Facing Ereshkigal

Teaching my compost course, one of the points I make a lot is, how much can be got from how little. E.g., from this scrap

Text – scrap
Why you little—

spoke by Ereshkigal, Queen of the U-world, to bright canny way out of her depth sis Inanna, on their first meeting in eons – how are you bitch & die – I got, with some photocopier and computer play, to this asemic poem,

Ereshkigal's face – edited

which I hope suggests a face to more than pareidoliac me. From there it wasn’t far to this diplomatic transcript –

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 8.15.07 PM

It’s heady, I guess. These transcriptions of my own asemy are the most conceptual half-book of poetry I’ll ever write, likely. Here’s the page whole, to get down to rude felt stuff again, the undermud.

Why you little

Inanna’s in some trouble. That’s her, down low at the left, hat knocked off, humbled. I made her, she’s bar codes & engine noise, but I do, and I’m not kidding, feel for her. She could die here. I could die here.

The only student I ever put in a poem took her life this summer.

It was just her first initial, and it became an asemic poem. Still though she was there in it with me. She was a checkout clerk at my grocery store and shooting the shit with her after teaching before walking in my front door softened by day a bit.

Then she was my student and we talked some more. Poems, ups and downs, ways to stay more steady through ups & downs. I hoped so, for her.

You want to save all of them. And you can’t and you shouldn’t try – you’d just become annoying. I did that not long ago, trying to save, not the one in front of me, but the one who’d gone.

The poem’s a picture of the face-to-face A. had inside and almost every time she won. I made the ground before I’d met her but it doesn’t matter. Hell only feels private.

 

On non-evaluative feedback

I use non-evaluative feedback in creative writing workshops for several reasons. For one, it helps to quiet the writer’s ego, the desire for praise, the fear of dispraise; that ego is no friend to an artist. Instead the author gets a more enduring affirmation: we’ve heard and listened to you, what you’ve made has held our whole attention. We don’t need our work to be loved. We need to be loved.

Also, the practice emphasizes observing over advising, which helps to minimize suggestions that are well meant but unhelpful, and will lead the student being critiqued astray. Some of my colleagues have let go of workshopping altogether because of how easily bad advice proliferates.

I’ve had an unusually hard time introducing non-evaluative feedback to one of my workshops this quarter. There are dynamics in the class I’m still puzzling out and may not ever see clear. But here’s the handout I put together this morning, after mulling a perilous hour in the endodontist’s chair.


On non-evaluative feedback

Non-evaluative feedback is an integral part of this course. While it may feel unfamiliar at first, I have sound pedagogical reasons for using it, and I ask you to follow the critique guidelines I’ve set out.

Benefits to the author

Hearing what we like about their piece is of very little use to the author. It makes them feel good, and that’s about it. Once the good feeling has passed, they know nothing new about how to revise the piece, what direction to take it, or how they might approach another piece in a different way.

In fact, hearing what the class likes can be positively unhelpful to an author. Sometimes the most realized and polished part of a piece is the part that needs to go, and the roughest, most clumsily written part is closest to its beating heart. It may be clumsy because it’s genuinely new. But if half the class likes the accomplished part, the author, unless they’re unusually strong-willed, is likely to keep that part, develop it, focus on it, even if their own creative instinct, that small still voice inside, says the truth of the piece lies elsewhere. They end up revising to please a committee – us – and an opportunity to learn and grow is lost.

Saying what we like seems benign, it seems helpful, but we’re actually asking the author to make their piece conform to a group consensus. The author deserves more freedom than that, and non-evaluative feedback helps to protect that freedom.

Benefits to the reader

Saying what you like is easy. It hardly stretches you at all. Saying what you notice is hard. It asks you to think the way a working writer thinks: how is language functioning here? what is this effect, and how is it achieved? In other words, when you do non-evaluative critique, you are actively learning how to write. And you should be learning as a writer every moment you’re in workshop, no matter whose work is up for discussion.

This noticing practice will be more doable if you start it before class. Don’t write evaluative comments on your peer’s piece, then try to translate them to non-evaluative comments during workshop. Write non-evaluative observations ahead of time that you can share with the class when we meet.


Courses past, a few spoken guidelines have been enough, and then modelling. This is a new intervention. But I think it’ll become my new normal – maybe elaborated, with, say, a few examples of how to turn an “I like” into an “I notice.”

It was important to strike the right tone. It’s an admonishment, no question, and there needed to be a bit of sharpness to it. But more than a bit and it would all go to shit; my authority with this group feels tenuous, for reasons I have only a little sussed out, and I need to proceed tenderly. Leftover Hallowe’en candy helped. The feel in the room was good today, better than in a while; I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner.

Lastly, I do see suddenly, this practice is in the spirit of Sōsan’s “The great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing” (see my old teacher’s talk here). That is, preferences. Non-evaluative feedback is great mind in action. So why am I surprised it draws me to it but is hard for my students? I’ve had 20 years training in these ways. They’ve had 18+ years training in liking this, disliking that, on the GD interwebs.

The course where it unbegan

This fall I’m teaching The Art of Compost, the course that hatched this blog, for the first time in three years. Thought I’d share with you the page that greets students when they go to the course’s online platform. Meant to open them to a composty way of thinking about word objects.


Welcome to 

ENG 460: The Art of Compost

“Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”
What does one do with all this crap?
–Jack Spicer

In the beginning, there was compost.

Crumb – Genesis 1 – sized
R. Crumb, The Illustrated Genesis

 
The Bible is a compost pile.

The story of the Flood is floodwrack of a Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh.

The Song of Solomon, proclaiming the devotion of the Hebrews to their God in really quite erotic terms, is a compost of Canaanite love poetry.

