Close reading Paterson’s line

Another bit of heavy lifting for my Pound and Williams students. I give as example more than I can realistically expect. But I want them to see what sustained close reading, in itself and for its own sake, looks like, to aspire to.

Did a spiel on Thursday, about the difference between writing deductively (state your claim then go about finding evidence for it) and inductively (explore the evidence and learn from it what your argument is).

Said, if you already know the material thoroughly, down to the details and textures, and out to the overarching themes – go ahead and write deductively. But if the material, you’re still learning your way into it, your main discoveries are ahead of you, and really in your schoolwork that should always be the case, forget deductive, do it inductively. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with an interest or question. Then go to the text, places in it that will further your interest, sharpen your question. Ask further questions of the text to learn how it works. This assignment and the allusion chart are just that sort of attention. As insights come about how the poem is put together they may bear towards your initial question or some other more illuminating where. Follow your line of inquiry until you have some insight into the text with heft, more than local. Now you’re in a position to draft an opening paragraph and a working thesis statement. Cuz how can you know what you think till you see what you’ve said?

And they were like, Why didn’t anyone tell us this?

And I was like, I’m telling you now?

And, working it inductively is “no ideas but in things,” in practice.

Fin digression. Follows, the close reading assignment.

The poetic line is what Hugh Kenner called a “patterned integrity.” The lines of the Cantos give off clear energy signatures—we can tell whether we’re in hell or paradise, myth or history, Greece or Provence, smiley face or frowny face, by the musical qualities of the line (stress and duration patterns), by the way it casts an image on the mind’s eye, and by how it plumbs the meanings of its words (diction and syntax). In other words, melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. The energy signature changes line by line, but as we grow attuned to the Cantos, we learn to recognize some characteristic patterns, and may then be a bit less lost.

In Paterson, too, the style of patterning often changes line by line. But we’ve an added challenge: those patterns don’t settle into distinct types we can become familiar with. Each line real­ly is a new world, with new terms—sonic, rhythmic, sensory, semantic, syntactic—on which it asks to be read.

One way to face that challenge is to isolate the line as a unit of perception. This assignment asks you to do that. Pick a passage you enjoy in Paterson. Isolate one line—

(1) There is no direction. Whither? I

Close read it, without reference to lines before or after, for its qualities of sound, image, and sense, as here:

Sonically, the line seems, at first, directionless. There is no alliteration, and no obvious consonance or assonance; in fact, the values of the vowels are all over the map, as if to create directionlessness in the mouth that speaks the line. Perhaps the line’s sonic variety is part of its point. The consonants are a mixture of voiced ([ð]) and unvoiced fricatives ([ʃ]), voiced plosives ([d], [k]), approximants ([r], [w]), and nasals ([n]); the vowels range from the front middle ([ɛ]) and the near-close near-front ([i]), to the mid-central ([ə]), to the near-close near-back ([ʊ]) and the close-mid back rounded ([o]), culminating in the diphthong [ai], which joins the open near-front [a] to the near-close near-front [i]. Sonically, the sequence seems thoroughly unpoetic, if poetry is understood as shapely speech. At any rate, the line seems to want to bring the whole mouth into play. Only after a few passes do recurrent sounds emerge—the [r] sound repeats in “There,” “direction,” and “whither”; there’s something like assonance between “direction ”and “There”; a common [ð] binds “There” and “whither, while a common [i] binds “is” and “whither”; and that [i] is transformed, in the line’s final thought, into the first person singular pronoun, by the addition of the sound also made by the indefinite article [a]. What at first seems chaos may turn out to be an argument for variety.

[If you’re not fluent in IPA, use the pronunciation key found in a standard dictionary.]

Rhythmically, the line is metrical, iambic pentameter without the initial unaccented syllable—a curious way to begin for a poet wedded to free verse. All the syllables are short except “There” and “Whith-,” both at the start of their phrases, giving the sense that the phrase begins at a fixed point, then rushes or springs forward.

Imagistically, the line is almost empty—curious for a poet who proclaims, “no ideas but in things.” The opening, “There is,” suggests we will be presented with an object, a locale, something that is—but instead we are offered a negation, what is not, and what is not is an abstraction anyway—“direction.” No wonder the next thought is “Whither?” No ideas but in things, and no sense, without things, where to go next. This is the first line of the section—the poet seems to wonder where to go next—suggesting that, as with the Cantos, the crisis of how to make the poem is one of the subjects of the poem. What traces of image or activity remain in the line are etymological: “direction” comes from the Latin dirigere, “to set straight,” from dis- “apart” and regere “to guide,” cognate with regal; the derivation of “whither” is unclear. And that brings us to semantics.

Semantically, the two words connected by the ligature [ð], “There” and “whither,” are a bit at odds: “there,” taken in itself, is an indication of location, as in “there it is,” while “whither” expresses a failure of orientation. The word “direction,” which sits between them, on its own tends toward the former sense, but negated  here by “no,” enforces the latter. (And yet to say “no direction” brings direction to mind as a possibility. As telling someone not to think of pink elephants ensures they will think of pink elephants.)

The first-per­son singular pronoun, “I,” is isolated sonically (there’s no other vowel like it in the line), visually (it’s stranded at the line end), semantically (only a general sense of directionlessness ties the “I” into a framework of meaning), and syntactically: it’s the start of a third sentence. The first sentence is four words long and includes a subject and a verb. The second is one word long and includes neither subject nor verb—if a sentence at all, it is radically elided, stripped down to a raw interrogative. And the third is, as said, barely begun before it is aborted by the line end. On the level of syntax as well, then, the line is committed to asymmetry and disorder, to upending any balance, harmony, or stasis. If these attributions seem too much, consider how much would be lost, sonically, semantically, and syntactically, if “There is” were omitted from the line, or if “I” were moved down to the next.

