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

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


Pound’s ideograms

Dear Don,

You asked me to think about the “sustained vision” one might find in (through) fragments but I have not got so far along as that. Instead I have been sinking into, plashing about in, the ideogram.

p 3 KyushunAm I silly to be pleased that the second half of my dharma name, Kyushun (kyu = “endless,” shun = “spring”) echoes characters found in the Cantos?

The second character, “spring,” is composed of two elements. The lower of them (three horizontal strokes joined by two vertical) is the character for the sun. It shows up in the Cantos in the ideograms for “dawn” (“bright dawn on the sht house / next day / with the shadow of the gibbets attendant”) and for “no” or “not” (“a man on whom the sun has gone down”).

Also recall Pound’s explication in The ABC of Reading of the Chinese ideogram: man + tree + sun –> “sun tangled in the tree’s branches, as at sunrise, meaning now the East.”

The other element is I believe the character for “tree.” Without the three horizontals it would be the character for “person.” And so made visual is the kinship known since ancient days between human and tree.

Spring is the sun come through the roots of the tree. When Daidoshi named me I felt an arrow go through my forehead. All at once my name had been a truth of my life all along. The calligraphy above is his, on my rakusu.

Where does all this lead? Nowhere and everywhere. I want to notice just one thing, that Pound uses the ideogram in two ways in Rock-Drill, what I’ll call pictorial & ideational.

The pictorial is treated so magnificently by Kenner that little can be added. E.g., his unpacking of ling, “sensibility,” early on.

ling-1_ZhuDEn bas, as ground, the figure for ritual or witchcraft — compounded of the characters for doing things properly (this is appropriate witchcraft) and the waving sleeves of a moving officiant.

En haut, as gable & presiding air, heaven hung with clouds, beneath them three raindrops, together meaning “fall as the big drops fall on a parched day.”

These images and gestures, compounded thus, from sensual life, actual life, mean “the spirit or energy of a being, in harmony with the invisible and by ritual drawing down beneficence.”

Sensibility as the connection to (among) earth, human, & heaven, realized through right observance (right seeing, rites observed), that is, through te, or virtu.

This is (once more) embodiment. Combining stylized images of ROSE, CHERRY, IRON RUST, and FLAMINGO to make a word for “red,” rather than attaching a sound (“red,” “rouge,” “rousse”) whose relationship to the thing it names is arbitrary.

The ideogram offers, says Pound, a way for the mind to resist the lure of abstraction. A way to think generally, to trade in ideas, without losing contact with the actual, the concrete, the specific instance without which speech is just so much hot & circling wind.

Without, that is, making thought a game of moving counters here there & all about, matching & separating on the basis of putative likeness & unlikeness, which can only be credited when the actual features of a thing, its suchness, its particularity, have been planed off, and the gouge marks sanded & veneered away.

In the world itself, everything is everything else, and each thing is utterly selfsame. Not one, not the other, not neither, not both. Speech can’t reach here.

A practice that invoked an idea more directly than our speech can would be a gift of the mind to the mind of the first order. For Pound the ideogrammatic method is more than just plunking some Chinese calligraphy down in a poem. It is a new way of doing thinking.

Reworking this writing now, I see how I was starting to flounder. Pound’s grandiosity invoked my considerable own. Unexpectedly, it was Williams who came to speak to me more, in this work I did with Don. I’m leaving most of the flaws I see here as I see them. And of course all the flaws I don’t see have gone untouched.

Words are of course employed. They are made into images (or scraps of memory, or bits of overheard speech, or foreign phrases, or names from myth, or historical incidents) which are then built up, compounded, just as they are built up in a Chinese character or a film by Eisenstein. It is in the space between the images (or scraps of memory, etc.) that the spark jumps, the light flows, the wind roams about, & the mind finds itself.

One crafts the image precisely to make the space around it precise. This is all being set down too hastily. Let me try to work it out through an example. We might take this passage as a single ideogram (comparable in complexity to ling above):

“From the colour the nature
                    & by the nature the sign!”
Beatific spirits welding together
                    as in one ash-tree in Ygdrasail.
                         Baucis, Philemon.
Castalia is the name of that fount in the hill’s fold,
                         the sea below,
                                                  narrow beach.
Templum aedificans, not yet marble,

The first two lines invoke Heydon’s “doctrine of signatures” and work somewhat like the radical, establishing the general semantic (spiritual) sense of the ideogram. That sense is hard to spell out (real thoughts are) but it has something to do with vegetal power, and each thing fulfils its nature, and a thing’s nature is discernible.

At any rate, this is the sign under which, or the mood within which, the next strokes are presented. “Strokes” because, as in the ideogram, there is no logical or discursive linkage, space is left in which the mind may roam & flash about.)

The next element in the character, three strokes in three lines, entwines two stories with the same signatures, that of the Norse world-heaven tree and that of Baucis & Philemon, who, faithful to the gods, are spared the annihilating flood, & grow in old age into intertwined trees. Instantiations, not mere instances, of vegetal power, of earth and heaven conjoined (recall ling), and of truth to one’s own nature.

