August 10, 2010

The Cantos of Ezra Pound

I first saw a copy of Ezra Pound's complete Cantos when I was in my English Literature Senior Seminar (all caps, notice.) this past winter. My professor, who assigned a few of the Cantos for us to digest as best we could, took this big, intimidating black leviathan of a paperback out of his bag and kind of brandished it, saying something along the lines of "You should all read this at some point, as English Majors (caps half mine, half his), not because you're going to get a lot out of it, but because you should read it."

Wisely, I stayed the fuck away from Ezra Pound and his Cantos until this May, when I purchased the warlock of a book with a $25 gift certificate I was given as a stipend from a biological methods journal (that shall remain nameless) where I interned as a proofreader/copywriter. I had just finished my Thesis (caps!) on the slightly more palatable work of David Foster Wallace, whom I'd become (I think I've mentioned) pretty weirdly enamored with.

So I bought the thing. At 824 pages, it's not nearly Infinite Jest territory, but I went in knowing it'd be much less fun to read. Certainly, it doesn't appear as if it was very much fun to write. Pound eventually declared the work a failure, and died miserable and senile, like most great writers. Though he lacks the dramatic gusto of Gogol (who I've always admired for his madness, despite the fact that Russian realism is one of the most unapproachable styles in modern literature), he really did get pretty far away from the guy who wrote "In a station of the Metro."

I'll skip the background, but it should suffice to say that there were a series of setbacks. Pound ended up really getting into Fascism and was arrested in Italy by American troops during World War II. They didn't really know what to do with him. For one thing, he was one of America's most prominent writers, and for another, he was clearly out of his mind, and potentially a suicide risk. So, in a befitting gesture of surrealism, they put him in a bird cage, monitored him, and he wrote the Pisan Cantos (LXXIV-LXXXIV). And that was just the middle of the book.

I'm through about forty Cantos now, and there isn't much I can say about them. I struggle with the fascism thing. I wonder, at points, just how deranged this guy was, and how much was genius. I can't say that I'll ever purchase the Cantos'"Companion," which is supposed to explain a lot of the stuff I do not understand, plus translate the sections in Greek, Latin, Italian, &c. I just don't read these poems in that way.

The cantos, to me, are to this point more of an artifact. They have not breathed, they have yet to invigorate anything inside of me. They have yet to grow beyond this scary thing that is the book...

And here, we've arrived at that unfortunate crossroads of irony and the postmodern. Why don't I feel anything when I read the Cantos? Perhaps it's just that I don't have the metaphysical vocabulary, the emotional vocabulary, to understand that which I am experiencing.

Sometimes, though, it's liberating to pick something up and it just feels new. You don't know what to make of it, and in that, I suppose, the modernists endure.

I remain friends with the semi-disenchanted professor who first introduced me to the Cantos last winter, and I got him to elaborate on a point recently about the importance of the work. I thought his belief that one "should" read the book was in the academic spirit- he had read it as a graduate student himself- but he corrected me: "That wasn't really the sentiment at all. You should read that as a writer, as a poet, as a human being. Some books are just important, and you don't read them because of what you study, you study what you do because you must read them. They are imperative, and you feel them."

I guess he's right, and this is just an exercise in learning how to feel whatever the hell is going on in the mind of Ezra Pound.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound: an obligatory 10.0/10

Bear Ranking: August 10, 2010

1. Grizzly Bear tops the list this week after an impressive hunting session at the creek. “It didn’t start off all that well,” said Grizzly Bear, “but I made some adjustments and by the end of the day it was like the salmon were jumping right down my throat. I was really in the zone.” Hitting peak form this week, look for Grizzly Bear to maintain his momentum heading into August.

2. Good fortune for the Northern Canadian Bruin this week puts her in our second spot. She was able to feed her cubs for a week after coming across a pack of coyotes that had killed a deer. “It was pretty fresh,” she said, “There were three, maybe four of them and they didn’t really protest. They took it down right before I moved in, so I just kind of threw my body in there, tried to make something happen. Sometimes you just get good bounces and hopefully I can take that and roll with it.” Hampered by the cubs all summer, look for fortune to work against the Bruin next week. Coyotes continue to take up the easier kills, and statistics suggest she’ll be forced to the mountains by week's end.

3. Black Bear comes in at number three this week after another week of sitting in the field eating berries. “Consistency.” said Black Bear. “The season’s still young and I’m on a good pace.” Look for Black Bear’s ability to climb trees to be a factor in the second half, and with the camping season in full swing, he’s a perennial threat to lead the rankings in territorial maulings.

4. Polar Bear remains in the basement. In what is close to being a lost season, however, he’s not ready to blame the steady death knell that is the thawing of the arctic sea: “Say what you will, you know, these things happen. I still have to go out there and perform. These harp seals aren’t going to just kill themselves. I can’t sit here and make excuses.”

