Monday, December 3, 2007

Pound and The Cantos

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.


Seb said...

I love your blog for this reason above all.

Ashley Alsup, belle dame sans merci to many a would-be Kinkaidian Sir Tristran, told me once that I reminded her of Pound, and particularly recommended him to me. I never bothered, and once again your blog seems to vindicate my lack of effort.

As I read James' piece, I became increasingly indignant that Ashley found me such a pompous ass. Upon finding this, however, I was horrified:

The answer, I think, is that his main way to leave you wondering is to leave you puzzled. Even the statements most obviously aimed at creating an impression of limpidity (a loudly trumpeted limpidity, if such a thing were possible) raise the question of whether very much is going on at all.

She had my number! I have often tried to tell my family that, when all's said and done, I am nothing more than a sometimes clever fraud. One of my literary avatars is Norton Juster's Humbug, who loves to brandish sententious phrases ("a slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect") along with his cane. His purpose for obfuscation is clear enough to young readers who are Phantom Tollbooth's target audience - the Humbug is a pompous, obnoxious, bombastic fraud who knows nothing of value except how to hide his worthlessness behind important-sounding pronouncements.

I must agree with your conclusion that James is funny. He is very funny, and rewards attentiveness: "...the academic attention that gathered against it like light against pyrites.

"A hit! A palpable hit!" cried Osric, prancing off in a chaff of Admirals and pointy-eared Lieutenants.

JMW said...

I like Clive James quite a bit. I'll have to go read that.

Something I find compelling about Pound -- and you'll have to tell me if I'm remembering this correctly -- is that toward the end of his life, he thought it was embarrassing to speak, and he lapsed into mostly silence. I've always thought there was some dignity (if insanity) in that.

Allie said...

Yeah, Clive James seems like he'd be fun at a weenie-roast--though not as fun as Clive Davis or Clive Phillips, the latter whom you might not know but whose sister's teeth could chew up Pound's tripe in no time--(and I hate to be the unfun one amidst all this joy, but) the premise of James's comments is sort of a (really beautifully, confidently phrased, hip) argumentum ad ignorantium, isn't it? I mean I'm just saying: "we don't get it; therefore, it must be great?" I've tried, you've tried, and aren't we sympathetic readers? Guess that's why reading James would be useful. Maybe.

But I *want* to like Pound...not despite but BECAUSE he couldn't care less if I do! But that's the thing--his writing is smart not to care about the reader as it's being composed, but not to care about the reader AT ALL??? Or to feel disdain for the reader? No vulnerability in that, no risk, no art. Even the river merchant's wife had fleshy parts.