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BOOK IN FOCUS
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Michael Kindellan. The Late Cantos of Ezra Pound: Composition, Revision, Publication. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. xx+276p. £85. ISBN 9781474258746. 

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review by Alec Marsh 

 

 

This is a very valuable book, a real contribution to Pound studies covering an epoch of his work that still remains relatively unexplored, the “Washington Cantos,” Rock-Drill (1956) and Thrones (1959). These last authorized sections of Pound’s epic poem are notoriously difficult even to read, much less understand. Liberally salted with Chinese ideograms, some Egyptian hieroglyphics and even notionally Sumerian writing, reliant on rare and far-out texts, they are also compromised by dozens and dozens of textual anomalies, of which some are outright errors and others deliberate distortions. “Any close scrutiny” of these cantos, “will raise questions about the integrity of the text. Not every canto contains a ‘howler,’ but the theatrical self-consciousness of their status as written artifacts might solicit curiosity about how they were written, revised and published” (234). “'Pound’s opacity' is intentional,” Kindellan claims; above all, he argues, these are “writerly” texts, flaunting their writtenness and daring readers to either read the implied curriculum of sources or to accept the poem as gnomic wisdom writing, its esoteric core hidden beneath exoteric chaff. Scholars usually take the first option; disciples hip to the poems’ encrypted agenda, like Sheri Martinelli or John Kasper, could ignore the philological rabbit-holes because they already knew what was at stake, politically. They knew that “the model of understanding The Cantos tries to realize is one where philological difficulties can be overcome by belief” (18-9). Regardless, these cantos “constantly foreground writerly concerns, making them into topics and subjects of the poetry” (xi). 

Pound’s antipathy to philology is well known; loathing it himself, he was nonetheless the cause of it in others. Aware that Pound would somehow have it otherwise, Kindellan, like the rest of us, must read the poem philologically—as if all the words mattered. As his subtitle suggests, Kindellan hopes that by “looking into their stages of development, from first inception to final published version(s), and extrapolate therefrom new understandings about the processes and procedures that governed Pound’s writing” (xi). But that means trouble: the poet’s early hostility to philology didn’t abate as he grew older, even as the poetry he wrote—especially in these late cantos—would seem to demand a philological approach. But most of us who’ve gone down that road come back baffled, shaking our heads. It’s not just the errors of fact, it’s the perverse twisting of things to their opposite. Why is it, I’ve asked myself more than once; why is it, Pound would change “And we bjJayzus regret your damn bishops/  have lied” perfectly plain in the first typescript of Canto 105, to the nonsensical “And we bijJazus reject your damn bishops” in the published poem (105/ 769); why in the same poem, has the unlikely “Loans from Tibet” replaced the plausible “Loans to Tibet..” already written at the end of canto 87 (87/ 596)? Everyone who has looked closely into these Late Cantos will have their own pet irritations. 

And there seem to be errors Pound cares about and those he doesn’t (218). Why, given the many, many errors, typos, mis and dis-information evident to any careful reader, did Pound obsess about the gaffe over the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (103/ 755) that prompted him to send distressed telegrams insisting on an errata slip. Yet he almost never roused himself to equally egregious errors noticed at the time by Eva Hesse, Mary de Rachewiltz, Achilles Fang and others. 

Philology seems to raise more questions than it answers. Perhaps, Kindellan proposes—and this is where things get interesting and very unsettling—perhaps Pound’s poem demands a kind of philological anti-philology—the reader’s philological urge can be used to identify the “sometimes coercive structures of intention that inform so much of Pound’s work”—both in a spirit of acceptance and resistance. His researches confirm that the text is unstable; the drafts that Kindellan consults and displays make things more, not less problematic; Pound proves to have a shaky—if not utterly idiosyncratic, if not completely mad—understanding of the Greek and Chinese languages that saturate these late poems. “We have yet to come to terms with the extent to which the most important of Pound’s textual influences were written in languages he could not properly understand,” Kindellan warns (158). Pound’s “maverick sinology” (160), his turn to notional Chinese sounds, rather than Chinese sense evident in Canto 99 produces babble—though Kindellan is too kind to say so outright (see 175). As he points out, many of Pound’s most salient key terms, like Aristotle’s metathemenon, (and xreia, which Kindellan does not address), Frobenius’s paideuma, and even the great ling character, which, (as George Kearns has shown) had not hitherto meant “sensibility,” are simply misappropriated by Pound for his own polemical purposes in the manner of Humpty Dumpty; that is, to show who’s master.

