So, I’ve finally had the privilege to read some of the Cantos. I’ve always had the feeling that if I had a chance to just sit down with them and their sources, and slowly go through each, an incredible world of poetic brilliance would open up. As it turns out, they are sheer, thick, inescapable, pain. And lots of it. They’re a jumble of names and references that you have no hope of understanding (at least not entirely), as my prof points out, unless your name is Ezra Pound. Comparing them to the sources gives you a strong appreciation for Pound’s genius, but it is essentially an intellectual exercise.
I focused on the first Canto. This is constructed from excerpts of Andreas Divus’ 16th century Latin translation of the Nekuia passage of the Odyssey, and takes its stylistic inspiration from the Old English Seafarer. Pound’s genius lies in the way in which he alters Divus’ Latin as he translates it into English; he does not leave it as it is, but edits it, cutting away unnecessary bits, and using the conventions of Classical Latin as well as of Old English poetry to turn Divus’ cumbersome, expansive, and rather ugly Latin into a beautiful work of Imagiste poetry. He edits the themes of the Nekuia passage in the same way: starting much earlier in the passage than is necessary for his poem, he draws linguistic and descriptive connections between the loading and voyage of Odysseus’ ships and the opening sea journey of the Seafarer. In this way, he directly compares the two different, yet similar, journeys to two different, yet similar homes: one earthly, and one spiritual. In his Canto, however, these journeys lead not to a home, but to Odysseus’ conversation with the dead, and therefore metaphorically to the literary origins, the literary “home” of Pound’s own poetry.
The problem is, once you go through all of the necessary work, reading through Divus’ original and the Seafarer, you lose all sight of the Canto as a poem, as a work of art. It turns into an intellectual game, an essay or a treatise, which requires far too much intellectual effort to retain its emotional effect. Yet without this effort, the poem is too opaque for the reader to appreciate much of anything at all.
It’s as though the Pound who wrote the Cantos was Pound The Editor, not Pound The Poet. He was brilliant as both. He edited Eliot’s Wasteland mercilessly, cutting as many as 90 lines at a time, suggesting alternatives, correcting words and phrases, and the poem would not have been nearly as powerful without Pound’s imput. On the other hand, he was also the man who wrote “In A Station of the Metro,” or “A Silk Fan For My Imperial Lord,” who was capable of packing incredible amounts of colour, image, emotion, and beauty into a mere two lines. There’s no doubt that his impact as an editor comes from his genius as a poet, but in the Cantos he gets carried away with the editing, rather than the poetry, and with his intellectual theses rather than with the way in which he conveys them. Poetry is meant to make you feel the author’s point, not just understand it with your mind. Pound’s Cantos do not. They are not so much poems as essays that are more beautifully, powerfully, and unfortunately confusingly written than any expository prose.
So my verdict? I’m not sure. I love Pound the Poet, and I love Pound the Editor. It’s when one tries to be the other that I’m left wanting more. Or is that less?