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

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.

Mythology

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.

History

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.

Charactery

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.

Memory

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.”

Economics

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.

Politics

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.

Mysticism

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.

Major Authors Seminar: Pound and Williams

Description for a spring course I’m way excited to teach again.


We know Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams for a few hit singles

The apparition of these faces in the crowd.

so much depends
upon

and maybe a few sayings fit for a bumper sticker. Go in fear of abstractions. No ideas but in things. What these soundbites miss is each poet’s complex and ongoing self-reinvention. Both started as Imagists, rejecting the sentimentality they found in late Victorian verse, instead carving small hard moments of perception. From there, the two diverged, Williams becoming more invested in the local, the scruffily irregular, Pound in archetypal patterns that for him made ancient history current, distant cultures present. Both remained committed, however, to reinventing the epic, and to bringing mythic awareness to the crush of modernity.

Pound read mythology as if it were the morning newspaper.
Williams read the morning newspaper as if it were mythology.
                  —Donald Revell

Between them they initiated strands in the web of American postmodernism that continue to spread and bear fruit and further ramify to this day. Be ready for close reading of sometimes very difficult texts; the postmodern epic, there’s no mastering it, only entering and being swept through and by it. Assignments will include regular critical responses; a seminar paper to be presented to the class and revised for final submission; an allusion chart mapping a chosen passage from The Cantos; and line-by-line meticulously close reading of a chosen passage from Paterson. Our texts: Pound, selected early poems from Personae, Cathay, selections from the Cantos, selected critical writings; Williams, selected early poems, Spring and All, Descent of Winter, Paterson books I-III, selected prose.


The image atop, a detail from Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Sho-Sho Hakkei) by Sesson Shukei (1504–ca. 1590). A time-honoured theme in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting; one such series was inspiration for Pound’s “Seven-Lakes Canto,” Canto XLIX, still point in the book’s burning wheel.

Not, as far as I know, Shukei’s; it’s just for instance. The whole of it


SESSHU-Shoshohakkei

On “The Seafarer”

My commentary on “The Seafarer” for Unlikeness. Kinda long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his “Seafarer” for you. At the bottom of the post, there’s a special mp3 treat.


For literary translators of OE – not so much for scholars – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. Indeed, his “Seafarer” is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with Zukofsky’s Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after his must contend with that garrulous maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound wrote of three ways to charge words with poetic meaning: melopoeia (handling sounds), phanopoeia (throwing an image toward the mind’s eye), and logopoeia (setting a word in a new relation to its usage) (ABC 37). Hearing, vision, thought: three sites where one could add by shaping (shared ground of the Greek word for poet, poietes, and the AS word, scop) to the world’s store of meaning by words. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and liberally around thought. Since the three are co-equal in meaning-making – are the three legs of the unwobbling stool the poem is – it is for a poet a perfectly defensible choice.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:

   x   –        x         –    –              –    x    –       x      –
bitre brēostceare          gebiden hæbbe,

   –    x       –     –     x    –                x      –    –    x  –
gecunnad in cēole          cearselda fela,

–   –   x   –    –     x                      –          –     x      –    –
atol ȳþa gewealc,          þǣr mec oft bigeat

    x    –    x         –   –              –      x    –        x      –
nearo nihtwaco          æt nacan stefnan,

   –             –    –      x   –           x     –
þonne hē be clifum cnossað. (4­–8)

(x = primary stress)

    x   –        x            –               x      –  –  x    –
Bitter breast-cares | have I abided,

       x          –       –      x            x    –   –    x           x
Known on my keel | many a care’s hold,

 –          –        x       x                 –           –      –  x         x
And dire sea-surge, | and there I oft spent

    x     –        x            –                x         –        –          x
Narrow nightwatch | nigh the ship’s head

       –         –      –                x        –     x
While she tossed close to cliffs.

He does far more than catch the feel of AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the hemistich. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too. When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the line, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise. When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too. In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved – in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line, and does so because in a given pattern, a given intelligence is to be found, through which articulations not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll call this a rose in the steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS scop, his line and his seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. The image gets its power through the speed of its arrival. In “The Seafarer” Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:

Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan,          þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera;          ful oft þæt earn bigeal
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.

