Ezra Pound and the modernist image

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In many ways, Ezra Pound epitomizes the avant-garde modernist poet: outspoken, experimental, and fiercely iconoclastic. Pound had the most controversial career of any twentieth-century poet, and his overall place in American literature is more controversial than that of any other modernist. As a poet, a critic, and a promoter of other writers, Pound was central to the development of modernist poetry. T. S. Eliot, in dedicating his poem The Waste Land to Pound, called him "the better craftsman" ("il migliorfabbro"). Yet at the same time Pound was a literary vagabond who never felt entirely at home in any culture. Pound's restless energy led him to London in 1908, to Paris in 1920, and then to Rapallo, Italy, in 1925, where he would remain until the end of World War II. An exile who embraced Italian Fascism during the war and who was later indicted for treason, Pound was unique among American writers in the extent of his involvement not only with the art and literature of his time, but also with the events of world history in the first half of the twentieth century.

Pound's comfortable early life in suburban Philadelphia and his education at Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania would have seemed to prepare him more for the traditional career of a man of letters than for that of a poetic revolutionary. In both college and graduate school, Pound studied Romance languages and literature: he was strongly drawn to the poetry of the Provençal troubadours, as well as to the work of Dante. He took a master of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1905, and the following year he won a fellowship for travel to Italy and Spain in preparation for a doctoral dissertation on the playwright Lope de Vega.

On his return from Europe, Pound took a post as an instructor of Romance Languages at Wabash College in Indiana. It was his dismissal from Wabash (on the grounds of having kept a young woman overnight in his rooms) that convinced Pound of his unsuitability for academic life. Pound used the rest of his year's salary to travel to Gibraltar and Venice, where he published his first volume of poetry, A Lume Spento (1908). This was soon followed by several more volumes: A Quinzaine for This Yule (1908), Personae (1909), Exultations (1909), and Canzoni (1911). Pound would later refer to the poems of these early books as "stale creampuffs," but it was through these poems, many of them either translations or imitations of other poets, that he perfected his craft and developed his fine ear for the rhythmic and tonal effects of poetry. Pound experimented in this early work with a wide range of poetic modes, including the dramatic monologue ("Cino"), the troubadour love song ("Na Audiart"), the poem of Ovidian metamorphosis ("The Tree"), the "Villonaud" (a form based on the work of Villon), the Yeatsian symbolist lyric ("The White Stag"), the sestina ("Sestina: Altaforte"), the ballad ("Ballad for the Goodly Fere"), the elegy ("Planh for the Young English King"), the Pre-Raphaelite portrait ("The House of Splendour"), and the verse parody ("Song in the Manner of Housman"). As a developing poet who had spent years training himself as a scholar of comparative literature, it was only natural that Pound's first instinct was to try out as many different styles as possible, imitating the work of great poets from the past before embarking on his own, more personalized poetic project. As opposed to poets like Frost and Robinson, Pound did not confine his reading to the English-language canon, but read widely in the poetry of Italian, Greek, Latin, Provencal, French, German, and later Chinese masters.

Soon after Pound's arrival in London in 1908, his association with the literary magazine The New Age brought him into contact with important writers, artists, and critics as well as economists and politicians. By 1912, when he published Ripostes, Pound had firmly established himselfin London literary circles and had become an important figure in the artistic avantgarde. Along with two other expatriate poets, H. D. and Richard Aldington, Pound put in place a program for what he called "Imagism," a movement which would have several major tenets. The first ofthese was that the poem should always involve a "direct treatment of the thing," as opposed to the romanticized or symbolic treatment favored by nineteenth-century poets. Pound sought to avoid the vagueness or abstraction of much post-symbolist verse: "Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace,' " he wrote in Poetry (March 1913). "It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol."

