Arduity: Reading Ezra Pound


Ezra Pound - why bother?

Anti-semitic, fascist and probably mad. It's really very easy to dismiss Pound, the Cantos at first sight are bewildering with their own paricular obscurities (the references to Chinese history, the excessive use of foreign languages and ideograms), the incoherent rants against usury and the deeply offensive attacks on the jews. All of this could combine to suggest that Pound isn't worth bothering with.

Up until a few weeks ago, I subscribed to most of this. Pound's anti-semitism is deeply offensive to me and can't be minimised (although many have tried), his enduring fascism is at the opposite end of the political spectrum and I was intimidated by the sheer weight of the allusions in the Cantos. Part of this was balanced by the fact that most 20th century writers that I admire have been Pound advocates and supporters and by the pivotal role that Pound occupied in the development of literary modernism.

I'm also wary of writing about Pound because so many others have written stuff that's more insightful and useful than I could ever manage. So, I should really stop at this point and point to Hugh Kenner, Christine Brooke-Rose, Robert Duncan and the immortal Guy Davenport. I have however just started reading Pound again and am now a fully committed fan and I've come across several reasons for bothering:

Ways into Ezra Pound

Usually I'd simply advise people to start with the poems, to read the words and to make their minds up from there. In the case of Pound however, there are two other 'routes' that may be useful. The first is the interview that Pound gave to the Paris Review in 1962 and the second is the series of audio recordings of Pound reading his work on PennSound. These recordings span 1939-1971 and contain many of the Cantos as well as the earlier works.

Hopefullly either of these will go some way to dispel some of the more forbidding aspects of Pound's reputation. The readings are probably my personal favourites from the PennSound site because the work is heard to be both important and quite startling and for the way that Pound's reading style changes over the thirty years. The interview provides an insight into both his motivation and the way that he thinks about poetry.

When we get to the work, there are several ways to approach this, the most obvious being chronlogically from A Lume Spento in 1908 through to Drafts and Fragments in 1969. This isn't recommended primarily because many of the early poems aren't very good. The first 'great' poem (according to Eliot) in the Pound opus is " Hugh Sewlwyn Mauberley" and this is a useful starting point as it contains a variety of styles and indicates some of the themes expanded upon in the Cantos.

Of course it is eminently feasible and reasonable to start at Canto I and work through from there except for the fact that Canto I was once the second half of Canto III and that Canto II exists in at least three different versions. This chronological approach will prove to be a bit of a slog, some of the Cantos are variable in quality and not all of us will want to wade our way through the complaints against usury and the jews.

The other 'obvious' place to start is the Pisan Cantos (LXXIV - LXXXIV) because they are the ones that are considered to be the most successful. Canto LXXIV is certainly brilliant but it also packs an incredible amount of stuff into its twenty five pages and some readers may be deterred by this density and the obscurity of some of the references.

A good place to start that isn't to initmidating is the 'Malatesta' Cantos (VIII -XI) which focus on the life of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, a 15th century Italian prince. These are impressive because Pound makes compelling use of documentary material and because the various narratives are told with a great deal of innovation and confidence:

WIth the church against him,
With the Medici bank for itself,
With wattle Sforza against him
Sforza Francesco, wattle-nose,
Who mamed him (Sigismundo) hIs (Francesco's)
Daughter in September,
Who stole Pesaro in October (as Brogho says "bestlialmente")
Who stood wth the Venetians in November,
With the Milanese in December,
Sold Milan in November, stole Muan in December
Or something of that sort,
Commanded the Muanese In the spring,
the Venetians at midsummer,
The Milanese in the autumn,
And was Naples' ally in October,
He, Sigismundo, templum oedificavit
In Romagna, teeming with cattle thieves,
with the game lost in mid-channel,
And never quite lost till' 50,
and never quite lost till the end, in Romagna,
So that Galeaz sold Pesaro .. to get pay for his cattle"

I'm particularly fond of "Or something of that sort" and the differentiation in the "him" and "his" line. These Cantos more than any of the others show Pound's ability to tell a story and to tell it that doesn't simplify events. This isn't to denigrate the brilliance that occurs elsewhere but to point out that he can be both accessible and exciting when he chooses. The 'Malatesta' Cantos also mix quotes from letters with this kind of narrative in a way that drags the reader closer into the various treacheries and accomplishments of Renaissance Italy.

Reading The Cantos

The first-time reader has a range of reading strategies to choose from and there are a wide range of online resources to help. I list below the ones that may be most helpful. These do enable readers to go through each canto line by line dutifully looking up all the references as they go along. This will help to clarify what is being said and alluded to but I would suggest that a better way is to read a canto straight through without recourse to any notes and then to pick up on the areas that are the most perplexing or of specific interest. As with David Jones' 'The Anathemata' this can still be immensely distracting but at least you will have an idea of where the name or phrase 'sits' within the scheme of the poem.