An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image is seen dimly through the latter, the force brought to bear on a whole cliff-face is momentarily concen­trated on the fragile hull of the boat. “In icy feathers” then lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm a sense of something animate, almost delicate; then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own feathers; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feath­ered) spray on the eagle’s own wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the vortex comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, an abortive movement but prelude to the Cantos, and doing in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein worked out in pictures – both of them, as it happens, working from Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, though with Kenner I think Pound got some of his mojo from the Seafarer poet. It’s a lovely montage, one of many here, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It did come though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn, “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the scop‘s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks cities (byrig) into berries.

Bearwas blōstmum nimað,          byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað,          woruld ōnetteð (48-49)

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker

Faithful as a dog to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though we know most of a poem’s meaning is outside its words’ denotations, we’re meaning junkies anyway and cry foul – or fool – when the straitened sense of the dictionary is sidelined. As here:

“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “sur­faces” or “corners”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”

One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? Maybe we can find a reason for any given departure – this one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connec­tive tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back toward what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins – but when we take the glary errors all together, it seems we may have to say, Pound didn’t greatly value the semantic meanings of the poem’s words: not more than the sound matrix they belonged to, anyway, or the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most in the poem so he translated those foremost. Or maybe just on an equal footing with sense, but the loss of sense stands out more to us. Perhaps we forgive or miss a loss of cadence or a diminution of image—those embodied, experiential aspects of the poem—more easily because we are in the end meaning junkies. Perhaps we are as greedy and eager for a paraphrasable meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent meaning, and as ready as he to travel off in mōd from our lived experience to an abstract construction elsewhere.

Where the poem commits fully to its abstract construction – Heaven – Pound makes his boldest change. He stops. He cuts the last 23 lines of the poem, sure they’re the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in thinking so or in wanting to save an original pagan poem from a later Christian overlay. And a number of things do change at this point: The folio ends. So, at the same moment, do the sentence and the larger thought. At the start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in, the Christian content intensifies, and there’s arguably a loss of poetic invention. For these reasons some have concluded that “The Seafarer” ends at the end of 82v, cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on 83r is some other less interesting poem.

But the move to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. Indeed, the shift fits the arc of the poem as a whole and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in a “pure” condition. While that impetus has long since expired, arguments that the poem is composite have not. Pope and Fulk:

[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)

They like the question for being unanswerable, the sort of indeterminacy special to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I am not one not to cheer thrice for indeterminacy. Still, novice and outsider that I am, I see a single poem, a single author. The hypermetric lines are not the first in the poem; the shift to them doesn’t last long; and six-stress lines come and go for no clear reason in a number of other Exeter poems. The switch to preacher voice, as said, fits, indeed completes, the dramatic, emotional, moral, and metaphysical arcs of the poem. What would be odd would be not to go there: you’d expect a poem that forswears the world of the living at some point to leave the life-world behind. And these closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the very last few are sententious, but many other OE poems of the first order have like passages, and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them slightly apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at line 103 is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into question. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of vivid material details that resist the point-for-point calculus of allegory mind – an ice-clotted beard, a mewgull’s cries; and yet accumulating misfires in the seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the voyage with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into an allegorical reading, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. Middle of the last century, Whitelock tried to solve the problem by levelling it: she presented the journey as, despite appearances, literal from start to end, and compiled a body of historical evidence that religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices. It was a persuasive case to many but didn’t end the discussion. Marsden argues the other side: the journey stands for the spiritual pilgrim’s journey from the earthly city to the heavenly city of Augustine. By this reading, the seafarer’s true exile is not his voluntary remove from the towns of women and men, but the distance between him and his “ancestral heavenly home” (221). I am always both-and and to me it seems the poem undergoes a conversion from literal to allegorical: the journey itself metamorphoses: it starts as journey-as-journey and gradually becomes journey-as-trope. Travelling itself travels; it’s a tropic trope; I’ll stop now. But part of its subtlety is, there’s no one point where it can be said to have changed condition. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.