As Pound was more or less indifferent to his mistakes, (with the exception of the matter of wars after 1870), steadily refusing to get interested in correcting or revising his poem, it occurs to Kindellan that at least some of the “mistakes” are not only errors, but the result of decisions made during the composition process. How else to try to grasp the strange reversals of sense between drafts and published poem? “Pound’s method of composition is inextricable from editorial processes, processes that invariably obscure as much as they express” (32). Thus, Kindellan entertains the radical thought that “the poetics of The Cantos might justly be described as the intentional deformation of philological work as such” (16).

This idea of the cantos as anti-philology comports with the startling claim with which Kindellan opens his book; to whit, that Pound “loathed reading” and that “The Cantos as writing could itself constitute an explicit protest against reading” (2; Kindellan’s emphasis). Kindellan is perfectly aware of the irony of this. Many of the late Cantos—for example, the Apollonius Canto 96 and Canto 99, the Sacred Edict canto—are essentially Pound’s reading notes. But Pound’s aversion to reading is constantly expressed in his idea that his poem can save its readers from having to read the books the poet has had to plow through in order to write it. “The rock-drill,” Pound wrote Sheri Martinelli, was necessary to educate his followers till “kindergarten diplomas can be issued.” He was writing Rock-Drill, “to save you some strength, from 30 years war” so that, “the descent into hell is not wasted.”1And yet, because the poem is “written in flagrant contravention of normative standards of attention, diligence and care,” it demands so much more care from its readers that we’re forced back to check his sources (Kindellan 2-3). Thus, the further irony that “Pound’s attempts to circumvent, détourne, [sic] travesty and otherwise eschew the protocols of philology have led to the formation of many more philologists” (3). 

The poem’s “formal incoherence and fragmentation—more often aphasic than articulate” (214) puts us in an odd position as readers. Either the poem does cohere after all, as Pound hoped, or maybe it doesn’t, though Pound may have thought it did. We just have to trust that Pound knows what he’s doing. Kindellan argues that this requires us to imagine a “strong poet-guide and install him in the role of the poem’s dominant authority” (214), placing the reader in the student’s role, “reading with the mind of a grandson” (12; 85/570). Is this tacit assertion of authorial control somehow compensation for the actual, legal loss of authority, when Pound surrendered his legal personhood to “the Committee” in 1946 (209; see also Moody III: 246-7)? Perhaps “the bullish manners of Rock-Drill and Thrones” are “signs of eviscerated legal personhood,” and the “incessant reiterations” a reassertion of self (210). Kindellan doesn’t spend much time psycho-analyzing Pound, but it seems we must. How else to account for the way these Cantos work and fail; their insistence, their errancy? 

After reading Kindellan, one goes back to the poems as the record of a live performance—say, by The Grateful Dead, full of false notes, weird riffs and obsessive repetitions—flaws which, nonetheless, give these cantos their indescribable feeling of spontaneity and rapidity, their fascinating, undeniable power. 

Despite this feeling of spontaneity, Kindellan stresses how relatively unchanged these Cantos are from notebooks to publication—something that will come as a surprise to many. Unlike Oppen, whom Kindellan cites as a counter-example, Pound didn’t fiddle around. Minutia of punctuation and word choice didn’t matter much, it seems. Anyone who looks at the Notebooks can see that Pound cut swatches, or saved chunks of poetry for other uses, but Pound’s open form did not encourage the impatient poet to mess with phrases. His revisions have much more to do with juxtapositions or line breaks than word choice. In other words, Kindellan is adamant that Pound was quite sure about what he wanted to say. In a striking phrase (one of many throughout the book) he writes, “Pound’s texts are unstable not because he was unsure about his meanings; they were unstable because he was sure” (247; Kindellan’s emphasis). To read Pound properly, he concludes, “we have to allow his misconceptions to unfold according to the logic of their errancy” (249); that is, we have to accept them—it’s pointless to contest them. “The model for understanding The Cantos tries to realize is one where philological difficulties can be overcome by belief” (19). In fact, “what Pound’s anti-philological attitude is designed to facilitate is a staunchly author-centric conception of literary production” (22). We believe Pound sincerely meant it all, or we don’t. Intention, it seems, is everything.

