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.

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I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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