And repeat. Continue line-by-line for about five double-spaced pages (essay format). Conclude your analysis with a paragraph that addresses this question: What expressive features of the passage has this process revealed? (Avoid using the first person here. Imagine this paragraph is part of a formal essay, in which you are drawing together findings from a sustained close reading, which you can put to work somewhere else.) Please identify, in your title, by page number, the passage you are working with. And … enjoy?

An “allusion chart” for Pound’s Canto II

One assignment for my Pound and Williams seminar is to create an allusion chart for one of Pound’s Cantos. I hope that, freed from the paper demand to make an argument, students might follow lines of reference further and more curiously and with greater rigour also, than they otherwise might.

Here then, the in-class work they start with, and the sample allusion chart I give them, for Canto II, my first love.

Your fifth hour assignment for Pound is to complete an allusion chart for one canto (or a passage from a longer canto). Today’s work will give you some practice with that.

You’ll need:

The Cantos

Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Vol. 1. Vol. 2.)

Begin by choosing, with your partner, a canto to work with. Then turn a sheet of paper sideways and creating three columns: “Line or Phrase,” “Allusion or Translation,” “Significance, Issues, Questions” (see example below).

Working together, from the start of the canto, note every allusion you find (left-hand column); use Terrell and your own wits to explain the allusion (middle column); and consider the significance of the allusion, issues it raises, and questions left unanswered (right-hand column).

If you note allusions that aren’t in Terrell, you can track those, too. For instance, we noted in class that the rhythm of Canto I echoes the rhythm Pound’s “Seafarer.” So, we might enter “(four-beat accentual rhythm)” in the lefthand column; in the middle column, something like “Recalls Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer” and Old English rhythm generally”; and, in the right-hand column, something like “Overlays two sea journeys: seafarer’s and Odysseus’s; and a search for beginnings here: the roots of poetry in English, the roots of the epic.”

In the middle column, the challenge is to choose the salient information from Terrell, or any other source you use. Don’t just plunk it down verbatim – select and digest. (Any other sources should be noted in a Works Consulted page at the back.) In the right-hand column, the challenge is to make appropriate inferences from the allusion. Don’t be afraid to have questions and to ask them. Pertinent questions are just as good as clever inferences.