But how can we believe or reject Pound’s strange ideas without doing some digging into his use and misuse of sources to understand at least what he intends? When we do this, Kindellan contends, we get less than we bargained for. We constantly have to salvage Pound’s intentions from his expression of them. This becomes extremely difficult in these late cantos for various reasons—he’s a political prisoner, he is under indictment for treason, he’s pretending to be insane and he badly wants to save his country from the Jewish-Communist conspiracy; or, as Yunte Huang has suggested, perhaps because he realized that he suffered from “undeniable logophiliac madness” (50), Pound needs to disguise his intentions. So he uses various codes to get them across to the few who have the will to understand his sub-text. Most don’t. Kindellan doesn’t go so far as to say the poem is a “botch,” but a reader of this work will have to let Pound’s despairing judgment cross his or her mind. That’s the unsettling aspect of this book. 

Kindellan doesn’t cover closely the evolution of every canto, but chooses representative texts and moments. Despite demonstrating the futility of a rigorously philological approach, we learn a lot about the gestation of the poems that is invaluable, regardless of our philological inclinations. I did not know, for example, that William Seagle’s Men of Law (1947) was in the source field of The Cantos, much less that it was the “dominant intertext” for the latter pages of canto 94, after Pound had put down Conybeare’s edition of Philostratus’ Apollonius. This is evident in drafts displayed here. Suddenly, a whole range of references leap into life. The research throughout is impressive, not only Kindellan’s command of the late cantos and the crucial Notebooks that sustain them, but also of Greek and Chinese philology, and the critical literature, especially on philology and textual criticism. 

Given Kindellan’s resort to an “anti-philological” philology, it’s a tad surprising to find him advocating for a variorum edition as he ends his book. Naturally, one is desirable, but except for tracing the “logic of Pound’s errancy” it is unlikely that assiduous scrutiny of source texts will help much in understanding the poem; “in the face of a proliferating and unstable textual record that a variorum would uncover and present for critical inspection, Pound’s meanings would not be affected by variation as such” Kindellan admits (215). There is no question, however, that the poem’s authority would be further vitiated by such close vetting.

If Pound’s poetics are anti-philological, for better or worse, his deeply held politics means that there is much more at stake in the late cantos than twitting the professors and making editors and publishers weep. Pound was presenting his own revisionist history of the world—the true history, condensed so that his ideas could be carried into action. Pound saw his late cantos as a fulcrum, even “a political weapon” as he told a number of correspondents. Using The Cantos as a solid basis, a poem that would not sqush, but give the acolyte four legs to stand on, Pound’s activist readers would move ahead to realign earth with heaven, oikos with polis with kosmos. Sheri Martinelli understood Pound’s purpose well, closing a letter to Pound of 12 December 1958: "it AINT/ WOT’S/ ON/ the paper/ it is/ WOT streams/ FROM/ it/ [/] the/ “message”/ as the Spades put it / [/] it EVOKES/ what in turn will/ re-NEW the same / [/] it is the OPPOSITE/ from/ the WORD."2

 

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WORKS CITED

 

Moody, David. Ezra Pound Poet. III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Huang, Yunte. "Ezra Pound, Made in China." Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 42 (2015): 39-56. 


 

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NOTES

 

1. Ezra Pound to Sheri Martinelli, 10 June 1954. YCAL 868: 12/4 “Pound, Ezra June 1-10.”

2. Sheri Martinelli to Ezra Pound, 12 December 1958 p.4. YCAL 43: 33/1392