Reading the Cantos

Categories: Crit & Lit

Ezra Pound provided T.S. Eliot with some much needed assistance on his groundbreaking modernist poem, The Waste Land. Because of this, Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to Pound, calling him “il miglior fabbro,” the better craftsman. Yet Pound’s own poetry has seen far less interest than his friend's little poem that he edited. Perhaps this is in part due to the sheer immediacy of The Waste Land, and it happening to fill a void in the zeitgeist at just the right time. Or it could be because Pound’s own poetry, especially his masterwork, The Cantos, is difficult, lengthy, and hyper-allusive. But just as Joyce broke open the form of the novel with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Pound’s Cantos reinvent poetry and the relationship between author and reader.


The Cantos are a journey through time, written across fifty years, with varying focuses, and in several different languages. A reader may feel some initial hesitation when thinking about whether or not to pursue The Cantos, and make no mistake, it is a significant investment of time and effort to make it through them with some understanding; however, the payoff makes it worth it, because Pound’s work fearlessly explores the modern, the new, and the unbounded. Because Pound continued adding to The Cantos throughout his life, we are left with a document of his evolution as a poet, a map of his creative process that can serve as an excellent reference for anyone looking to improve their own craft.


Our journey through The Cantos begins simply enough:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.


Throughout the entirety of The Cantos, Pound relies heavily on allusions to classical literature and mythology. Like his friend James Joyce, Pound sought to bring meaning into the present from the past by co-opting the stories of old and interpreting them through a modern perspective. Pound’s other great influence, of course, comes from the great Dante, whose soul-searching Divine Comedy spoke to the modernists as I have discussed in a previous article. This cathexis of energy from the past to the present derives its impetus from the modernists feeling that the post-industrial world lacked its own meaning, that it was spiritually bankrupt.


As one moves through the Cantos, they become increasingly difficult. Starting with Canto XXXI, Pound begins his descent into the world of American history, quoting heavily from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (to whom Pound devotes a whole section of later Cantos,) as well as the history and practice of banking, something Pound saw as one of the great evils of our time. Pound continues in the tradition of The Waste Land, compiling fragments and quotations from a host of different disciplines, juxtaposing them against one another and against his own invisible third voice.All of these quotations taken out of context and put together into the poem creates a surreal god's-eye-view of issues that many of us take for granted and forces us to reassess them anew.


But not all of Pound’s explorations are so cerebral. His use of language recalls the outside-the-lines colorings of Finnegans Wake. His words are experimental, daring, clever, and often beautiful and/or hilarious. Pound confronts some weighty topics, but does so with the necessary art and irony to elevate his Cantos from sociopolitical commentary to true poetry. Pound does not view politics and poetry as existing in separate, discrete dimensions, but rather that it is the poet’s duty to take an ethical, political stance and use his craft to express the real and often terrifying moral dilemmas of his or her time.


Fear not, there is help. Carroll Terrell’s marvelous A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound provides all the necessary keys to move forward successfully. This book is by no means required to read and enjoy The Cantos, but I would highly recommend it to any reader interested in mining out the complex mystery of meanings therein. Complete with sources, backgrounds, and bibliographies on each individual Canto, Terrell’s companion translates all non-English text, provides context for allusions, and comments on possible interpretations for many of the references.


One can also find many, many books of criticism on The Cantos, but for those just getting started, Oxford Press’ Casebook of Criticism on the Cantos serves as an excellent introduction to the critical body of work surrounding The Cantos. With a dozen or so essays, the Casebook only scratches the surface of critical interpretation, but also provides a jumping off point for any deeper study with its extensive bibliography by topic. But even with these companion books, the reader is still in for a grueling task. The modernists expected a lot from their readers. As Joyce famously commented on Ulysses, “It took me seven years to write it, people should spend at least seven years to read it.”


Aside from its glib challenge, the modernist approach to readership is that of interaction and epiphany. Here, the work occurs on both sides of the page, not just on the part of the author. The reader too must bring his best to the table if he or she is to unlock the complex narrative weave and secure the epiphany within. When one has completed a seminal modernist work such as The Cantos, one has a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that can only be attained through difficult labor, leaving one confident in the poem's final plea “to be men not destroyers.”


The Cantos should not be read as a book of poems that one can take down off the shelf at will, flip through, and glean some superficial wisdom. It is the work of a life, the outpouring of a creative consciousness, deadly serious and deadly funny, and it is as difficult and rewarding as understanding another human being.




Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. Read his new story The Largest Cross online. His other criticism can be found at Et Tu, Mr. Destructo?

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