An allusion chart for Canto II

Line or phrase Allusion or Translation Significance, Issues, Questions
Hang it all, Robert Browning Robert Browning, author of Sordello, who treats the poet Sordello as a dramatic mask. • EP regards Sordello as the last epic in English—will pick up where RB left off. • Material recycled from first attempt at Cantos. Signals EP will use dramatic masks (personae) just as Browning does—so “I” may or may not mean Pound himself. • The Cantos are an epic but what “epic” means is up for grabs. • EP recycling own work and recycling culture’s work as well.
but the one “Sordello” The hero and mask of Browning’s poem. Italian troubadour (singer and poet, from French, trouver). Abducted the wife of his patron—some­what in the style of courtly love—but, oops. Fled. • Returned a gift of five castles (for military service) because felt he was “far richer through his poetry” (CT). Masks as above. • EP’s early work translating (and imitating) troubadours comes into play here. How and why do troubadours matter? • Love and love’s transgressions introduced as theme. Connection to come between human love and earth’s fertility. • Tension (or interplay) introduced between material productions (castles) and artistic ones (songs).
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana “Sordello is from Mantua” (Italian). EP uses places (and persons) as metonyms for values and practices—how does Mantua work in that light? • First use of Italian—after Latin at end of Canto I, and several Classical Greek allusions. Signals attention to Mediterranean cultures.
So-shu churned in the sea Reference uncertain. May be corruption of “Shiba Shojo,” Japanese for a Chinese poet who, according to Li Po, created “foam instead of waves” (CT). • Or, contrary to CT, may be a Japanese transliteration of Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuangtse. If former—would seem to mark what a poet should not do—and stands in contrast to Browning. • If latter—may be an approving reference—do all of EP’s references mark either approval or disapproval? (Compare to his treatment later of “Taozers.”) • Either way—line marks transition to seascape.
daughters of Lir Lir—Celtic god of the sea—seals are for EP his daughters. • Seals closely linked with Greek figure of Proteus—minor god who shifts shapes. Pun on Lear? • Proteus—minor Greek God—charac­ter­ized by transformation, as in “protean.” Figures in story of Odysseus (c.f. Canto I).
eyes of Picasso “evokes the artist’s faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees” (CT) What do Proteus and Picasso have in common? Metamorphosis. One alters his own form, the other alters the forms he sees. Not a coincidence that canto centres on a story out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. • Could Lear fit in here too? He goes through a profound change of condition—if not of form. (C.f. tragic figures of canto IV.)
daughter of Ocean Capital “O” makes ocean either an abstraction—not EP’s style—or a being. Makes the sea a god. From class: “gods are a way of seeing nature.”
Eleanor, ελεναυσ and ελεπτολισ! Eleanor: Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine. • ελεναυσ: ship-destroying. • ελεπτολισ: city-destroying. Helen of Troy was “cause” of Trojan War—in which ships and in the end a city were destroyed. Curious misogyny by which a woman is blamed for a war men started, fought, and killed women and children in (as well as each other). Connect to efforts in later cantos to find a single cause for WWI and WWII: usury. • Eleanor of Aquitaine: “archetype of the femme fatale, inspiring both strife and poetry” (CT). Women and men both stand as types or archetypes in Cantos … do either ever stand as individuals?
“Let her go …” Voices of old men of Troy (“murmur of old men’s voices”) who wanted to send her back to Greece and end the war. EP seems to disdain their timidity—a failure of the life instinct—and yet they share his aversion to war. What gives? • Note how he reconfigures his source: instead of admiration—rejection, as in Homer, he gives us rejection—admiration—rejection. Why?
Schoeney’s daughters Schoeneus, father of Atalanta, “who, like Helen, through her beauty caused the death of many men” (CT) So we have three femmes fatales now—Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Atalanta—brought together for what they have in common. Is this misogyny or a working method (or both)? Depends (in part) on whether he treats male archetypes likewise. A sense here of the ideogrammatic method though: bringing together three things (rose, rust, robin) to express what they have in common (redness).
by the beach-run, Tyro In the Odyssey, Odysseus, in Hades, sees Tyro, who fell in love with the god of the river Eni­peus. Poseidon, god of the sea, took on his form, put her to sleep, and raped her. Reference to O.’s journey to Hades connects this canto to Canto I. • A vignette from the Odyssey but has all the marks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a transition, then, from the first canto’s focus on the heroic archetype (Odysseus) to the second’s focus on the theme of transformation (Bacchus).
arms of the sea-god Poseidon—though Proteus is here too—from a bit earlier—and Dionysos’ theophany (revelation of the god), soon to come, makes him a sort of sea god, also. The identities of the gods are themselves protean—ever-shifting—Proteus becomes Poseidon becomes Dionysos. So the way he treats women (triad of Helen, Eleanor, Atalanta) he also treats gods.
And by Scios Chios, an Aegean island. The transition begins to the canto’s second major movement—the theophany of Dionysos—starts by locating us in spot where that theophany begins.
to left of the Naxos passage Naxos another island—and a center of the Dionysos cult. Continues the specification of location. Interesting that something mythic will happen as if historic—i.e. in a particular place (also, at a time?).
a young boy Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, also known as Dionysos, Zagreus, Iacchus, Lyaeus. A central motif of the Cantos. As Canto I belongs to Odysseus, Canto II belongs to Dionysos.
loggy with vine-must Loggy: heavy, sluggish (OED). Vine-must: new wine. The source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The god of wine is drunk? I guess that fits.
“Cum’ along lad” A Classical Greek myth, taken from a Roman source, rendered in British Cockney voice. From class: One time laid on another as if on a flat plane (post-Cubist). But why lay times on one another in this way? Pound said, “All times are contemporaneous in the mind.”
And I said Who is “I”? Sixteen lines later identifies himself as Acoetes—captain of the ship. From class: The information necessary to interpret an allusion or a foreign phrase is often sitting nearby in the poem. Same thing done here with identity of speaker. • Pound’s use of personas.
And an ex-convict … a little slave money. Acoetes still speaking. Retells the story of Dionysos’s abduction. Why is Acoetes given such a prominent speaking part? Is he as important as Odysseus? Or is he just here as witness and storyteller? Either way, EP likes him because he honours the gods.
God-sleight then, god-sleight: / Ship stock fast in sea-swirl Long, slow syllables resemble rhythms of “The Seafarer.” • Repetition prominent. Three sea voyages overlaid now: that of Odysseus, that of Dionysos, and that of the seafarer. Is EP composing an ideogram? • Repetition foreshadows extended repetitive patterns both in this canto and in canto IV. Something here about suspension of time.
King Pentheus The king to whom Acoetes is speaking. “Acoetes is telling the story of his crew’s attempt to kidnap the god as a warning” (CT). Pentheus will refuse to honour the god and will end up torn to pieces by the god’s ecstatic followers. Pentheus lines up with sailors who don’t honour the god—who treat the sacred in a profane way—as a means of profit. EP’s values implicit here.
grapes with no seed but sea-foam The theophany begins. EP is doing more than translating Ovid. He’s reimagining the story Ovid told—passing Ovid’s tale through the prism of Cubist practice—so that the gist of it is made new again.
And the sea blue-deep about us, / green-ruddy in shadows Theophany culminates. Note subject-rhyme with end of passage immediately  before the Dionysos section—“a wine-red glow in the shallows.”
And Lyaeus: “From now, Acoetes, my altars …” Lyaeus: name for Dionysos “in his function as the god of wine and ecstasy” (CT). The god adopts Acoetes as his priest. This is EP’s own addition to the story—the god says, in effect, “From now on, Acoetes, you’ll tend to my altars.” (Elisions like this are common … when a passage, though in English, is obscure, try to feel out what words have been trimmed away.)
Black snout of a porpoise / where Lycabs had been Lycabs is a member of Ulysses’s crew. (Ulysseus is Latin form of Odysseus.) By importing Lycabs from crew of Odysseus to crew of Acoetes, EP has spliced stories of Odysseus and Dionysos together. Highlighting their importance to these early cantos: Odysseus, the journeying hero, is central figure of I, Dionysos, metamorphic god, central figure of II. • Lycabs makes no appearance in Homer’s Odyssey—only in Ovid’s telling, elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, of Odysseus’s journeys. So this is EP’s retelling of Ovid’s retelling of Homer. Compare to end of canto I: EP’s translation of Divus’s translation of Homer. Another way of laying different temporal plans flat on top of each other.
Medon’s face like the face of a dory Medon another member of Ulysses’s crew in Ovid’s telling of Homer’s story. But Medon does appear in Homer’s Odyssey—he’s Odysseus’s herald, and at home on Ithaca, not part of the crew.
And you, Pentheus, / Had as well listen to Tiresias Tiresias—seer of Thebes—in Ovid sometimes male and sometimes female. Blind but given the power to see the future. Like Acoetes he advises Pentheus to worship Dionysos. Not to heed a seer is really dumb. Not to heed someone who’s stood beside a god is also pretty dumb.
and to Cadmus Grandfather of Pentheus and founder of Thebes. “[T]he stones of the walls of Thebes rose to the rhythm of the music Amphion played on his lyre. The walls are conceived as the magical protective walls around the archetypal city which were traced in the air by ritual dance, music, and incantation.” CT seems to think city walls are important—why? Note second line of canto IV: “Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Something about how a gesture—a dance—can assume a durable form—as a wall. Something about relation of energy to matter, act to thing, verb to noun. Compare to “the tensile light” in later cantos—light that’s both energy and substance.
Ileuthyeria “an inadvertent conflation of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, with Eleutheria, H [Greek], a marine organism of the genus of bisexual jellyfish” (CT) Significance obscure. Connection of bisexuality of jellyfish to gender transformations Tiresias goes through? But that’s connecting dots mostly outside the poem now.
Fair Dafne of sea-bords Daughter of Peneus, a river god. A subject-rhyme with Tyro, in love with a river god, Enipeus? At least, a return to the mouth of the river, where the canto began—its long central section having taken place mostly at sea. And beginning of the transition from Dionysos back to Tyro.
So-shu churned in the sea (As above.) Canto structured almost like nested parentheses: ((( ))). It opened with So-shu, and now returns to him; and will return shortly as well to Tyro.
glass wave over Tyro (As above.) After so much transformation, a return to where we were, at the outset. Suggests almost an eternal now—in which the rape of Tyro is always occurring. Traumatic and yucky, unless, as suggested before, gods are a way of seeing nature—here, a way of seeing the point where the river meets the sea? How is this “way of seeing nature” different from our common sense or scientific ways of seeing it?
Hesperus “Evening star sacred to Aphrodite” (CT). Near end of canto II, just as near end of canto I, an invocation of or to Aphrodite—goddess of love, and, for EP, of what else? What’s her role in this poem? The patron of Odysseus was Athena, who’s not shown up yet at all.
The tower like a one-eyed great goose Whose tower? CT is silent. Suggestion of a prison, a watch tower; also phallic.
And we have heard Identity of “we” unclear. “We” confirms we’ve left persona of Acoetes behind—he speaks only as an “I.”
the fauns chiding Proteus Proteus—sea-god with power of metamorphosis. How many gods here associated with metamorphosis? Dionysos, Proteus, Poseidon … mythological overkill? Or is Pound building an ideogram?
and the frogs singing against the fauns Reference to Aristophanes’s The Frogs—in which Dionysos and his companion, down in hell, try to drown out the croaking of “infernal frogs” (CT), perhaps with a “hemichant,” a technique of Aristophanes’s comedies that sets “one part of the chorus against the other”—i.e. it’s polyphonic. Reference to hell recalls Odysseus’ journey to hell in canto I. • Allusion to hemichant—fauns singing against Proteus, frogs singing against the fauns—suggests something about the working method of the Cantos themselves: voices will be juxtaposed, some aligned with each other (within one subset of the chorus), and some at odds with each other (different subsets of the chorus).