Pound's second rule was that the poem should use no word that was not absolutely necessary to its composition. Pound wanted to follow French prose writers like Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant in finding le mot juste (the right word) rather than adopting the overly wordy style of Victorian poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Algernon Swinburne. "Poetry should be as well written as prose," Pound wrote to poet and editor Harriet Monroe, "departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)." Most Imagist poems were short, offering the virtue of concision (and, it was hoped, precision) instead of the verbosity that had often been a substitute for careful writing in the work of the Victorian and

Georgian poets. The attention to the "image" would help the poet focus his language; rather than presenting a generalized poetic sentiment, the poet could create "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

The third and final rule of Imagism was that poetry should be composed "in the sequence of the musical phrase" rather than that of the "metronome." Pound rejected what he considered the stifling constraint of monotonous pentameter rhythms. As Pound's collaborator Aldington put it in an essay entitled "Modern Poetry and the Imagists" (1914), the poet should seek "to create new rhythms - as the expression of new moods - and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods." Though the Imagists would not insist absolutely on the use offree verse, they felt strongly that free verse allowed a greater originality of expression than conventional metrical and stanzaic forms.

With these rules in place, Pound began his two-pronged initiative: both to "modernize" poetry in his own work, and to encourage the work of other poets - Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and H. D., for example - whom he believed capable of modern writing. Pound edited an anthology of Imagist verse, Des Imagistes (1915), which contained the work ofH. D., Aldington, Yeats, and others. He also began writing a radically different kind of poetry which was at once more visual and more concise than his earlier work.

This change can easily be seen in Pound's most famous Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro" (1913):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound himself attached a good deal of importance to this brief poem as an exemplar ofthe Imagist method: he even supplied an explanatory account of its composition in an essay entitled "How I Began" (1913). On leaving the Paris metro one day, Pound claims, he saw a number of beautiful faces: the "sudden emotion" of seeing these faces against the backdrop of the metro station led him to an "equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of color." He proceeded to write a thirty-line poem, which he then cut in half, and then finally succeeded in compressing into one "hokku-like sentence." The "one-image poem" which resulted was "a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another"; Pound attempted in the poem to record "the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself. . . into a thing inward and subjective." In his typically synthetic manner, Pound had managed something entirely new in poetry, bringing together the form of the Japanese haiku with an aesthetic theory taken from recent developments in the visual arts.

The success of Pound's poem depends not only on its single image - which strikingly links the natural world of petals and boughs with the modern urban environment of the metro station - but also on its highly effective use of sound and rhythm. The poem's verbal energy can be attributed to its forceful refusal of iambic meter - especially in the second line - and to its progression from the percussive consonants of "petals" to the three monosyllables of "wet, black bough." The second line is as musically evocative as it is visually precise: the dense repetition of vowels and consonants here reinforces the visual effect of the image itself. As Hugh Kenner notes: "The words so raised by prosody to attention assert themselves as words . . . from which visual, tactile and mythic associations radiate."1 The poem is a significant step in the development of modernist poetry. First of all, its compression was unprecedented: no English poem had been expected to carry so much meaning in so few words. Secondly, by simply juxtaposing two complex images without comment and leaving the reader to establish a relation between them, the poem allows for an extremely open-ended set of possible meanings. As Kenner suggests, the crowd of passengers in the Paris underground can be related to the mythic underworld visited by Odysseus and Orpheus, and the word "apparition" in the first line can suggest phantoms as well as living people.

On the eve of World War I, however, Pound saw the limitations of the Imagist movement, which he felt had been coopted and sentimentalized by the poet Amy Lowell (who published several Imagist anthologies of her own). Along with the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, Pound helped found a new movement called Vorticism. The Vorticists encouraged a more dynamic approach to poetry, seeking the hardness and precision of sculpture rather than the static beauty ofthe image. The movement was to be short-lived - its journal Blast folded after two issues and Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in the war - but it added to Pound's growing reputation as a literary provocateur. Pound also established relationships with various journals - including The Little Review, Poetry, and The Egoist - and with other writers, including Eliot and Frost.