A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon, “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have led some readers to treat the poem as a dialogue. However, as Pope and Fulk point out (99), OE narrative poetry has very formal ways of announcing new speakers, and there are none such here. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living from mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, problem solved. In fact, what’s interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem, in the first place. Belonging to print and internet culture, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Henry James, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In “The Seafarer” oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, I know, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the boy’s mind. So some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the scop’s use of logopoeia in putting the word forþon in a highly charged relation to its ordinary usage. At any rate, the notion that there’s more than one speaker here, which had currency for a while, has by now been discarded.

There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the voice he has been voyaging to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.

And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).

 

Ideogram at 10,000

Looks like the blog’s going to hit 10,000 hits today. Thanks, all, for coming by and staying for a bit. A second, an hour, I’m glad for your company.

This morning, a grab bag of thoughts from a shall we say historic week.


Norman Fischer, on Facebook:

Gotta learn to see the world through others’ eyes.


I am appalled, terrified, outraged. Ready to fight. How to keep your fighting spirit free of hate? Try to see the world through others’ eyes.

Which I can’t do if I decide the folks who elected Trump are all racist sexist jerks. They’re the hateful ones. . . . Our civic life needs to be more than a game of projective whack-a-mole with disowned psychic dark matter.

Challenge? There was loads of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, in that campaign. Heaping shit tons of it. Some Trump voters voted just for that, some voted for him in spite of it, and no one’s going to figure out the ratios.


In the Atlantic, headlined “I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball.”

I am Southern. I am white. I am a male. I was raised Roman Catholic and now go to a Methodist church regularly with my wife and kids. I value the 2nd Amendment but do not own a gun. Every male in my family, save me, is currently serving or has served in the U.S. military. . . . Until recently, I attended field trips with my kids to our state capitol where the Confederate flag still flew, and I am genuinely glad we finally took it down.

He seems an eloquent, honourable man with whom I’d have as many agreements as differences. Not, for sure, my image of a Trump rally a-hole.

I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.

I don’t think he’s just ticking the boxes here, I take him at his word, and reading this throws my stereotypes of the Trump supporter into sharp relief. Asks me, even, to compare them to other stereotypes we all agree are beyond the pale.

I do not hate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, or faith in any way shape or form. I like liberals, conservatives, and independents. I do not hate Obama or Hillary; I do not know them. I did not deny Clinton my vote because she lacks a penis.

Okay, then, if no “lock her up,” if not “Trump the bitch,” why’d you vote for him, when she’s so manifestly competent, and he’s a blowhard and a bigot?

I am tired of the machine rolling over us – all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine – they can all kiss my ass.

Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it. So I voted for the monkey wrench – the middle finger – the wrecking ball. . . .

Go ahead: Label me a racist, a bigot, a hate-filled misogynistic, an uneducated redneck. But I turned down Yale, motherfuckers, I ain’t who you think I am.

I don’t know if this guy is typical of a small minority or a great majority of Trump voters. I do feel that his words are a net gain for civil discourse. Not that he remains wholly civil – he’s about to call a lot of liberalism crazy – but I challenge my liberal friends to translate their views this clearly into terms outsiders can empathize with. Whole article here.


Same time, though, I’m not backing one inch off my insistence that the man we’ve elected (wish I could say “they” but it’s all of us; wish I could cry “not my president” but we need to say how things are; see M. Colbert on this point; instead of refusing the present, shape the future, cry “impeach!”) is a threat to our democracy.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, Teju Cole invokes Ionesco’s play The Rhinoceros, which imagines the transformation of a liberal democracy into a fascist state as the change of villagers, one by one till almost all, into rhinoceroses.

Almost everyone succumbs: those who admire the brute force of the rhinos, those who didn’t believe the sightings to begin with, those who initially found them alarming. One character, Dudard, declares, “If you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” And so he willingly undergoes the metamorphosis, and there’s no way back for him.

Gradually almost everyone’s assent is won. This is the “normalization” that Masha Gessen writes about. Cole makes the connection with devastating clarity:

In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress.