I'll try and give a couple of examples from my recent reading, Canto II begins with:

HANG it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one "Sordello",
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels SI fo di Mantovana

The Companion to the Cantos gives: "Robert Browning: 1812 - 1889, author of the epic poem, Sordello, based on the life of the Italian troubadour of that name who wrote in Provencal. Browning gives an unconventional image of the troubadour as a lyrical persona or mask of himself (a "dramatic monologue"):just as Pound later uses him and other historical characters. The point is that there is no way of seeing the personality of Sordello objectively but only of seeing subjective perspectives of the facts. Browning's Sordello is, for Pound, the last instance of the epic tradition in the English language, which he intends to take up from there on. Pound traces his personal literary lineage back to Browning in L [letter to R. Taupin of May 1928 ("Und uberhaupt ich stamm aus Browning. Pourquoi nier son pere?")], but he intends to include the mythological dimension as well. In introducing the persona "Sordello" and the epic of Browning, he is recycling material from the discarded cantos which is now subsumed into the persona of Odysseus and the epic of Homer."


"Sordello: ?1180 -?1255, Italian troubadour, son of a poor cavalier, who came to the court of Count Ricciardo de San Bonifazzio, fell in love with the count's wife, Cunizza da Romano, and abducted her at the behest of her brothers. He then lived with Cunizza and was forced to flee to Provence. Later on he performed military service for Charles I of Anjou, Naples, and SiciIy, who rewarded him with five castles which, however, he returned, considering himself far richer through his poetry".

And finally:

"Lo Sordels ... : P, "Sordello is from Mantua." Direct translation from a vida (p, "life") of Sordello in Chabaneau, which begins "La Sordels si fa de Mantoana, de Sirier, fils d'un paubre cava11ier que avia nom sier el Cart. E deletava se en cansas aprendre & en trobar, e briguet com los bans homes de cort, & apres tot so qu'el poc; e fetz coblas e sirventes. E venc s'en a la cort del cornte de San Bonifaci; el corns l'onret molt; & enarnoret se de la moiller del comte a forma de solatz, & ella de lui. Et avenc si quel corns estet mal com los fraires d'ella, e si s'estranjet d'ella. E sier Icellis e sier AIbries, Ii fraire d'ella, si la feiren envolar al cornte a sier Sordel; e s'en vene estar com lor en gran benanansa. E pais s'en anet en Proensa, on el receup grans honors de totz los bos homes, e del comte e de la comtessa, que Ii deran un bon castel e moiller gentil."For Pound's translation, see LE 97 ff.

So, not having previously made the Pound/Browning connection before and never having heard of his 'Sordello', I dig out the poem and find it absolutely fascinating, I'm also intrigued by the fact that it nearly destroyed Browning's reputation when it was first published. I also feel the need to find out a bit more about Sordello than is given here in order to work out why Browning chose him for a subject. I may not need the last line to be translated for me because even my poor Italian can work it out but I do not need to know about Chabaneau, nor do I need to be given the full text that the line is taken from.

So there is a lot of background to be unearthed and most of this (thanks to the internet) is now readily available but delving into this mass of information straight awya does detract from the strength and direction of the poem and there are some aspects of Pound's interests that I don't particularly share and wouldn't wish to pursue in any great depth.

I'm not particularly fascinated by Pound's views on usury because they're simplistic and used by some as an excuse for his anti-semitism. Canto LXV however begins with:

"WITH Usura
WIth usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design mIght cover theIr face,
wIth usura
hath no man a painted paradise on hIs church wall
harpes et luz
or where VIrgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
WIth usura
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubInes
no picture is made to endure nor to lIve with
but It is made to sell and sell quickly
WIth usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags

I wouldn't bother with the notes for this - I'd have picked up the Gonzaga reference from earlier in the sequence- I may use the Google translate device for "harpes et lutz" but I wouldn't want to go any further. Other readers however may be interested in the arguments against usury and finaciers that Pound puts forward.

What I think is important is to remember that you don't need to chase down every single reference and allusion in order to get pleasure from the poem, Pound is accomplished enough to carry you along and then you choose what you can get distracted by (or better informed about).

Online Resources for the Cantos

All of these are in pdf format except where otherwise stated

Companion to the Cantos Vol 1

Companion to the Cantos Vol 2

The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

A ZBC of Ezra Pound by Christine Brooke-Rose Google Books