Reading and rereading the first several of Ezra Pound’s Cantos yesterday morning I was struck by revelation, as if by
lightning. As when you suddenly begin to discern a semblance of texture in a disagreeable poly-rhythmic Free Jazz recording.
The nature of the Cantos varies profoundly across the whole. Pound composed over a hundred and ten over a fifty year span. Sometimes confined to a rank prison cell.
But concerning these early Cantos, friend, you’re missing out.
Within four mere Cantos the poem throws a kitchen sink of Classicism, Renaissance, French troubadours and even Japanese philosophers, in medias res, from the drivers seat. That includes Homer, Ovid, Cyd, Cavalcanti, Actaeon, Eleanor d'Equitaine, So-Gyoku, Guillaume de Cabestang and on and on.
The experience produces a vignette of motives in heavy, scary polyphony: voices either disjoint or intertwined, varying from setting to setting. The listener transforms. The author interjects. The particles of one image transfuse into another unrelated. Transmigration of history. Inclusion of foreign language phrasing and quotations.
And that mythical boat journey in Canto II, had you but the notion … the machinations so viscerally, colorfully, audibly, palpably conveyed, traversing those lines with mega diligence not to miss a pigment. Descriptive language all the way. No waste. No punches pulled.
So far Pound treads the modernist frontiers. I deem it still more accessible than Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (based on my so far ultra-cursory sampling). But far more esoteric than Ulysses. And hopelessly beyond Eliot’s Wasteland (which I at one point considered intractable) in terms of the challenging cadence, the packed allusions and the censorial mayhem.
The decrypting and experiencing an intricately woven verbal tapestry has known few contenders. Such ranks as (again) Ulysses or Cortazar’s Rayuela (to a lesser extent) come to mind. Granted, I’m thinking strictly epic-length works.
Already familiar with much of Pound’s poetry, I never aimed to pursue the Cantos to any severe extent. Still don’t. Too many other reading priorities.
But wouldn’t mind to occasionally entertain parts of this exceptional, exorbitant, patched together spectacle, which as a whole might lack any traditionally recognizable cohesion. Though who cares.
You can easily obtain further background by own means. I’ll spare you but this superficial tweet:
The Cantos make for a quintessential 20th century English-language epic poem written in as modernist and as distant from the classic tradition as I can fathom. Though I can’t fathom too extensively.
Produced over Pound’s lifetime, they range drastically in character, influence, coherency, outlook, personal and political philosophy. And controversy.
And the biographical insight fascinates in it’s own right: as much Pound’s overall as the Cantos in particular. Though the two are virtually one and the same - the epic poem a reflection of a man’s lifelong academic pursuit and philosophical peregrination.
By the way, an invaluable resource for anyone pursuing the Cantos:
Questions, comments? Connect.