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
tracking 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.
what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
“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
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
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.