In grad school I briefly attended a seminar on Ezra Pound's Cantos, a very long and generally tedious 'poem' with which Pound occupied the last third of his writing life. It was like watching a demented preacher harangue people about some obscure God that likes to eat his own children. I confronted the professor on the second week with an Auden quote that "poetry makes nothing happen," incurred his wrath, and stopped going soon thereafter. I read about half of The Cantos that semester before deciding I could find better things to do with my time. Like, for example, hit myself over and over with a shovel.
That's not totally fair; there are some nice moments in The Cantos. But to find them requires wading through vast amounts of dreck. Anti-semitic ranting, half-baked theories about world monetary policy, mistranslated Chinese ideograms--it's all there. Someone (who?) once compared reading The Cantos to being lead through a museum filled with exhibits on every culture and idea the world has ever known by a guide who was insane. That seems about right to me.
I thought back on grad school tonight because the new issue of Poetry features an outstanding discussion of the Cantos written by Clive James. James is smart, his style is conversational, and he's very funny. Highly recommended. I just hope Professor Revell has a chance to read it.
For those of you who don't have time to read the entire article, here's a representative excerpt....
Nor did Randall Jarrell, who could appreciate the best of Pound but used that as the exact measure for finding the Cantos a mess, ever manage to put a big enough dent in the masterwork's reputation to hamper the academic attention that gathered against it like light against pyrites. The less precise Pound was, in fact, the more he invited explication. But if we don't know, and can't know, what one of Pound's more arcane pronouncements means to us, we are left with the obligation to be impressed that it means a lot to him. It's just a bad gag when he assures us that "ZinKwa observed that gold is inedible." ZinKwa, or someone like him, crops up frequently, straight out of an episode of Kung Fu and always making an observation that nobody in his right mind would ever try to rebut. A proclivity for Confucius-say-style, potted wisdom was high among Pound's worst habits, almost on a level with his admiration for the monetary theories of the Social Credit pundit Major Douglas. The two kinds of verbal tic were particularly deadly when connected, like a scorpion's double tail.
In Canto LXXVIII there is a passage meant to get Pound's economic theories into a nutshell:
taxes are no longer necessary
in the old way if it (money) be based on work done
inside a system and measured and gauged to human
inside the nation or system
Or, indeed, inside the space station or Battlestar Galactica. Every economic system features money based on work done inside a system and gauged to human requirements. The question is about whether it is based well or badly. But no amount of exhortation and incantatory repetition can make a guide to conduct out of hot air. In Section: Rock-Drill, Pound's faith that a sufficiently gnomic utterance will yield an unswerving truth reaches absurdity with such lines as "the arrow has not two points." Well, it certainly shouldn't have one at each end.