The Cantos, released in its final form in 1970 about two years before Ezra Pound
's death, was the poet's seminal work. Having spent nearly fifty years of his life gradually completing the epic poem
, the Cantos was almost encyclopaedic
in its extent. Within the thousands of lines of verse Pound expressed several interweaving themes that defined his outlook on life, drawing from his massive resource of knowledge on such obscure topics as the Greek
Classics, bodies of work from Chinese
(which he translated himself), ideograms
, the economics
and aparent failure of capitalism
s of Southern France
, songs of langue d'Oc
, and most importantly the distilled patterns of his life's experience. Pound best explained his intention with a quote in 1915, "the essential thing in a poet is that he builds us his world" (Cookson XV).
In order to get a broader picture, it's best to consider Pound's number one influence in producing the Cantos: Dante's The Divine Comedy. Despite appearances, Pound did not begin with a horrific tale of the utter failure and pathetic sinfulness of mankind, or any such related stylish theme of the time. Rather, he wanted to narrate man's triumph in a realistic fashion, and struck upon Dante's Inferno as a way of doing this. The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections; an Inferno, a Purgatorio, and a Paradiso. The whole intention of the work was to build up to the Paradiso, not wallow in the depths of the Inferno. Traumatic events in Pound's life such as his imprisoment in a concentration camp at Pisa and committment to an asylum for the criminally insane somewhat unwound this thread near the end of the Cantos, however the underlying structure is still absolutely essential to the understanding of Pound's Cantos.
The first, most recognizable aspect of the Cantos is their chaos. Threads come and go, perspective changes suddenly, seemingly random topics are introduced and withdrawn without a single thrown bone of explanation. Many in their criticism of the Cantos have lambasted this disquiet of method, labeling it the spasms of a madman (Pound was committed for several years of his life after World War II, however the committment was more political than psychological. He would have been executed for treason otherwise). However, examining the actual Cantos and trying to approach them as a complete work yields a more nuanced interpretation. Pound did not introduce themes into his work without intention of using them. Rather, he hoped to lay down the threads of ideas to which a reader could examine each, taking his proper time with their conception and realization. Once this was done, the threads could be woven together to much greater dramatic effect, like the sudden patterned order from the chaos of a Cat's Cradle, and with greater comprehension on the part of the reader for having grown familiar with each strand beforehand. The technique is actually rather reminiscent of noding; each idea was linked in several ways to each, traveling between each other is like following the fires and misfires of synapses. There are several of these climactic joinings, metanodes if you will, scattered throughout the poem.
Another important theme to the Cantos is the concern for exact definition. The very word, "exact definition," must be exactly defined, and Pound does this by falling back upon a repeated Chinese ideogram combination; Ching Ming (chêng4 ming2), 'call all things by their right names.' He wanted to define the nature of human existence, our failures, our successes, the paths of relationships that bind us together, our transactions, our histories; all as accurately as possible. For that which is hard to express in words, the deepest shades of the heart, he hoped to compose an image in movement that could adequately encompass the feeling. Not only were the words to aid in the seek for exact definition, the way in which they were ordered and presented mattered as well. Despite the reputation of free verse, Ezra Pound was just as technically focused in his use of the vers libre as if he was writing in iambic pentameter. The stress pattern was always, always to further the theme of the poem, not just to rest politely in the background, hoping to cause no offense. Likewise, the sound of the words was vital, they needed to harmonize with each other. During the early planning phases, Pound went so far as to begin work on a tonal notation system for the more sing-song parts of his poems, though this was not included in the end to allow the reader some flexibility in his/her reading. In all ways, always, exact definition was Pound's most important goal.
Giving the Cantos a quick lookover might lead one to suspect them as entirely unapproachable. There are references to the characters of Western mythology tossed left and right, passages switching suddenly from one language to another, odd phrasal structures and complicated interconnections. For example, throughout the Cantos Pound in total used Arabic, Chinese, French, Old French, Greek, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Middle English, Old English, Portuguese, Provençal , Russian, and Spanish. The bolded languages have an especially heavy presence. Despite all this complication, Pound's intention was never to be obscure for obscurity's sake. He always structured his poems in such a way that knowing a foreign language was not vital to understanding, either because the phrase would be adequately explained through repetition, explaination, or realization that it wasn't too important to the overall poem. His other influences are somewhat more important, though, the Cantos really don't make very much sense without at least a passing familiarity of the Latin and Greek Classics, likewise for the economics of Adams and more recent attempts at fascist economics (which Pound supported). With a proper guide, though, the surface complexity can be easily pierced to reveal an extremely deep, fulfilling literary experience beneath.
I will attempt, in the coming months, to systematically node Ezra Pound's cantos with explication. Considering that there are over one hundred of them, this will take some time. For now, I will include below those that I have noded, mostly in order (though I may jump around a bit, it sometimes helps in understanding them).
- The Cantos - Canto I
- The Cantos - Canto II
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.
Cookson, William. A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. London: Croom Helm, 1958
The Academy of Poets. Ezra Pound. http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C07030B
Pound, Ezra. Seventy Cantos. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.
These sources will be broadened and refined as I continue to work, though they are all I need for the introductory Cantos, more recent sources will be consulted as I come closer to the Purgatorio and Paradiso.