Another event that had a transforming influence on Pound's poetry and poetic ideas was his discovery of the manuscripts of Ernest Fenellosa, an American scholar who had lived in Japan and worked on the translation of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Fenellosa's notebooks and other manuscripts contained unpublished translations of Japanese Noh drama and Chinese poetry. Pound used the notebooks as a basis for his 1915 volume Cathay, a series of loose poetic adaptations of Chinese poems based on Fenellosa's notes. Cathay contained some of Pound's strongest work to date and represented a new style of modern poem, one combining the simplicity and directness of Imagist poetics with the intense lyricism of the Chinese originals. The most successful poems in Cathay - such as "The River Merchant's Wife: Letter," "Song of the Bowmen of Shu," "Lament of the Frontier

Guard," "Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin," and "Exile's Return" - achieve an effect unlike anything to be found in English poetry at the time.

"Song of the Bowmen of Shu" was based on a poem written by a Chinese general at the end of the Yin dynasty (1401-1121 B.C.), when the Emperor's troops were sent north to subdue the invasions of "barbarian" tribes. Pound was clearly aware ofthe parallel between the situation ofthe Chinese archers and the British soldiers in the battlefields of World War I: he sent the poem along with two others to Gaudier-Brzeska, who was stationed at the front. The poem begins with a direct presentation of the bowmen in idiomatic language and with understated emotion:

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots

And saying: When shall we get back to our country?

The bowmen are isolated at the front and so hungry they are forced to rely on fern-shoots (and later "old fern-stalks") for sustenance. As the poem ends, Pound adopts more evocative imagery to suggest a realization of the time that has passed and the anonymity under which the soldiers serve their rulers:

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,

We come back in the snow,

We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,

Our mind is full of sorrow, who shall know of our grief?

Pound creates a verbal energy through a series of clear, direct statements, allowing thoughts and images to emerge free ofpoetic embellishment. The willows form an imagistic counterpoint to the fern-shoots of the first lines, as Pound holds to his Imagist rule of the "direct treatment" of both objects and emotions. Pound also obeys the Imagist dictum concerning concision, presenting a scene in the fewest possible words.

Finally, the rhythms of the Cathay poems owe more to the model of Anglo-Saxon accentual meter than to iambic pentameter; these meters sounded fresh to modern readers, contributing to the spare but evocative nature of the poems. In an example like the following one from "The Lament of the Frontier Guard," we can see how the spondaic and trochaic rhythms reinforce the imagery:

There is no wall left to this village. Bones white with a thousand frosts, High heaps, covered with trees and grass.

These lines cannot be read fast. They are weighted down by the heavily accented rhythms (both the second and third lines begin with a spondee), and by the predominance of monosyllables and the lack of verbs (in the three lines, the only verb is the weak copula "is"). The slow progression of the lines functions as a verbal equivalent for the lives of the frontier guards themselves, who must stand and wait "by the North Gate."

Along with the texts of the Chinese poems themselves, Pound also took from Fenellosa the notion of the "ideogram," the term Fenellosa used to describe the "simple, original pictures" formed by Chinese characters. Pound responded immediately to the ideogram, or what he later called the "ideogrammatic method," as a way of bringing visual images together within the written form of language itself. The ideogrammatic method could be seen as an extension of Pound's Imagist ideal of the "direct treatment of the thing," and it also provided a structural basis for Pound's composition of longer poetic works. The importance of the ideogram, in the theory expressed by Fenellosa and accepted by Pound, was that since the Chinese characters were at their root composed of actual pictures they were by nature more concrete, expressive, and poetic than alphabetic writing. So, for example, in reading the character for "sunset," the Chinese reader would actually see the descending sun in the tree's branches. Though this theory of Chinese writing has been discredited by scholars - who argue that the Chinese no more "see" the sun in their character than English readers do in theirs - it provided a powerful ideal for Pound's own poetry, which he sought to make as concrete and direct as possible.

In 1917, Pound began working on a long poem that would eventually become The Cantos, and that would take as its primary compositional structure the "ideogrammatic" combination or juxtaposition ofdifferent images, ideas, narratives, characters, and historical events. Pound had already experimented in his 1916 volume Lustra with longer historical poems, such as "Near Perigord" and "Provincia Deserta," but in his plan for The Cantos he was far more ambitious, hoping to create a modern epic or "poem including history." But after completing the original version of the first three "Cantos" (often referred to as the "Ur-Cantos") Pound turned his attention to two other projects.

Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) is a free translation from the Latin which cast the poet Propertius as a persona who could express Pound's own dissatisfaction with contemporary society. It may appear surprising for an experimental modernist poet to have turned to a model from classical antiquity, but Pound very deliberately chooses a neglected Latin poet -a contemporary of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid who failed to achieve their degree of literary fame - whose work can be dusted off and presented in an entirely fresh and modern way. The style of Pound's poem prepares the way for The Cantos, mixing erudite allusions to Roman history and mythology with colloquial speech, anachronistic images (Propertius speaks ofnot having a "frigidaire" in his cellar), and etymological puns. The poem scandalized classical scholars, who pointed out its numerous "howlers" of mistranslation; but such critiques missed the point of Pound's exercise, which was not to render a literal translation but instead to capture in contemporary form the ironic and satiric feeling of Propertius' original. Like Pound in twentieth-century London, Propertius was an anti-establishment poet, rejecting the heroic mode of poetry which sought to celebrate the imperial affairs of Rome, and "tying blue ribbons in the tails of Virgil and Horace." Pound's poem could hardly be read as a "translation," he points out, since it contained a mention of Wordsworth and a parodied line from Yeats, among other anachronisms. Instead, it is something between a paraphrase, an imitation, and an entirely new poem which seeks to resuscitate an unfairly neglected poet while aligning Pound's own career with that of an earlier master.

Pound's second poetic project of the late 1910s was Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. Published in 1920, the poem was a sequence of shorter lyrics tracing the life and career of a poet based on Pound himself. In a 1922 letter to Felix Schelling, Pound called Hugh Selwyn Mauberly "an attempt to condense the [Henry] James novel in verse": it is both a poetic autobiography and a terse and ironic commentary on the situation of the poet and English society after World War I. Pound's most ambitious poem to that point, it is an elegy both for those who died in the war ("There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them") and for his own misguided attempts, in his prewar writings, "to resuscitate the dead art of poetry." In the poem, Pound bids farewell to the aestheticism of his earlier work, but he also comments on the degeneration of modern society, which he believed had replaced true art with commercialism and a debased form of mass art. One example of Pound's ironic commentary on the modern world comes at the beginning of section III:

The tea-rose tea-gown etc.

Supplants the mousseline of Cos,

The pianola "replaces"

Sappho's barbitos.

In comparing the products of modern industrial society with the poetry of Sappho, Pound supplies a kind of ideogrammatic picture of the decay of Western culture. On the one hand we find the "tea-rose," the "tea-gown," and the "pianola," all faddish consumer objects that represent either decadent triviality or mechanical versions of real instruments. On the other hand, there is the genuine work ofart or craft: the fine light cloth, for which Pound adopts the French word "mousseline," produced on the Greek island of Cos, and the "barbitos," or lyre, of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. Unlike the tea-gown, which expresses the "tawdry cheapness" of modern culture, the simple muslin cloth of ancient dress was classically pure; unlike the pianola, which plays from a roll of perforated paper and is thus divorced from any contact with the musician, the "barbitos" represents the harmonious unity of the human voice and music. Pound drives home the ironic point of the stanza through the use of anti-poetic diction, such as the "etc." at the end of the first line, and the use of quotation marks on "replaces." Clearly, the new forms of culture cannot "replace" the old in any real sense; they only fulfill an equivalent if debased function.

The poem begins with an "ode" to Mauberly, and to the younger Pound:

For three years, out of key with his time, He strove to resuscitate the dead art Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime" In the old sense. Wrong from the start -

No, hardly, but seeing he had been born In a half savage country, out of date; Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn; Capaneus; trout for factitious bait;

In a mock funeral oration for the dead poet, the opening section compares Mauberly (and by extension Pound himself) to several heroic figures. The tone of the poem is complex, because Pound's persona is at once heroic in his attempt to "maintain the sublime" in the midst of mediocrity and a failure in his inability to do so successfully.