The image atop is a detail from

The Dionysos Cup by Exekias (fl. 545–530 BCE)

Navigating the Pisan Cantos (II)

Pound’s Cantos is a musical composition on multiple scales of order. I haven’t begun to fathom the polyrhythmic escapade it is. If you take the myriad gists that shine and go – glaukopis, as the olive leaves do, or as the eyes and mind of Athena are (74/458) – a shine that rubs off on those lucky enough to be at hand –

O Lynx, γλαυκῶπις coming up from the olive yards (79/510)

– if you take them as propositions in a discursive order, the matter will make you mad. But hear them as threads in a melodic arrangement, refrains, they come together as evidences of intelligence. Refrain‘s a salient pun here, because they’re a way Pound holds back, reins the outflow in, lashes himself to the post of an intention not his, as Odyssean he petitions a god-stuffed world to learn him his song.

I’m not going to try to outline the structure I intuit here – the thought of that task defeats me completely – only to isolate a few of the refrains that become, if they are not already, luminous details in the poem, their freight of meaning deepening with each recurrence.

To clarify terms. On the luminous detail, Kenner, quoting Pound, writes:

Luminous Details are the transcendentals in an array of facts: not merely “significant” or “symptomatic” in the manner of most facts, but capable of giving one “a sudden insight into circumadjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence, and law.” … “A few dozen facts of this nature give us intelligence of a period – a kind of intelligence not to be gathered from a great array of facts of the other sort. These facts are hard to find. They are swift and easy of transmission. They govern knowledge as the switchboard governs an electrical circuit.” The Cantos undertake to make a poem-including-history out of such facts. (The Pound Era 152–53)

A luminous detail is a fact, a transcendental datum. It may repeat, but not as insistently as what I’m calling a refrain, and not as part of a musical framework. And while a refrain in the Pisan Cantos may have a historical provenance, it’s not factual in the way a luminous detail is. So it’s proper to distinguish the two. And yet they also seem involved in each other. Hypothesis: Refrains are details made luminous by the poem. The poem generates these luminous details and then redeploys them among those it has found exogenously.

We wrapped up the Cantos today, and I asked the group whether, trailing off as it does in drafts and fragments, dribs and drabs, it seemed to them a failure. A little to my surprise, they said not. Maybe, said one, it’s not the epic he aimed for, it came out more his own story than the tale of the tribe he intended, but that’s not to fail. That sounded good to me, and it occurred to me to say, in an era of bourgeois individualism, the story of an individual’s alienation may belong to the tale of the tribe. I asked if, after our time with Canto 75, most of which is sheet music

canto75.pngtracking a snatch of birdsong from its first custody, with the birds, through the chorus it inspired in Clement Janequin’s “The Song of the Birds,” Francesco Milano’s transcription of the music for the lute, and Gerhart Münch’s arrangement of the violin line (“the birds were still there. They ARE still there in the violin parts” – Pound, ABC of Reading 54) – asked whether anyone heard birdsong differently. That one said yes she did is enough to justify the Cantos. A poem isn’t what it means it’s what it does. A third student couldn’t put it to words but felt, after having his mind bent up over our weeks in the poem, that he just looked at things a little differently, and he seemed a little stunned by it, and not unhappy.

This will be an incomplete and eccentric assembly. Not the refrains most frequent, nor most important; those that’ve most caught in my mind. As I begin I find I’m unwilling to pluck a refrain from the context in which it gathers and casts off meaning.

