal the rock
The natrix glides sapphire into the rock-pool.
The water-bug’s mittens are boxing-gloves, or mitts (Canto 77 remembers a GI song which includes the couplet ‘My gal’s got great big tits/Just like Jack Dempsey’s mitts’). Bloated though they seem in relation to the insect they hang from, there is a remarkable delicacy in the shadow with which they petal the floor of the pool. The fracture or sudden dip in the line, just before the verb, the transformative metaphor, creates a Thoreauvian picture behind glass. It is like the displacement, at the point of submergence, of the image of a stick sunk in water. The natrix’s virtuality, by contrast, is grammatical – ‘glide’ converted from an intransitive to a transitive verb – and prosodic: its intrusion sends a surge of energy along the line, converting iambs into trochees.
This is now explicitly an American nativist project: to unrealise the world by an observation whose fidelity to the world is itself the medium or force of unrealising. The natrix, according to Webster’s, is ‘a large, widely distributed genus of colubrid aquatic snake that includes all the true water snakes of North America’. You won’t find the word in the OED. Astonishing though the project is, in its own terms, it won’t provide much grist for the exoneration mill. Canto 91 also includes a repellent diatribe, italicised for emphasis, against the ‘kikery’ of modern intellectual life (Marx, Freud and the American ‘beaneries’, or universities).
In a sense, though, no modern writer has been less nativist than Pound. Translation (from, in rough chronological order, Provençal, Old English, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, classical Latin, Chinese again, and classical Greek, with some French, German, Indian and Egyptian thrown in along the way) was central to his theory and practice as a writer. His aim was to reconstitute in English that element of a poem which, as he put it, ‘could not be lost by translation’, though the element not lost would always be found elsewhere, removed from its origin, like glass under water.
Pound’s most favoured poetic form, before and sometimes within the Cantos, was the ‘persona’, a lyric or dramatic monologue richly evoking a distant world. A persona is a mask, but a mask chosen for particular reasons, out of a sense of affinity, and the choice reveals as much about the chooser as about the chosen; it lays the poet bare in ways that direct utterance, of which Pound was perfectly capable, does not. Personae was the title Pound gave in 1926 to his collected shorter poems. The most complex of them, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, is usually interpreted in the light of his subsequent assertion that it expresses emotions as ‘vital’ to him ‘in 1917, faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire, as they were to Propertius some centuries earlier, when faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire’.These are virtual narratives, the product not of transparency, but of an unrealising change of point of view.
Richard Sieburth’s splendid new edition of the Poems and Translations replaces a shelf-ful of variously incomplete editions of the shorter poems and the translations. Poundians will surely be glad to have everything, or very nearly everything, gathered together at last in one place. Whether non-Poundians will gain as much remains to be seen. To me, a good deal of the first five hundred pages or so felt like hanging around waiting for the Cantos to begin; while the translations and occasional poems which rode shotgun on the epic remain for the most part just that, a precaution rather than a challenge. Even the poems which used to be read as a way of not having to read the Cantos – Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), for example – seem unlikely to serve that purpose for much longer. One problem, in this respect, is Sieburth’s decision to arrange the poems in the order of their first appearance in book form. Thus, ‘The Seafarer’, from Ripostes (1912), has been grouped with the other poems from that volume. Pound, however, subsequently incorporated this distinctively Anglo-Saxon imitation and homage into Cathay (1915), a volume of translations from Chinese poetry of roughly the same period. The integrity of the book mattered to him, and that has been lost.
Cathay was itself subsequently incorporated into Lustra (1916 in Britain, 1917 in the US), along with a number of other poems from previous volumes. Lustra also includes the great Imagist poems (‘Liu Ch’e’, ‘Fan-Piece, for Her Imperial Lord’, ‘In a Station of the Metro’), and some of the author’s more strenuous attempts to make himself out to be modern. Modernity, here, seems mostly to involve cruising or being cruised. Pound, like Eliot and Williams, was fond of imagining encounters in the street or in cake shops with women whose conspicuously high or low economic status (either would do) made the connection they themselves appeared eager for unacceptable to the poet. As if. Pound managed to get some of his livelier contributions to the genre withdrawn from the British edition on grounds of indecency. The American edition restored all of these, and added ‘Three Cantos of a Poem of Some Length’, the first draft of the first part of his epic poem. Lustra is the matrix of a vital tradition in modern British and American poetry. If Sieburth were to edit it, with the kind of annotation and commentary he has so ably provided for the Pisan Cantos, he would earn the gratitude of Poundians and non-Poundians alike.