August 5, 2010

Summer Reading

I am always either completely and hopelessly lost or almost spiritually engaged in the short fiction of David Foster Wallace. Over the course of the summer, I've read through two collections of these short stories. One is called Girl With Curious Hair, and the other, Oblivion. They all kind of melded together in my head, so I'm not sure which of the following are included in which book, and for that I apologize. That being said, here's a quick run-down of a few of the stories, how I felt in the end, and a little explanation:

"Little Expressionless Animals"

Here's the thing: in pieces, it's pretty moving, but I can't seem to connect the moving parts. It's a difficult plot to summarize in its entirety, even: Woman who knows every fact in the world (product of traumatic childhood) but hates animals and knows nothing about them (product of traumatic childhood) goes on Jeopardy! and wins every point in every game, except when the questions regard animals. Fosters romantic relationship with the show's (female (is that important?)) producer. Woman eventually loses to her severely autistic brother (source of trauma) in rigged game in which all questions are about animals. Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak feud for the duration.

The big catharsis (I think) comes when Julie (the contestant) explains to Faye (her lover) (I may have mixed them up...) that she hates animals because when she and her brother were abandoned as children in a field, the stood for hours, a cow staring at them, expressionless. She loathes the dead, nothingness of an animal's stare. But her pursuit of facts (granted, this is not really a conscious pursuit, more of an unconscious one) makes her just as "expressionless," but in an unnatural way.

The relevance of the fact that she's a lesbian? I have this feeling that her relationship is central, ("[Faye] thinks Julie is really a lesbian because she hates animals, somehow."] but it always feels like it's not.

"Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR"

At least by the end. For Wallace's weirder stuff, it's important to read and understand his essay on the humor in Kafka. In "LtARKCPR," a young accounts guy tries to save an older executive who's had a heart attack in a parking garage. It's late and the two men are alone. There's a very brief and brilliant passage about how and why the Account Rep knows CPR. And at the end you get a very engaging image of what it takes to be a human being in the modern world.

"Girl With Curious Hair"

Young Republican psychotic runs with punk nihilists. Chaos ensues. Funny at points? Sure. I suspect there isn't much to be got here. If there is, it's political, and it's way more obscure than my initial political analysis, which was essentially just that even radically different ideologies will find common ground in... well, in this case sex and violence, but not drugs. I don't know, complex. Or maybe not at all.


Brilliant because it makes Lyndon Johnson touching for the first 3/4 of the story and then Lady Bird fucking sinister as all hell in the closing pages, and you believe it. I think this is a more understandable political (kind of) piece.

"John Billy"

Well... half and half. Hillbillies get drunk and tell the maybe tall tale of Chuck Nunn Jr., who has supposedly gone to "wrong the man that done wronged him," one T. Rex Minogue, who both dynamited a whole lot of Chuck's sheep and caused his (Chuck's) near fatal car accident. Long story short (no pseudo-pun intended) Chuck recovers from the accident but suffers from bouts of blind rage, and sometimes his eyes pop out of his head. In a blind rage he goes to kill T. Rex, but does not because T. Rex pops out his eyes and shows him the earth under his window and Chuck (apparently) has some kind of an epiphany. T. Rex, cancer ridden and wheelchair bound, comes to the bar where the story's being told (did I mention that the point of view is extremely difficult to discern, and characters kind of shape shift?), and then everybody except T. Rex levitates. The end. Have fun with that one.

"Here and There"

Inscribed to mathematician Kurt Godel, a story where the weird perspective works. All I'll say is that it's a treatment of modern language- how we use it, what it really is, and how it encompasses our lives.

"The Suffering Channel"

Totally lost. Poop, art, Style magazine, the midwest and Manhattan, and some apocalyptic TV channel that just shows people suffering. We learn a lot about the economics behind all of these things. Totally, totally lost. The poop ends up on the The suffering channel. Art is shit but it's art because we suffer? Again, lost. Forget it. I hate trying to shake the feeling that it's way, way more complicated than that, because I know it is.

On a final note, I read Stephen King's Salem's Lot and I liked it. The terror was a little drawn out, and the end wasn't as scary as I thought it'd be (though the epilogue was cool), but Stephen King is a good writer, god dammit. And the book is about small towns, not really vampires. He has some lines about how small towns are preternaturally evil, that they hold all this evil inside of them, that they know secrets not even the holders of the secrets know. Yeah, yeah, all that typical S. King abstraction about big old scary Maine, but it rang true for some reason. I grew up in a suburb of Boston, and it remains a pretty creepy place. Even the comforts of it are creepy now. It eats people.

David Foster Wallace (9.2/10) is a much better writer, But I don't think Stephen King (6.8/10) would argue that point, and I respect that.