Thus far likeness, rhyme, homeomorphism, is building the character. But the ideogrammatic method, like Eisenstein’s montage, is about gauged differences, for only in difference is there a space for the mind-spark to leap.

The distance is marked by shifts in sense (syntax switches from fragment to full sentence) and rhythm (musical phrasing switches from mostly short syllables to mostly long) but our concern here (insofar as these things can be isolated) (that is at best an enabling fiction, at worst a wrong way of life) is phanopoeia.

We have left the trees and come back to the water. The scene is presented in three glimpses — a fountain encleft in a hill fold (and I sense here the sexual feminine, mate to the virile power of the world-heaven tree), the sea below, a narrow beach — in a staccato & yet fluid fashion that recalls the beach scene of Canto II. (One ideogram can call to mind another one hundreds of pages prior.)

The final strokes of the character draw it together, even as they extend and leave it open. “Templum aedificans,” building the temple. The temple of the Cantos, the temple in which Baucis and Philemon serve as caretakers, the temple the universe is, borne up & arranged by the world-heaven tree.

“not yet marble” because the original temples were of wood, the columns fluted tree trunks — suggesting (not saying) (real thoughts are unspoken) that the marble columns to come have virtu to the extent that they recall (but do not slavishly copy) their origins.

The last stroke, “Amphion!” Terrell: “Hermes taught him to play the lyre so well that when he became king of Thebes he fortified the city with a wall magically conjured up by his music: at the sound of his lyre the stones moved into place by themselves.”

The power of one rooted in his own nature. It joins earth & heaven & human life & gives one sway over wild beasts & field stones.

Does the whole canto, does the whole of the Cantos, fall into ideograms in this way? I amn’t sure. The white space after “Amphion!” articulates the sequence, asks one to look at it as a whole that reflects back on itself, but it is the only such space in Canto XC, and I wonder whether, if Pound meant us to read the way I just have, he would have scored the verse a bit differently. Anyway, I’ve only barely scratched the surface here. I do sense though that in its several formal arenas—melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia, mythopoeia—the poem is a unitary project. Pound against abstraction. A title for a final paper?

Yeah plenty of floundering here along with a few honest gleams. Curious how an anti-system is just another system. But if you can’t put your errors and strayings on display in a blog post — well then what’s a blog for? Scheduling this one for Dec. 30. Happy, if somehow you’ve made it this far, new years all.

UPDATE. And the image up top, here it is big –
7132 - big

Ryoji Koie. A six-fold paper screen. Ink on paper and gold ground. Japan, 2013. An example of the hibi deisui (blind drunk everyday) style. Don’t know if that’s blind drunk or blind, drunk. More on him here (scroll down some).

“Compose in the sequence of the musical phrase”

From some that I wrote for Donald Revell once, some years back, studying Pound and Williams and their ways with him.

Dear Don,

The dictum you asked me to mull: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.” Well, sequence of the metronome, that would be the line chopped up into separate iambs, tick tick tick tick, a deadening monotony, each swing of the ticker identical in duration, parcelling out its energies with a robotic indifference to the moment at hand. The figure’s neither perfect (an iamb goes tick TOCK) nor entirely fair. With four or five discernible levels of speech stress to play among, the metrical schema can abstract itself from a wide array of stress profiles.

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!


My galley chargéd with forgetfulness

both perfect iamb pent, are not at all alike. But the point’s a crux just the same. Metrical patterns abstracted from speech stress, one way among many, had come to seem the one true way, and were by Pound’s day enervated, outworn, exhausted, and too few had noticed, he thunk.

An accentual-syllabic line, well made, lives in the unfolding tension between an abstract metrical scheme and the actual spoken rhythm it’s abstracted from. It requires, creates, and enforces a split between an unreal ideal and its flawed incarnation. Is it fanciful to find this split a musical instance — a rhythmic performance — of the mind/body dualism we inherit from Descartes and monotheism generally? Ideogram, pagan gods, and the musical phrase may all be for Pound an effort to throw us back into the body, sensuous actuality, to seek what truths may be found without recourse to abstraction.

A “musical phrase” is made up of notes and rests of varying durations. Elsewhere in Literary Essays he speaks at greater length about the musician’s work:

No one is so foolish as to suppose that a musician using ‘four-four’ time is compelled to use always four quarter notes in each bar, or in ‘seven-eighths’ time to use seven eighth notes uniformly in each bar. He may use one 1/2, one 1/4 and one 1/8 rest, or any such combination as he may happen to choose or find fitting.

To apply this musical truism to verse is to employ vers libre.

But how to apply it? Do we work with stresses the way a musician works with notes? Again, stress, an elusive and fluid amalgam of volume, pitch, and duration, is broadly variable. Two stresses of equal strength might reach that level by different paths, one by the length of a diphthong, say, the other by the rising pitch of the phrase-end. Stress is not accent — on, off, on, off — in the way Pound makes it out to be.