Consider periplum

what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                                             what candor?
“the great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.”
You who have passed the pillars and outward from Herakles
when Lucifer fell in N. Carolina. (74/445)

                      as the winds veer and the raft is driven
                      and the voices     , Tiro, Alcmene
                      with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë
                                            Eurus, Apeliota as the winds veer in periplum
Io son la luna” . Cunizza
                                            as the winds veer in periplum (74/463)

As Arcturus passes over my smoke-hole
           the excess electric illumination
           is now focussed
on the bloke who stole a safe he cdn’t open
                        (interlude entitled: periplum by camion) (77/485)

three solemn half notes
                                         their white downy chests black-rimmed
on the middle wire
                                                   periplum (82/547)

My notes on the Cantos are in three media. Pencil for my first two passes, reading them with Don Revell at the U. of Utah, then for my comprehensive exams at same. Blue pen for my first time teaching them six years back. Black pen for this my second time teaching them. Beside the last passage above I see in pencil two curved lines in the left margin – my shorthand for “take note of this”; in blue ink, “poem names its work”; in black, “+ 3 ½ notes, PER-i-plum

f      f

because I thought I saw a connection to a musical phrase two pages earlier, where birds on telephone wires are imagined as musical notes calling out TER-e-us, TER-e-us, the rapist of Philomel. A stretch, maybe.

I mention this navigation record because to read in periplum is to read processually – alert to where you’ve been, knowing you’re bearing onward newly, in the relief of abandoning any hope of commanding a bird’s-eye view. Pound is to me, for inducing a salutary surrender of control, a poet of freedom maugre his poem’s obscurity and its pockets of stinking pus. “I cannot make it cohere,” stress on “I,” stress on “make.”

I digress. Cantos + blog post + ADHD will incite that. And what is periplum anyway but focused waywardness? Pound defines it in Canto 59: “periplum, not as land looks on a map / but as sea bord seen by man sailing” (324). He derived it from the Latin periplus, which has had occasional use in English to mean “a circuit; a circumnavigation; a voyage or journey round a coastline” (OED).

“Periplum” is reading instructions. You won’t ever see the whole. You’ll see enough of the whole to navigate in confidence to the next scrap of coastline. You want more, check out Paradise Lost, apotheosis of our West’s ludicrous dream of omniscience. Look where which has got us? Meanwhile fifty feet of highway in your headlights, the rest of the world a live darkness looming above around behind you, will get you all the way home, though home be hundreds of miles distant, mountains and rivers interposing.

We broach the unmapped daily, constantly. Most of a given moment if you stop to notice is incomprehensible. Most of our literature, not all, distracts us from or rails against that imperturbable fact.

Here be monsters? No, the unmasterable. Is okay, is one meaning of the Cantos.

I’ve taken on, I see, a monster job. Let’s post this and continue tomorrow, or soon. The image atop, BTW, is Odysseus’s raft going down, periplum par excellence, cropped from Rhapsody ε by Greek artist Maria Xagorari.


Navigating the Pisan Cantos (I)

Teaching my Pound-Williams course for the second time and we’re in the thick of the Cantos. Smoke’s coming out their ear holes. Thought I’d write up some of my teaching notes here, flesh them out a bit, maybe to be of use to them, maybe to others.

The first experience, for most, of the Pisan Cantos, is of a polylingual deluge, endless, formless, incomprehensible. It can lead one to grab on tight to the figure of Pound the sufferer in the weather-swept tent somehow holding it together, feeling it, telling it. But continuous narrative is explicitly what the Cantos are not. That figure is there, but it’s not Pound-in-himself, it’s ego scriptor, “no man,” “Old Ez,” one or maybe several of the poet’s personae.

To guide students away from reading the sequence as a shapeless confessional blurt, towards an appreciation of it as a made thing, consciously carefully fashioned, I tried this week to address these questions with them in turn:

  • What different kinds of material get mixed together in these cantos (content)?
  • What are some of the elements that recur within or across the cantos (refrain)?
  • What means of structure, order, organization, do we detect hints of (form)?

I don’t lecture, but here are a few things I might say, were I to.

The content

First the easy one. Survey the kinds of material, the content.


Gods and goddesses are names for the divine in nature. They’re plural because our perception of the sacred is plural; divinity is diverse; seeing and naming them belongs to the work of sincerity, giving things their right names. “Heliads lift the mist from the young willows” (83/550). “Δρυάς [Dryas], your eyes are like the clouds over Taishan / When some of the rain has fallen / and half remains yet to fall” (83/550). “[T]o them that dwell under the earth, / begotten of air, that shall sing in the bower / of Kore, Περσεφόνεια [Persephone]] / and have speech with Tiresias” (83/553). Gods, though modes of perception, are immortal, timeless; a myth, telling of a god’s acts in the human world, tells of time cut through by timelessness. That matters to an understanding of all the repetition in the poem: recurrence, by which the lyric makes the past present, angles our perception of time toward the arc of eternity.


Myth and event both belong to the history of the human mind. What we call history is the gathered record of that mind in action. Pound likes most to pluck from the historical record those moments, glimpses, radiant gists, that stand out from their occasion as it were holographically, holding the whole whole in the sliver it is. These luminous details, drawn from the event record or the cultural commons, emanate, as if lit from inside, the possibility they exemplify. This was, once. And because it was, in some sense, it is. “How is it far if, you think of it?” (77/485) The hero of the Cantos is the human mind. The villain of the Cantos, same.

Hugh Kenner on the luminous detail:

[H]e constellates Luminous Details, naming them, as again and again in the Cantos he names the signed column [at San Zeno in Verona]. For the column exists; what it proves about forgotten possibilities it proves by simply existing. And five hundred more such columns would not intensify the proof. Again and again in the Cantos single details merely prove that something lies inside the domain of the possible…. What was done at Wörgl—once, by one mayor, in one village—proves that stamp scrip will work. What was done in San Zeno, once, on one column, proves the possibility of a craftsman’s pride in an unobtrusive structural member. And any thing that is possible can again be. (The Pound Era 325)

Also, from a technical perspective, luminous details are nicely compact, a phrase, a line, maybe two to throw an image on the mind’s eye. One could be a frame in a montage, a brushstroke in an ideogram.