The piece is called “A Time for Refusal.” Four years is a long time to hang in there but others in other states have hung in longer.


Ezra Pound used the ideogrammatic method to express indirectly, concretely, by assemblage, an idea he couldn’t state directly. What maybe I’m up to here? Ideogram of Post-Electoral Tristesse and Grave Resolve.

Ezra Pound, hurt by loss into fascist sympathy. And yet, and yet.


Put a safety pin on the left lapel of my blazer evening before last. It’s a complex act and I had to poke at my intention a bit first.

Is this about being seen by others?
—Well, yes.

Is that all it’s about?
—No, it’s also a reminder of my own intention, it brings it to the fore.

The part about being seen by others, is it to be admirable?
—Partly, yes.

Is some of the rest of it to say you belong to a tribe?
—Yes, there’s that too.

—Subtract wanting to look good and wanting to belong. Is anything left? Is any part of it not about you?
—There’s wanting to say I want to be of help.

How much of it is that part?
—Doesn’t matter. Not about amounts.

Wear the pin.

A woman knocked on my door yesterday morning, she was my neighbour, lived in the little apartment complex across the road. I vaguely recognized her. She was apologetic and embarrassed asking to borrow a buck fifty because her stomach was hurting. I was sort of confused but asked if five would help her and could she just get it back to me next week. After a moment I got it, she was going to the doctor and needed bus fare.

After she left I put a story together. A woman of about 30, Hispanic I think, in who knows what situation, herself, her family. This week it will have got more stressful, maybe a little or maybe a whole lot. And stress goes to the stomach, I know that myself, all too well.

All over the country, in addition to hate crimes, Klan rallies, protest marches – these major strains in the social fabric – there are also, and far far more, these minor stresses. Anxiety, irritability, acid reflux. (If the story I came up with is at all true.) Everyone’s baseline stress level has shot up, and is like to stay up, a good while.

I don’t think I’m an especially nice or generous person. Basically decent, and ethical, but not especially nice. But this week has made me feel a lot more tender towards people. If Donald Trump has given me that, I thank him.


One more stroke. Daniel Engber in Slate on racism. He says we’ve been conflating two different senses of the word – a nuanced textbook sense and a more popular dictionary sense. In the former, developed by the academy,

the term was broadened to include more subtle agents of discrimination, exploitation, and inequality [than overt prejudice]. Entire institutions could be racist, and systems could be racist, separate from the people who composed them.

In the past few decades, scholars have stretched the boundaries of the term even further. Now we understand that people, too, can be racist in subtle, systematic ways. Even if you disavow white supremacy, you might still be subject to its influence, as well as the unintentional form of racial prejudice that social scientists call “implicit bias.” You and I are racist, essentially, in ways we’re not consciously aware of.

The broader definition of racism as something systemic or implicit has flourished on the left and in academia. That’s for good reason: It allows us to talk about the nation’s most important social problems – police shootings, for example – in the most impassioned moral terms without labeling specific people as evil or malicious. . . . This more nuanced understanding of racism calls attention to persistent racial injustice while at the same time framing it in broader, more communal terms. It calls out the problem and invites solutions.

But textbook racism, however useful it might be as rhetoric, comes into conflict with the more old-fashioned dictionary definition of the word. Last year, social scientist Patrick Forscher reviewed the most-cited studies on prejudice from the past quarter-century and found that almost every single one of them treats bias as something implicit and unconscious rather than malicious and intentional. This puts the literature at odds with a public understanding of prejudice as the product of malicious feelings, the source of hate crimes, and an ingredient of classic racist ideology. “The gap between common and researcher understandings of ‘prejudice,’ ” Forscher wrote, “can create problems when researchers attempt to communicate their findings to the public.”

It’s a helpful distinction and one I don’t think – even though I belong to the academy and the coastal liberal elite – I’ve properly understood.

