Friday, October 22, 2021

On Finally Reading Ezra Pound's The Cantos

I've had a relatively large amount of free time since I moved back to America from South Korea, and yet I've also been busier than expected in taking care of my Dad.  It's not a job exactly, but it requires a lot of attention to detail and scheduling just like, say, a "real" job.  But I have managed to read more in 2021 than I have since graduate school, and almost entirely for my own pleasure -- mostly novels, some history, and some poetry -- something I read very little of while living in Daegu.  This fall I've also started picking and eating wild mushrooms, only for myself -- not out of gluttony, but because poisoning my 92 year-old father at this point would be a pretty bad look.

I bought myself a copy of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, the big black 824 page edition from New Directions than any former English major will recognize -- a commanding, uninviting tome, even before you open it.  And while I read it for my own enjoyment (or lack thereof), not taking too many notes, I'd say it took me about a week and half to get through it.  I came to it familiar with the often anthologized bits, and a great like -- not quite love -- of his early, less ambitious works.  (Personae is a great place to start.)

So I say this with the vigor of any personal artistic opinion -- it is a deeply silly, unnecessary work on so many levels.  How it held so much sway -- so much power -- over English poetry in the 20th century is beyond me.  It is about one half gibberish -- intentional gibberish -- met with multiple laments against "n*ggers" and "k*kery" and, maybe to balance things out, Thomas Jefferson.  (John Berryman could pull this off most of the time in The Dream Songs.  When Pound tries to emulate foreign or, let's face it, black speech patterns it comes off as simply dull and cruel, like the worst jock to ever hold sway in a locker-room.)

Now, there's no mystery that a lot of poets admire Pound's work and are fully aware of his racism.  I still admire T. S. Eliot despite his own vile anti-Semitism and "The Waste Land," because it's amazing.  (Don't skip Four Quartets either.)  I studied with a poet in graduate school, a really great poet and teacher at that, who told us how The Pisan Cantos (written while Pound was in prison for treason, actual treason against the U.S.) despite their obvious flaws, contain moments of beauty embodied in language.  As a reader, you have to basically filter out the forehead-slappingly bad politics (and arguably worse understanding of Chinese, which is not a pictographic language) to really appreciate what's there:

"that the drama is wholly subjective

stone knowing the form which the carver imparts it

the stone knows the form" (LXXIV)

To truly read The Cantos is to sift with the finest of mental filters, to find the flecks of diamond among the grubby dross.  I think it's safe to say that anybody reading them today will be approaching the work from this angle -- find the good stuff, forage for the tasty little mushrooms, not the obviously overgrown and poisonous ones that will kill you dead:

"I don't know how humanity stands it

    with a painted paradise at the end of it

    without a painted paradise at the end of it" (LXXIV)

But oh, the wretched dross (from three pages later):

"the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle

in gt/ proportion and go to saleable slaughter

with the maximum of docilitv."

"Beauty," Pound reminds us many times, "is difficult."  It certainly is.  But when I hear the most-widely held apology for The Cantos -- "the beauty is in there, you just have to sift through the hateful bullshit" I wonder if these people have ever listened to music?  If they've ever taken the time to splice in bits of Mussolini speeches into their favorite songs just for the hell of it?  To make the good parts even better than they were before by sheer contrast?  Obviously, I doubt it.

Because of course, the moments are there:

"Mist weighs down the wild thyme plants." (XCV)

"    and to know beauty and death and despair

and to think that what has been shall be,

        flowing, ever unstill." (CXIII, the best of The Cantos so says me)

"One scarlet flower is cast on the blanch-white stone." (IV)

But even in playing this forager's game I wonder if I'm being too generous to a poet who will never be taken as seriously as he was in his own day.  The academy has had its say.  His masterful abilities as an editor and promoter and handmaiden to other writers (James Joyce in particular, Eliot obviously) will -- should -- remain and be discussed.  The ostensible value of his greatest work, maybe not so much:

"I have perhaps seen a waning of that tradition

(young n*gger at rest in his wheelbarrow

    in the shade back of the jo-house

    addresses me: Got it made, kid, you got it made.

White boy says: do you speak Jugoslavian?)" (LXXX)

Among the many problems with racism, certainly not the biggest but one that's terribly annoying, is that's it's boring.  And to paraphrase Berryman, another problematic poet who'd I'd recommended everybody read, unlike Pound, literary racism in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, is profoundly boring.  To just pick the small mushrooms and ignore the bigger, uglier ones, even to just pretend they aren't there for a convenient bit of time, is a fool's errand.

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