The New Testament cannibalizes the Old to make Jesus make more sense.

 

Sappho - Papyrus
Sappho, a fragment

A bit of poem by Sappho.

The fragment only survives
because the poem was torn to strips,

and the strips (papyrus)
used to wrap a mummy.

Glyph

A novel digested yields
precious rare verse nutrients.

Phillips – Humument – sized
Tom Phillips, A Humument (fifth edition)

Tom Phillips found a bad Victorian novel in a London bookstore in 1966 and bought it on a dare.

He’s spent the last 48 years releasing the eye poems he finds in it.

Its protagonist, Toge, carved out of the words together, altogether.

Its human meaning, here and there uttered and everywhere embodied: “only connect.”

Glyph

A composted mass of poems
becomes a lettery soil.

Screenshot - Spicer.png
Jack Spicer, After Lorca

Jack Spicer didn’t write his poems.

Some were dictated to him by Martians.

Others came to him over the radio. The poet is a radio, he said, a counter-punching radio.

Glyph

You can compost something as impromptu
as an envelope jotting . . .

Bervin – Gorgeous – sized
Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, & Marta Werner, The Gorgeous Nothings

Jen Bervin and Marta Werner have found, in diplomatic transcriptions of the envelope jottings of Emily Dickinson, a curious new sort of visual poem.

. . . or grandiose as an extinct civilization
extant only in mind

Schwerner – Tablet X – sized 2Armand Schwerner imagines the discovery of tablets left behind by a hitherto unknown ancient culture.

The brackets and ellipses scholars use to transcribe broken ancient texts become the building blocks for visual poems elucidating

perception illumination annihilation enlightenment dissolution regeneration
sex birth death irrigation animal husbandry

Glyph

Compost will be our trope
for how writers take extant works
and break them down to pieces they can
use to make new works that will be
broken down in turn to
make new works
&c.


Whew. That took longer than you’d think to format. As you can see, it raises more questions than it answers. Our primary texts, w/ links:

Compost as trope, as topos, as practice. It’s a way of digging intertextuality and materiality without going all theory. It’s also ecopoetics as I myself feel it, not nature-as-leafy-green-stuff one swoons to in words, though that’s well and good, but interbeing discovered as your textual ground. Indra’s Net, felt on the breath, that it becomes the texture of our works, our days.


Our reading practice is fluid, but some of these may swim into our ken:

Works co-authored by time

The same except make-believe

20th C. ur-texts composed by bricolage

Objectivist &c. poems &c. at play in their wake

Translations that foreground their compost nature . . .

. . . and translations into a language of pure form

Other conceptual undertakings

Prose compendia and extravaganza with a compost face

Works that suggest to compose just is to compost

Instructions and conceptions

Images and sounds

The bin of the thing


It’s the bare thin start of a compost rolodex.

Later will try to get some more recent workings in.

Here, for now, the wormipede I just found on my kitchen floor, WTF.

Wormipede

Lastly, why so Euro? I need to dwell more on that, but it’s got to do with a hankering for diagnosis. Our thought, I mean the West’s, has been sick a good long time. One way to get a bead on what ails us might be to trace the shadows that remain of cultures who before their ruinous contact with us lacked our afflictions. “Ethnopoetics.” If we’re amiss, our others may offer a glance of salutary haleness. While I admire elders like Robert Bringhurst and Jerome Rothenberg, deep and sincere in an exogenous practice, it may have felt to some of its objects – it surely would to me were I to try on any such regard – like more of the same damn thievery.

Another way is endogenous – sift the debris all round us of our own works and ages.

Occam’s Razor volume 8

Yesterday the journal I advise, Occam’s Razor, had the release party for its eighth volume. I was sad to be kept from attending by a wandering kidney stone. Here’s what I’d thought to say as the event got underway.


I’m delighted to welcome you to the release party for the eighth volume of Occam’s Razor, Western’s cross-disciplinary journal for undergraduate scholarship. Written by students, edited by students, also, you should know this, funded by students. Be sure to take one. You own it.

Eight years ago two undergrads were sad that all the work they put into a seminar paper or a research project went to getting an A and then – nowhere. Done, gone, forgotten. So they started this journal, to publish the work of their peers and those who came after, so they wouldn’t be sad in the same way.

At first it was held together with string and chewing gum. No office, no equipment, no budget except what they could beg each year. Year by year, things steadied out, and now, thanks to the good folks at the Student Publications Committee, we have a budget we can count on, and thanks to the kind hospitality of the Jeopardy staff, we have some office space we can use. And thanks to you, the students and faculty of Western, we’re getting more and better submissions every year.

I’ve only just got my hands on this year’s issue, but what I can tell you is, it has the highbrow ambition to take on Deleuze and Guattari, the bravado to look at law enforcement reform in the age of Trump. It ventures into the wilderness of ecocriticism and some bewildering press coverage of #metoo. It examines links between international adoption and trauma, and maps out styles of white racial socialization.

Some hard topics. It’s not an accident the cover is a rockface. Ezra Pound liked to say that beauty is difficult. This cover, and the contents too, argue that difficulty is beautiful.

I’ll let those who speak next introduce the authors to you. But please join me now in congratulating the Editor-in-Chief, Paola Merrill, and her Associate Editors, Cassie Bartlett, Chris Horton, and Grace Dunbar-Miller. And also please help me welcome Grace into the role of next year’s Editor-in-Chief.

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

Exekias_Dionysos_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2044_n2
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
              d
                      g”

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 unmasterable in mind. Most of our literature, not all, distracts us from or rails against that imperturbable fact.

Here be monsters? No, the ungoverned. 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.


Rahpsody_5