How to be brief about the Chinese characters. He thought they were pictures of what they meant. They did abstraction concretely – “sunrise” was a tree tangled in the branches of a tree, “spring” that sun in the roots of a tree, “sincerity” the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot. Following Ernest Fenollosa, he found in them, or in their shared misapprehension of them rather, a new way of doing poetry in English. I’ll write more on this somewhere else sometime.


In this register, personal memory, the personae seem to drop away, the poet himself speaks, and even kind of accessibly – in English, no less! though in orthography, when others speak, tortured by Pound’s ear for accent and idiolect. “[T]hat had made a great Peeeeacock / in the proide ov his oiye” (83/554). It’s hard to persuade students that even though Pound the maker is drawing here from his own lived experience, it is not Pound the man speaking straight to them, thank God, at last something relatable, not Pound but “Pound.” The details he selects belong to the composition, and are on a par with their divers neighbours in it, offering no frame nor interpretive brass ring.

Present experience

Now and then we touch in with “Pound” in the present, a prisoner in a tent in the US Army’s custody. The experience has several different signatures we can fairly call infernal (“Till was hung yesterday / for murder and rape with trimmings” (74/450)), purgatorial (“this grass or whatever here under the tentflaps / is, indubitably, bambooiform” (74/466), paradisal (“unexpected excellent sausage / the smell of mint” (74/458)). These moments often build a pathos that carries over into adjacent maybe more prickly areas of the poem. The poem builds such pathos by fostering and exploiting our belief that “Pound” is Pound, when actually, Pound is ever becoming “Pound.”


I’m not on sound footing here; economic theory, Pound’s or anyone’s, bores me. For Pound the evil is usury, lending at excessive interest, and all its manifestations in human activity and mind. Money should be a measure of real wealth, natural abundance and human creative activity; usury is false wealth, money made off money without any addition to the world’s store of real value. It’s parasitic, hence the common recourse to lice. It blurs distinctions, crashes boundaries, smudges edges, hence all the opprobrium in terms of shit, slime, “slither.” In the upside-down world a usurious system creates, activities that create genuine value, the work of poets and painters for instance, goes uncompensated or sees its value perverted on the open market. Meanwhile, activities that fuel a cycle of perpetual destruction and resupply, war for instance, find themselves fed by interests that profit from them. Under a condition of near-constant warfare, arms merchants, bankers, and governments fall into a self-propelling cycle it’s the work of shills to convince the public is virtuous. If that sounds familiar there’s some evidence Pound wasn’t wholly wrong.

Now, how do you work a heterodox economic theory into an epic poem you’re building by lyric means? Part of Pound’s answer – use individuals to represent ideas, practices, errors, and evils metonymically – as the opposite of luminous details, abysmal exempla – may help explain the virulence of the poem’s anti-Semitism. He needed a someone to stand in for the evil of usury, and the old stereotype of the Jewish financier was ready at hand. Which ain’t a justification, the material is way ugly. I do think though it’s good to say what the ugly is and what it isn’t. He saw moneylending as the root evil and associated Jews with moneylending and that made for an anti-Semitism that’s a grievous stain on his character and work. He also, disappointed megalomaniac, invested his wish to change the world in a fascist strongman, Mussolini, who was never really whom he thought. He was, much of his adult life, anti-Semitic. He was, if not a fascist outright, a sympathizer. But he never espoused the race theory we all immediately associate with (German) fascism. Read the Cantos with a clear eye, they are polyglot, diverse, a worldwide commons, appropriative if we judge them by the standards of our day, but in their time a blowing-open of the doors windows and walls of a straitened Anglo-American canon.


The political thought of the Pisan Cantos begins in defiance, “That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock,” that’s Mussolini, “where in history will you find it?” (74/445), and mostly stays there, though there are forays late into self-questioning, most famously in the libretto that seems to crown the sequence: “Pull down thy vanity / How mean thy hates / Fostered in falsity / Pull down thy vanity, / Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity, / Pull down thy vanity, / I say pull down” (81/541). As naive postmodern readers in neo-liberal democracies we want a redemption narrative, the error of his ways gradually dawning on Pound, but we don’t really get that: mourning for collaborators, calumny on Churchill, mar or mark the final pages. Passages of rage and contrition are further shapes in the formal composition. Which is not to say the feelings are not Pound’s own. The intemperate boldness that was his genius and his tragic flaw let him think insights won in the aesthetic sphere worked also in the political. The goods of clarity, focus, cohesion, decisiveness, maybe unarguable goods in the one, mean the sacrifice of pluralism in the other. It’s ironic then that, taken whole, these polyphonic unassimilable Cantos come so close to exemplifying, formally, the messy sprawling diversity of a pluralistic democracy.


The Cantos is a religious poem. When I say the human mind is its hero I mean that mind. The poet’s work with myth is restless, syncretic, as if he were trying to get to the root of what the gods, some of them anyway, have in common; witness the fertility party thrown in Canto 47 by Tammuz, Adonis, Ceres, Proserpine, Aphrodite, and Dionysus, w/ Circe and Tiresias attendant. Observant becomes mystic when the name or idea of God falls all the way away. Two refrains in particular stand out to me in the Pisan Cantos as mystic gists. One’s from Pound’s neo-Confucian texts, “rain also is of the process”; “the wind also is of the process” (74/445). His “process” is the Tao; his sources have more Taoist infusion than he seems to know. The other comes from one of two strands of Christianity he seems to be able to stand, the neo-Platonic. (The other’s the remnant of fertility observance congenial to Dionysus, Eleusis.) The sharpest emblem to me here is the refrain of Johannes Scotus Erigena, “omnia, quae sunt, lumina sunt” (83/548), “everything that exists is light,” though, crucially, Pound pluralizes the thought in translation, making “all things that are are lights” (74/449).

