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