An understanding of Pound's allusions to figures such as Capaneus, Odysseus, and Villon also helps us to grasp the meaning of these densely compressed stanzas. Capaneus was one of the "Seven against Thebes," a tragic Greek hero who was arrogant enough to defy the wishes ofZeus and who remained defiant when he reappeared in Canto XIV of Dante's Inferno. Capaneus' attack on Thebes could be compared to Pound's own assault on the London poetry world of the early 1910s; Pound fails because he is taken in by the "factitious bait" (i.e. the artificial fly) of a decadent Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Mauberly/Pound is also compared to Odysseus, who escaped the sirens by plugging his ears with wax, and was later detained by the seductress Circe. Pound feels that he was seduced by an outmoded poetic expression, and as a result was unable to make the necessary transition to a poetic idiom more in "key with his time." Just as Odysseus took ten years to return to his Penelope, Pound needed a decade of writing to find that his "true Penelope was Flaubert," the French novelist who supplied his rationale for the Imagist concision of language. Finally, the protagonist is compared to the fifteenth-century French poet Francois Villon, another Poundian figure of heroic defiance. Pound identifies with Villon, who published his Testament in "the thirtieth year of his age" ("l'an trentuniesme / De son age") and was later arrested and sentenced to death before being banished from Paris.

Unlike Villon, however, Pound feels he has not yet distinguished himself in his poetry: he has left "no adjunct to the Muses' diadem," no new jewels of verse to adorn poetry's crown.

Rather than the free verse of his Imagist phase, Pound adopts the rhyming quatrains he had learned from Théophile Gautier's stanzas. Pound saw the quatrain as a corrective to the "floppiness" he felt had taken over contemporary free verse. Though Pound would return to free verse in The Cantos, here he makes brilliantly ironic use of the stanzaic form, creating unexpected and humorous rhymes and playing with a variety of metrical forms. Despite their formality, the quatrains of Hugh Selwyn Mauberly are decidedly modern: no previous poet would have had the audacity to rhyme "lee-way" with the Greek "Troie," or "Pisastratus" with "over us." Pound also seeks to create as much variety in the rhythms as possible, as if to carve out of these stanzas what he calls in section II "the 'sculpture' of rhyme." With these hard-edged lines, Pound sought to reject both the "metronome" and what he referred to as "the slushiness and swishiness of the post-Swinburnian British line."

When Pound left England in 1920 and moved to Paris, The Cantos was to become his lifetime poetic work. He would continue to write new Cantos and publish them as separate volumes over the next half century. A work of over 800 pages, The Cantos is both lyrical and discursive, a multilingual and allusive modern epic which uses ideogrammatic linkages to combine literary and mythic elements (including a Homeric descent to the underworld and Ovidian metamorphoses) with impressions of such disparate historical figures as the Chinese philosopher Confucius, American presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, the Italian Renaissance prince Sigismundo Malatesta, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and the economist Major C. H. Douglas. Since a close reading of The Cantos is impossible in the space available, and the poem's difficulty and complexity prohibit anything more than a cursory description here, we will have to settle for a general overview of Pound's "epic" rather than a detailed analysis. After all, The Cantos, at roughly 23,000 lines, is over twice the length of Milton's Paradise Lost and fifty times the length of Eliot's The Waste Land.

Though Pound finally admitted that he could not "make it cohere," he sought a philosophical structure for The Cantos, which he defined as being "between kung and eleusis ." By this elliptical phrase Pound meant that the poem was balanced between an ethic of order and rationality as established by Confucian doctrine and a frenetic celebration ofbirth, death, and regeneration as represented by the Eleusinian mysteries, ancient Greek rites involving the story ofthe birth ofDionysus. Formally, Pound conceived of The Cantos both as a fugue, in which recurring themes are variously rephrased ("the repeat in history") and as an epic on the model of Dante's Divine Comedy, with an Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Finally, The Cantos can be seen as taking the form of an experimental poetic autobiography, in which Pound often speaks in his own voice rather than those of his personae, and in which the poet becomes the protagonist of his own work. Pound's aim, as James Laughlin and Delmore Schwartz wrote in a 1940 essay on The Cantos, was nothing less than that of "painting, in vast detail, the mind-body-soul of Twentieth Century man."2