. . .

That doesn’t capture everything; maybe we need a category Pilferings for the Confucian material and the forays into West African and Australian Aboriginal materials. It’s hard to know whether to decry how blithely he put to his own purposes cultural materials he didn’t grok half as well as he thought, or to applaud the energy with which he sought out the best that had been said and made anywhere. Those works when he found them, he treated as true equals of their compeers in the West, with distinctive things to offer a human culture he fairly saw as global.

And, I could go on about each category, shaky though its edges are, for pages, hours, ages. But my goal here’s just to note that each is, and maybe further, to propose each has its characteristic rhythms, and its own ways of casting pictures on the mind-eye, and its own styles of speech and thought – what Pound called melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. “From the colour the nature | & by the nature the sign!” (90/625). Attuning yourself to these is how to begin to learn to navigate the poem in periplum.

More on which soon. As we move on to refrains and the poem’s formless form.

Repeal the Second Amendment

I am a kombucha-swilling poet smoking his weed as he listens to Fleetwood Mac on Spotify. So you might not take me serious on this point. You might not take the kids serious though you sure as shit should. Maybe you will take a retired Supreme Court Justice serious though when he says


Questions? Refer them to the dead.

And yeah, so it’s undoable. Start now, wait till doable catches up, if it takes 50 years, 100, all the more reason to have gotten started today.

In space no one can hear you explode, Or, Teaching literary convention in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies

I don’t lecture much. Boring to do, boring to be done to. Conversation’s far more fun. But two or one times a quarter I talk for around ten minutes from prepared notes. (Which in practice takes most of an hour because we break to chat.) Here’s one such set I range from, on why what seems odd in Shakespeare’s plays, ain’t half so strange as stuff we take for bread and butter. And why artmaking is worldfashioning.

My notes are kind of telegraphic, but I’ll try to flesh out, and put interpolations in


and texts we go to in

block quotes.

To start, we read Twelfth Night 2.4.79-124. Viola, a young woman recently shipwrecked, has disguised herself as a young man, Cesario, and entered the service of one Count Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love. Orsino, however, is infatuated with Olivia, whom he sends Cesario to woo on his behalf.

ORSINO   Once more, Cesario,
Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:
Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that fortune hath bestow’d upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;
But ’tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.

VIOLA   But if she cannot love you, sir?

ORSINO   I cannot be so answer’d.

VIOLA                                                   Sooth, but you must.
Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love a great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not then be answer’d?

ORSINO   There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention
Alas, their love may be call’d appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much: make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

VIOLA                             Ay, but I know—

ORSINO   What dost thou know?

VIOLA   Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

ORSINO                           And what’s her history?

VIOLA   A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

ORSINO   But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

VIOLA   I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?

ORSINO                           Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,
My love can give no place, bide no denay.

Viola’s love for Orsino is clear. But on the page, is Orsino in love with Viola, yet?

We decide he’s not. Maybe dawning interest, and maybe hesitation in “Ay, that’s the theme,” but on the page, that’s about it.

So what do we make of it, that in Act 5, as soon as she’s revealed to be a she, he falls for her, asks her to marry him? Unrealistic, right?

This group had a ready explanation: Orsino’s actually gay, and was attracted to “him” all along, but couldn’t express that or admit it, till the “boy” was revealed to be the woman.

That reading anticipates Trevor Nunn’s in his production – not “Orsino is gay,” but, desire for a man that leaves him confused and divided. This clip will do for illustration:

So there’s one way to make the speed of Orsino’s love for Viola psychologically plausible: it wasn’t fast, it was slow, and held secret. Here’s another way, in SparkNotes:

[T]he play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.

What do you think?

They generally like it. This is a setup. I’m a bastard.

So, two ways to explain something that looks wildly unrealistic. One says, seems sudden but isn’t sudden, he was falling in love over a period of time, we just didn’t see it.

Other says, he’s in love not with a person, but with an idea. When he switches from Olivia to Viola, the love object stays the same. Only the occasion, the excuse, changes.

Notice, with both, we’re trying to make the change psychologically realistic, and to resolve an unease that way. Here’s a third way of addressing the question, one that doesn’t try for psychological plausibility, and that may not resolve our unease.

It means appealing to literary convention. A shared understanding of what’s plausible within the imaginal world of the text – the play or novel or poem or movie – even if it’s unrealistic outside that imaginal world.

A literary convention of the 19th century novel – a minor one – is that no one ever goes to the bathroom. For over a hundred years everyone held it in. Unrealistic? Sure. Does it bother you? Probably not. Reading Jane Eyre or Middlemarch, you probably don’t even notice it.

A literary convention of science fiction movies – again, a minor one – is that sound travels in the vacuum of space. Another is that faster-than-light drive is possible. Another, that all the species of the galaxy speak middle-American English, or can be got to easily. Not all science fiction movies hold to all of these, but when one departs from one of them, it’s noteworthy, as an exception.

You can check your own adherence to a literary convention by whether you notice it or not. If you read the whole of Jane Eyre and never notice that no one once goes to the bathroom – you’ve probably bought into the conventions of the 19th century novel.

But if you go to The Force Awakens and can’t get past the fact that the laser canons of the star destroyers can be heard across the vacuum of space – “that’s just not realistic!” – then you haven’t bought into the conventions of the contemporary science fiction movie.

Note that The Last Jedi intervened in that convention …

The ensuing conversation got to some of what’s in the notes following.

Shakespeare’s plays depend on literary conventions also. One convention of his romantic comedies – a major one – is that characters fall in and out of love with remarkable speed and ease.

Characters falling in and out of love with each other makes romantic comedies work. In the same way that faster-than-light drive makes science fiction movies work. You can do a lot more fun stuff on stage if characters keep changing love interests. You can do a lot more cool stuff on different planets if characters can actually get to different planets. By the same token, space explosions are more cool if they make noise – until they’re not.

