‘And …’: Reading The Cantos



What do we know about The Cantos? For one thing, it is a very big work. There are 120 Cantos in all, ranging from only a few lines to more than twenty pages;1 their composition is spread over more than half a century; they are concentrated and succinct, and discursive and sprawling. We might also know that they are difficult; the style is elliptical and allusive. But they are difficult in more than one sense. Not only is Pound perhaps at first sight irritatingly difficult in the arcana of his references, but he is also difficult in a more serious sense in his very technique: he does not render up his meanings easily. In both cases, the difficulty is a consequence of the poem’s ambition and is hence deliberate: not in order to obfuscate, but to demand the reader’s participation in decoding the message.


Noun Phrase Formal Relation Verbal Idea Dialectical Materialism Rock Drill 
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  1. 4.
    Hugh Kenner, ‘Art in a Closed World’, Virginia Quarterly Review, 38 (Autumn 1966). See also Marianne Korn’s discussion of Pound’s ‘purpose’ and his ‘conception of a poetry which communicates educationally but not didactically’ (Korn, Ezra Pound: Purpose/Form/Meaning, p. 53).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Eva Hess, Introduction to New Approaches to Ezra Pound, ed. Hess (London: Faber & Faber, 1969) p. 42.Google Scholar
  3. 14.
    Many of the terms of analysis here are based on the model offered by Samuel Levin in Linguistic Structures in Poetry (The Hague: Mouton, 1973).Google Scholar
  4. 30.
    New persuasive readings of Pound have recently emerged in a phenomenological context: for example, Korn, Ezra Pound: Purpose! Form/Meaning (1983).Google Scholar
  5. Eric Mottram, ‘Pound, Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Poetry’ in Ezra Pound: Tactics for Reading, ed. Bell (1982). Indeed, Peter Nicholls also argues for a phenomenological openness in Pound’s technique in the early sections of The Cantos, which closes up with his increasing involvement with fascism. Such phenomenological readings are interesting and fruitful, but they still tend to rely on the proposal of a modern scientific reality which is presented, in some sense, as the twentieth-century condition. This is particularly the case in the clearest exposition of such a reading, that of Eric Mottram. However, it seems to me that the fact that Pound and, say, Merleau-Ponty (or, for that matter, Derrida) share a similar modern ‘condition’ is not in itself a sufficient base for relating them in this way. There are similarities to be observed, but not at the time of the formation of Pound’s poetics, which, as I hope to have shown, do have a contemporary correlative. Furthermore, phenomenology, whilst it has some roots in empirio-criticism, contains important differences in relation to it. In short, such comparisons, precisely because they do share a ‘twentieth-century condition’, have to be discriminated historically with some precision.Google Scholar
  6. 32.
    Bell, Critic as Scientist, p. 239. The theory of the ‘subject-rhyme’ comes from Pound himself, although it is traceable to Emerson, and has been much used by Pound critics: see Ian Bell, ‘Pound, Emerson and “Subject—Rhyme” ‘, Paideuma, 8.2 (Fall, 1979). In relating elements on this basis, one runs the risk of concealing more difference than one actually denotes similarity. As a principle for structuring historical material, it is particularly dangerous. But, if we recall the harmonisation of the natural and the cultural in Venice, as discussed above, we can see how the principle of ‘rhyme’ follows from the technique we have been analysing. Precisely what permits the harmonisation is a technique which unifies ‘objects’ which would otherwise be discrete. That is to say that in a materialist paradigm — of the object as much as of history — elements are marked by difference, rather than by a principle of harmonisation, such as that permitted by Mach’s notion of analogy and Pound’s poetic practice.Google Scholar

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© Martin A. Kayman 1986

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