The first Canto begins in dramatic fashion, with a descent to the underworld, the nekyia of Western epic. Most of the Canto is a translation of Book XI of Homer's Odyssey, which tells the story of how Odysseus leaves Circe's island and travels to Hades, where he asks the prophet Tiresias how to return to his home in Ithaca. The use of the Homeric scene functions in several ways: it establishes the motif of a voyage - in time (to the beginnings of Western literature) as well as in space (to the underworld); it declares Pound's poem as a modern epic in dialogue with Homer's poem; it introduces the figure of Odysseus as one of several personae, or masks, Pound will adopt in the course of The Cantos; it describes a ritual involving animal sacrifice and prophecy that invokes the magical or prophetic powers ofpoetry; and it highlights its own status as translation, the actual text Pound translates being a previous translation into Renaissance Latin. The story of Odysseus is one of the many stories, or myths, that will make up The Cantos, like fragments in a mosaic or collage. Within the first sixteen Cantos (published together in 1925) Pound would use pieces of many other stories, including Helen's beauty as a cause of the Trojan War, the metamorphoses of Dionysus, troubadour and Italian parallels to Ovid's metamorphoses, the heroic activities of Malatesta during the Italian Renaissance, the life of Confucius, and the sordid activities ofmodern monopolists, war profiteers, and userers. The fragment from the Odyssey is both the first and the oldest piece of the mosaic Pound is constructing. The Odyssey is perhaps the ideal model for Pound's poem, providing the figure of the heroic, self-reliant explorer in search of knowledge and experience as he attempts to find his way home to Penelope.

The complexity of The Cantos is not only on the level of stories and themes, but also on the level of language, form, and style. The linguistic layering of the first Canto is itself striking, since the text not only contains the three levels ofHomer, the Latin translation, and Pound's twentieth-century English rendering, but also echoes in its style the alliterative "Seafarer" verse of Old English. In the final lines of the Canto, Pound introduces yet another text: a Latin translation of the second Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Thus the first Canto not only serves as the introduction to the entire work, but encapsulates the allusiveness and linguistic layering of The Cantos as a whole. This epic will not be simply a "tale of the tribe," as Pound described it, but a history book, an encyclopedia of Western (and at times non-Western) civilization, and an archive of previous texts.

The poem begins in medias res, drawing the reader immediately into the action:

And then went down to the ship, Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and We set up mast and sail on that swart ship, Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward Bore us out onward with bellying canvas, Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

The form of The Cantos is to be an "open" form, imitative of the flux and variety of life itself and the restless energy of Pound's own mind. Thus the first Canto begins with "And then ..." and ends with "So that:." The reader is immediately brought into the scene, propelled forward both by the "and" which initiates the poem and by the blunt force of the language itself. It is a language of origins, of beginnings, capturing a sense of the archaic or primitive quality in Homer's text. The first and third lines are composed entirely of monosyllables, and virtually all the two-syllable words in the opening lines are accented on the first syllable; in this way, Pound establishes the strong trochaic beat that propels the poem forward, imitating the "sea-surge" that he hears in Homer's poetry. A list of these words gives us a sense ofthe almost archaic density ofPound's language: breakers, godly, bodies, heavy, weeping, sternward, onward, canvas, goddess. Also effective is the delay of the pronoun "We" until the third line, as if the action is suspended in time for a brief moment. It is not until line 7 that we are given a clue as to our surroundings, but the language is so evocative and so different from the poetic standard of Pound's era that it holds our attention nonetheless.

If the first Canto begins with the originary model for all Western poetry, the second begins with an evocation of Pound's more recent poetic predecessor, Robert Browning:

Hang it all, Robert Browning, There can be but the one "Sordello." But Sordello, and my Sordello? Li Sordels si fo di Montovana. So-shu churned in the sea.

Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash Sleak head, daughter of Lir, eyes of Picasso

Pound's question here is fundamental to his conception of The Cantos as a whole. There are in fact three Sordellos: the historical figure, an Italian troubadour of the thirteenth century; the fictionalized version from

Browning's long poem Sordello, which Pound considered the "best long poem in English since Chaucer"; and Pound's own version of Sordello, which must be different from Browning's. Pound acknowledges that he cannot surpass Browning at the long historical poem, a form at which Browning excelled; but he can do something new, inventing the epic as "poem including history" rather than as fictionalized history. Pound immediately foregrounds the relationship of poetry to history by quoting from a Provencal biography of Sordello: "Li Sordels si fo di Montovana" ("Sordello comes from Mantua"). This introduction of a documentary fact about Sordello rejects the pseudo-historical fiction of Browning's poem, establishing Pound's claim to a Sordello who is closer to the original historical figure.

In the following lines, however, Pound shifts to an entirely different poetic register, evoking a series ofmetamorphoses that seem far removed from the story of Sordello. By embracing the fanciful and mythic resonances of Ovidian metaphorphosis, Pound distances himself from Browning's focus on history and historical figures. The "So-shu" who "churned in the sea" is based on a Chinese Taoist philosopher who, in Pound's version, churns the sea with a moonbeam. We have already seen the invocation of magic in the soothsaying ritual of Canto I (where Tiresias, the blind prophet, tells Odysseus' fortune); here, we have a further indication of the importance of magic, ritual, and transformation to the poetic process. Pound's use of this particular sea image is very deliberate: it echoes the use ofthe sea in Canto I and it introduces a series ofsea images in Canto II that culminates with Proteus, the shape-changing sea god. Further, as Michael Alexander has noted, the image of churning the sea with a moonbeam more generally represents "the flux of perception, imagination, and memory which makes up experience"; the Canto as a whole will proclaim "both the flux of phenomena and the necessity of imagination as the source of primal knowledge."3 The magical transformations that follow in the Canto are of various kinds: from a seal sporting in the water into the daughter of Lir, a Celtic sea-god, and then into the cubist face of a Picasso painting; from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Helen of Troy (based on a Greek pun linking Helen's name to the word elenaus, "ship-destroying"); from a ship into natural fauna; from a swimmer into underwater coral.

By the end of the second Canto, Pound has already established three models for the long poem he is writing: the classical epic, based primarily on narrative (Homer); the historical poem, based on character (Browning); and the metamorphic poem, based on the transformative power of the lyric imagination (Ovid). Canto II is written with an intensity of language that has rarely been matched in modern English or American poetry. The phantasmagorical changes evoked in the poem take place within a natural setting that is presented in sensuous detail:

Quiet sun-tawny sand-stretch, The gulls broad out their wings, nipping between the splay feathers Snipe come for their bath, bend out their wing joints, Spread wet wings to the sun-film . . .

Naviform rock overgrown, algae cling to its edge, There is a wine-red glow in the shallows, a tin-flash in the sun-dazzle.

The importance of The Cantos as a twentieth-century long poem that seeks to redefine the epic in the modern world was first recognized by Eliot, and was later acknowledged by many other American poets. The Cantos cannot easily be compared to any other modern poem, for no other attempt at the modernist epic contains its scope, its complexity, and its universalizing power. The Cantos is by no means a work of consistent poetic achievement. In recent years, The Cantos has undergone a great deal of critical scrutiny -from political and ideological points ofview as well as from more strictly literary perspectives - but it remains a puzzling text to most readers. Further, some of its ideas and statements are highly objectionable: this is particularly the case with Pound's support of the Fascist dictator Mussolini and his increasingly anti-semitic rhetoric. Nevertheless, The Cantos opened up American poetry to the inclusion of historical sources and documents and to a wider range of languages, cultures, and poetic styles, contributing to the move away from the more narrowly defined set of texts comprising the Anglo-American canon.

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  • angelika mauer
    How was ezra pound a modernist writer?
    5 months ago

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