So it’s not surprising that these became conventions of their genres. Unrealistic, implausible, outside their fictive worlds, but taken as givens within those worlds.

Watching science fiction, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about faster-than-light-drive – or the sound explosions make in space, or the convenient fact that everyone speaks English.

Watching a romantic comedy, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about how fast people fall into and out of love. Within that world it’s perfectly realistic.

Here’s the thing though. Genre conventions evolve. So what was perfectly realistic 350 years ago, within these fictive worlds, now seems implausible. We still have romantic comedies, sure, and they still have genre conventions, absolutely, but they’re somewhat different than those Shakespeare worked with.

The small change from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is a moment of such evolution. Someone said, what happens if we do silent space explosions, and make that cool?

One thing that happens is, folks think the theatre has effed up. Can’t find a bootleg clip of the scene itself, but here’s an account of the confusion the moment – a ship colliding with another – caused by not being usual.

Many fans will report hearing gasps during this moment (that’s how effective the smash cut to silence is), but apparently some fans have been complaining and blaming the theater for a sound issue. Complains were apparently so consistent that an AMC Theater decided to print out and post signs warning fans in advance about the moment, saying the silence is very much an intentional creative decision made by director Rian Johnson. (Insider)

I’m curious whether the director’s intervention will stick, and how the genre will alter. It struck me as the one original moment in the movie.

Coming back to our first two accounts for why Orsino falls in love so fast.

When we hit Shakespearean conventions that are over with, we kind of go for them, and we kind of don’t. To the extent that we don’t, we try to resolve the dissonance in terms of the conventions we have on hand. Which are generally those of psychological realism – conventions established by movies and TV.

A plausible theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s been falling for her for quite some time (Nunn).

A bullshit theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes)

Why bullshit? Because it smushes every lover in every romantic comedy Shakespeare wrote into an undifferentiated porridge. You can say that of all of them. It’s just part of Shakespeare’s vision of romantic love that love loves to love itself. You can take it as a starting point, but if that’s as far as you can get with psychological realism, psychological realism is about worthless. Especially since said realism is about individuality, and with that outcome, it’s totally failed to individuate anyone.

Too, the theory fails to notice that Sebastian and Olivia (twice) fall in love with equal speed and for equally shallow reasons. The only ones who’ve been nursing love for an “appropriately” long duration are Orsino and – Malvolio. Yeah, ugh.

Must also note my ulterior motive, steer them away from SparkNotes, at least one of them, maybe forever. So bad, terrible, that these pre-digested sources are so readily available. Their readings may be rougher but they are smarter. The questions they’ve been asking! V. good.

So, to sum up, three ways of accounting for the speed with which Orsino falls for Viola once she’s revealed as Viola. (1) It wasn’t fast, he was falling for her all along (Nunn). (2) He’s not falling for her, he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes). (3) It’s realistic within the conventions of Shakespearean romantic comedy, because quick moves in and out of love are, for these plays, a condition of the real.

The first is quite reasonable though it denatures, modernizes, Shakespeare’s play somewhat. The second is unfortunate – it pounds all the romantic comedies into a homogeneous love-mush Shakespeare would ne’er recognize. The third is easy to ignore because to stand there means discomfort; we have to abide in understandings of the text, which in turn are understandings of the world, that are not ours, though they underwrite ours.

So they are uncanny, intimate to us, unknown to us. At a wonderful dinner last night with friends, Lunar New Year, we touched briefly on the profundity and/or banality of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Ironic the know-it-all missed the fourth category, the unknown knownthe uncanny.

Be careful about projecting 21st century expectations – psychological realism – onto 17th century plays. Our literary conventions have descended from Shakespeare’s, he’s had a major part in creating the conventions we hold to, but also they’ve changed over time. Don’t be too quick to erase the strangeness of these that ours came from, their uncanniness.

Addendum. I’m writing this up a couple weeks after the fact – and am v. glad to report, they’re putting this convention notion to work. I asked, last class, how we could make sense of Iago’s evil, when it seems to far exceed all its possible grounds. (It may be as much a problem for Othello as Hamlet’s boundless nausea is, by Eliot’s account, for Hamlet.) Here the bullshit psychological realist accounts are internal to the play, offered by Iago himself. The Moor slept with my wife, or I’ve heard maybe he did, and I’ll take it for hard fact, and burn him down. The Moor passed me over for promotion, and for that I’ll burn him down, and all he loves. Yeah, whatever it is, it ain’t that.

There’s a plausible psychological story, that he’s a sociopath, and it works to account for him, but at the cost of a modern imposition, smothering the mystery he poses. There are also plausible sociological accounts – that Iago is the diffused racism of Venetian society, or Shakespeare’s English imagination of it, concentrated to a dagger point. We touched on all these and did good work with them. But the point that delighted me the most, in a class that delights me lots and often, not because it’s more right than the others but because it’s harder to get to, and it shows they’re thinking and feeling the plays as formally deliberately made things, with their own felt conditions arranged in a coherence, is that Iago is as evil as the play needs him to be. The play needs a villain sufficient to its hero if it’s to be a tragedy. The plot and the moral balance of the play make Iago what he is. In other words, literary convention, as it belongs to genre, form, and ethos. These kids, they doing it.


Take the guns

So the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they say.

The more bad guys with guns, the more we need good guys with guns, and the more guns we need. Sounds like a child-slaughtering racket to me.

Just take the guns away already. All of them. The cost would be small. What we save would be so much. And “common sense” would cease to be the obscenity it’s become in the mealy mouths of politicians when they speak of gun control.

Till then. Have the gunsmiths and bulletmakers apologize in person, on their knees, to the mothers and fathers of every child their handiwork kills. I’m as starry-headed an optimist as I am appalled to contemplate this latest, has it become routine yet, schoolyard mass murder, and have to think the weaponmakers would not, if they knew with their own eyes and ears what what they made had done, would still make the things that they do make.