If I’m being honest, whenever I hear a friend, colleague, or acquaintance call a system or practice “racist,” my first reaction is defensive – I feel accused. As if I, as a white man who benefits from that structure, were being blamed for it. My second reaction is to swallow my first reaction, make sure no one sees it. (Let’s really just be honest here.) My third reaction, if I’m lucky and mindful enough, is to try to get past the first two reactions. But the terms on hand for doing so – “white fragility,” “white supremacy” – are charged enough that they tend to re-energize my defensive reactions, rather than cool and contain them.

And I’m a member of the coastal liberal academic so-called elite, committed to equality, diversity, self-inquiry, social transformation. If the cognitive burden sometimes seems too much – made heavier by misconstruals, category slips, and sometimes by the indignant anger of natural allies – then how must it feel for Jane or Joe in the heartland, not inducted into these niceties, but told to be straitened by them. “That’s racist,” they’re told; “you’re racist,” they hear.

To all those who found the cognitive burden too much, the self-monitoring and second-guessing too much, Donald Trump must have come as a great relief. “He just says what he thinks.” If we want folks to do the inner work of combatting prejudice, that work has to look doable, and if it’s going to look doable, there has, I think, to be more compassion and less shaming.

Liberalism needs the critique the Trump voter implies of it.


Last last thought. Implicit bias is, funny enough, a race-neutral process. I found myself with a new bias category Wednesday morning. White kid, short hair, scruffy beard, baseball cap, gangly walk – Trump voter. Asshole.

Stereotyping is a way the mind works. The red berry principle. (So is the anger flash. “Asshole.” I gave myself a pat on the head for it, there, there.)

You can’t purge yourself of it. There’s no point beating yourself up for it. But you don’t have to take everything you think seriously. Norman Fischer‘s good on that point too.


And, after all the week’s losses indignities and catastrophes, it’s this that makes me cry? Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton playing Leonard Cohen playing “Hallelujah.” Go figure.

Peace to you, friends, and strength.

Trust yr boredom

Well isn’t that interesting. I said I’d post some stuff about my adventures in erasure and now I find I just don’t feel like it. I tell my students over and over – trust your boredom – it’s some of the best guidance you’re going to get. Bored with a line? Cut it. Bored with a poem? Throw it away.

A sour and maybe cranky wakefulness but wakeful just the same. Could I ask of them something I won’t of myself?

face 2The deal I made with me when I started this blog was – write when I feel a wish to and write what I feel a wish to and not otherwise. Lots of duties and such elsewhere. Here I’ll see if what I’ve heard about whim is so, its fructiveness and sufficiency. So far it’s borne out well. Some fallow periods, some heavy fertile swells, an amiable rhythm.

So, having erased erasure, what do I mean to write about? I sat down without knowing. That’s the scary or even terrifying thing about trusting your boredom wholeheartedly. It might tell you what not without telling you what to.

face 3One thing I do, when in this place, and I mean to offer this to my students wherever you are, is just shine an inquisitive light over all the terrain of my mind open at that time, and see what gleams back, even tinily. That might be the place where whatever the counter to boredom is, is waiting.

Here what shone back in mind was an image of a red rock cliff in an essay I’d run my eyes over a few minutes earlier, looking for something on erasure I might want to use.

My thought was a propensity for seeing faces where they ain’t, and then my thought was, that’s where I want to go, that’s where the living interest is, the way inert matter makes faces at us, or the way we make it into faces.

face 1

Project onto it a sentience it doesn’t have, if you’re the sort of materialist most people today are, or acknowledge the sentience we intuit it to have, if you’re the sort of postmodern animist I’m coming to give myself permission to be.

Gleaming in mind, I think, because I spent some of yesterday, and today, turning a portion of Dumuzi into a chapbook ms, title Junk Inanna Down, which will go off to a contest tomorrow. The final image, built out of junk mail, is this

10. Eyes

Those eyes move me some. They’re a mother’s looking down at an infant in her arms. They’re Kuanyin coming to poor lowered noble Ezra in that Pisan tent. They’re the trademark stamp on the Bank of America logo blown up about 1600%. Sacred just bitch-slapped profane, ’bout time. Her earrings are the rest of the same logo disassembled. Her headdress is one of those scan codes you see on the front of an envelope a machine reads to shunt its news unwanted to you more speedily.

This one’s for Don, with love.