Or do we rather turn our attention to duration itself, working with syllables as half-notes and quarter-notes, with caesura as rest? Pound said around the same time this: “the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation.” I suspect “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” means a return to quantity, a sensual attention to the lengths of syllables.

Poets had always been attentive to quantity. But to make it focal, an arranging principle, that was something new. Or renewal by way of return to something very old—

You begin with the yeowl and the bark, and you develop into the dance and into music, and into music with words, and finally into words with music, and finally into words with a vague adumbration of music, words suggestive of music, words measured, or words in a rhythm that preserves some accurate trait of the emotive impression.

From the raw animal yelp and howl, to the articulated body, to music, through music and words in different proportions, to musical wordings. But when the wording loses musicality, holds only to a lifeless and abstract on/off that has forgotten its origins in musical tempo, sez Ez, time to go back to the roots, the wellspring, the rhythmic ground, the moving and sounding body. That’s why the return to quantity mattered — not to give a poet something new to do, but to return him to origins, something vital.

Lines (this interposed as I prep this letter for posting) that have haunted dissociated me in the years since I came to them —

This body is my body.
This body is my body.

— though I’ve never found a home for them. Just to note that I have a personal stake in the reading I’ve laid out here. I think that might be the source of the a wee bit polemical moments.

And honest. As the ideogram is closer than phonetic charactery to pictorial art, which cannot lie, and duration is closer than stress to aural and rhythmic art, which cannot lie. Cannot because they make no claim to truth other than their own undeniable is.

In Pound’s work quantity is a form of attention but rarely a system. Which is as it should be, for syllable duration in English is a fuzzy math, a matter of subtle gradations. Rather than simple boxes, short and long, we have a continuum:

a – at – bat – bait – bought – brought – sprouts – strength – strengths

So quantity’s never been a basis for a metrical system in English. Besides which, any metrical system is or fast becomes an imposition, not a discovery, of order. Some such are gorgeous in their effects — masterful in their reach — but are impositions just the same, the mind of abstraction bearing down on the life from which it has abstracted its sleekly gleaming principles.

A discovered order may in comparison look at first like a welter, a chaos, formlessness. As you said last week, we might look at Pound’s career as a struggle between his rage for order and a gracious (grace-filled) surrender. One field on which that struggle is played out is melopoeia. And one patch of that field is quantity.

If quantity is no basis for a system, are there yet patterns to take part in? Mimetic moments? Meaningful recurrences? Before closing this horribly long digressive and disorderly note, I’ll offer a few noticings.

One is this: the length of the syllable is the pace of the mind. Long syllables, slow attention. Short syllables, quick attention. One pole is stillness, one motion. This is how quantity contributes to the “absolute rhythm” that “corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” Because one of the things that gives emotion (or thought) its particular shading is how and where one lingers and where and whether one zips through.

(Slowness and speed — stillness and motion — are just a part of it of course. Stress has a role — how gentle or hard the emphases are. Consonants have a role — liquids, stops, nasals, blurring or defining borders. Vowel timbre — the difference between a high sharp long i , which resonates just in the mouth and nose, and a low sonorous ou, which reaches into the gut. The interlacings of all these. And whether the emergent order is that of a cut diamond, or of an orchard, or a watershed.)

Another is this. As absolute rhythm, drawn inward, brings shade and precision to a thought or emotion, drawn outward, it gives heft and clarity to a sensation. An obvious example: the sequence of long syllables in “wide flat road” widens and flattens the road. Many subtler effects could be found.

A third is this. One element of speech stress is duration. So we generally expect heavily stressed syllables to be longer than lightly stressed ones. (Compare the length of “it” in “rabbit” and “omit.” That one’s courtesy of Robert Pinsky.) But sometimes that expectation is defied. In this passage I’ve boldfaced the syllables where stress and duration don’t coincide: they’re either long but lightly stressed, or short but heavily stressed:

Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold,

And the blue-grey glass of the wave tents them,

Glare azure of water, cold-welter, close cover.

This marking shows why there’s more unease in the first and third lines than in the second. The first and third, with their tensions between stress and duration, arouse physical tension, sympathetic alertness, concentration, a readiness to fight or to flee. In the second line, stress and duration are in good accord, and the attention is parasympathetic, a relaxed attentiveness, mindfulness, a readiness just to be.

It’s a dynamic tension. (Tension as in what makes us tick. How muscles work, nerves fire, mountains rear up and wear down. Not the tension of silences short or long at the family table.) In other words, not the accentual-syllabic tension between abstract pattern and actual instance, mind getting in the way of being, imposing its perfections on perfection. A tension rather between two actual rhythms in our actual speech. Making no bad-faith leap out of real existence into airy abstraction, setting up no ideal against which the actual is found wanting, fully embedded in the lived sensual life, this melopoeia creates a bridge, as Pound says elsewhere, between consciousness and the insentient universe.

Whether there is such a thing — an insentient universe — that’s for another day.