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

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


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


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.

Terraces the colour of stars

Dear Don,

“Memory supplants history in the humbled mind,” you wrote. To which we might add that epic fallen to fragments becomes lyric, and those lyric scraps of myth and history may become well nigh indistinguishable from personal memory.

So that the Pisan Cantos, held at a certain angle, in a certain light, read as if all of Europe were sifting through the fragments washed up in and of its ruin, trying to comprehend its downfall.

And to separate what it might still love from the dross of its vanity, gazing eastward for equivalences that might be insights, Kuanyin ≒ Aphrodite, rain as Tao ≒ Heraclitean flow, apricot blossoms on the wind as gallows at the camp’s edge terribly clarify the mind.


At a certain angle, in a certain light. The poems are a tsunami in their mass energy valences. Any effort to summarize encapsulate or contain them seems further folly. So I will just tell you the way I am floating along with them this morning.


It starts with defiance and venom. Mussolini as a “dead bullock” eaten at by maggots. Lenders as “loan lice.” The mind is at work on the scale of history, the “enormous trag­edy of the dream” now lost of the ideal city “whose terraces are the colour of stars.”

Pound heaps scorn and contempt upon those he calls guilty, FDR, Churchill, banks, rich Jews. This noise goes on for some time. But even at the outset, turning words are at work in the mind:

The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                              rain also is of the process.

Those same eyes appear some hundred pages later — “there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent” —Kuanyin? Aphrodite? — to release the hymn of self-abnegation, in which love and right action are got free at last of resentment and vanity.


One side of it is letting the world enter, really enter, the tent. To admit that “rain also is of the process” is not idle or abstract in a roofless cage. The other side is, get humble, erase yourself, let the world enter, that is the way through:

ОЎ ΤΙΣ, ОЎ ΤΙΣ? Odysseus
                             the name of my family.

Things flow. So let them. The Pisan Cantos are (this morning) (for this reader) about the thorny ecstatic work of getting out of the way. To be Odysseus is to be skilled in many things, polumetis, a man of twists and turns, and one such turn is to be no man at all.


The poem flows. So let it. ОЎ ΤΙΣ, “no man,” recalls here and everywhere “’Tis. ’Tis. Ytis!” in Canto IV, the cry of Philomela become nightingale. Which connects in turn to the orchestrated birdsong of Canto LXXV. Which connects to the birds composing themselves on wires in Pound’s tent-straitened view. Who sing in Canto LXXXII this song

                             f           f
                                             d
                                                    g

which I hear as the drawn-out first syllable, and then descending scale, of “Terreus! Terreus!” — Philomela given the power to name he who raped her and cut out her tongue to foster silence.


This would be a way to write about the Cantos: choose one node, trace all that it echoes or actuates, how they foster speech when speech is due, rich silences otherwise.

For so many noticings don’t fit the arc I’ve staked out for myself.

A key that shows up in the first moments: periplum, circumnaviga­tion, as in “the great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.” Not sure what to make of this. Feels like a concession that the world is whole, and epic strivings unnecessary, but that may be my effort, once more, to turn Pound into a dharma holder.


The poem is one left parenthesis and another. So I can hardly say it makes a clean transit from benightedness to insight. That would be too happy an ending — that would be an ending. To the last Pound is hailing Il Duce, his lieutenants, various collaborators whom history has since found, and I’ve no reason to question the verdict, cowards and villains.

There is though a gradual shift in the relative weights given to vitriol (accusation, explanation, calumny) and humility (surrender, sympathy, wakeful attention) — to being right and being alive. A few of the energies at work in that shift:

Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME.
                                                ОЎ ΤΙΣ
a man on whom the sun has gone down

As Odysseus, become No Man, is connected to Elpenor, a man remembered only for the company he kept, so Pound, as No Man, is connected to the prisoners and guards of the DTC, anonymous but for the place he gives them in his poem. (His giving goes hand in hand with sympathy.) (His humbling is an enlarging.)


As Pound settles into the ascetic attention forced on him by his confinement, mist and clouds, stray camp animals, vagrant insects become charged with meaning:

that the ants seem to wobble
as the morning sun catches their shadows

Sometimes that meaning takes on the dimension of myth, not in the way of epic sweep and portent, but of lyric intensity, the moment eternal: the butterfly, Aphrodite or Psyche, at the smoke hole. Identity with the insects makes humility absolute —

As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.

— out of humility comes a new allegiance —

nothing matters but the quality
of the affection —
in the end — that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria

— a descent into memory with consolation from Confucius —

“How is it far, if you think of it?”

— peppered with eruptions of the old rage —

                    interest on all it creates out of nothing
the buggering bank has;                   pure iniquity
                    and to change the value of money, of the unit of
money
                              METATHEMENON
                     we are not out of that chapter

(as if the deep disappointment of the world could be laid at the feet of the banking industry — we are not out of that habit) and in time a reaffirmation—

Amo ego sum, and in just that proportion

To be as one loves.


Such luminous details fall like seeds into a welter of sensation, memory, argument, and myth. And after a near endless swirling gestation they break up through the soil and the world greens with a new sort of understanding:

What thou lovest well remains,
                                             the rest is dross,
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Humbled, the sun gone down on him, made no man, Pound overwinters, all that long summer, to green in autumn with hard insight:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
             Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity


I am of Pound’s company in this if in no other thing: “Learn of,” not “Learn from,” because of how long “from” would take to say. The music matters. Music is the matter.


The hate that went out turns inward as ruthless self-excoriation —

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down they vanity
                         How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity
                         Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity

— that also is of the process, the Tao of prison, the way of awful reflection. Allowed to flow, it flows, then is gone. What one has loved — that one has loved — remains:

                         To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.


Well I have tried to work here with a light hand but still feel I have striven to reduce the irreducible. So let me say as I wrap up that these poems are teaching me a different sort of attention. They are not vessels, nor is there any vessel to hold them, they’re mind in motion, world in motion, soul in process, one meets them as a rainstorm or a storm surge. I mean the only way to read them is surrender. One could spend a lifetime in them and not find the depth of them, and that — fascistic rantings notwithstanding — is a great beautiful good.