EZRA POUND’S PISAN CANTOS
A GENETIC AND CRITICAL EDITION
Report of Research
A number of years ago I was doing work in the Pound archive in the Beinecke Library at Yale and stumbled upon rough fragments in Italian that turned out to be a previously unsuspected Ur-version of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos. As it turned out, Pound had already written the equivalent of an entire unpublished suite in Italian in the war’s closing days. However, in part because moments in the Italian suite were politically offensive in the extreme, most of the Italian drafts had never seen the light of day.
As Pound’s archives were unsealed, the full development of these unpublished Italian drafts emerged along with scattered MS materials of the Pisan Cantos themselves. Together, these preliminary texts strongly suggested that the standard political and confessional readings of the poem had been inadequate, and that future readings would have to allow for the poem’s divergent aims and genetic fault lines. In fact, the cumulative evidence of Pound’s manuscript and typescript pages (many of which were corrected by the author differently on different copies), including the existence of gaps left by materials the publisher never received or did not entirely understand, make it clear that for fifty years readers have been responding to a text transmitted from poet to publisher in a rough and provisional form and then finished by the publisher faut de mieux—a text in many significant ways that Pound never finished.
Thanks to grants from St. John’s College and the AHRB, I was subsequently able to take on an editorial assistant (Dr. David Ten Eyck of the University of Lorraine) and to extend the scope of my genetic project to include producing a full critical text of the poem. The entire project including the critical text is now nearing completion and is contracted by OUP to be published in two (or perhaps three) volumes.
The first volume(s), amounting now to a thousand manuscript pages, will be divided into four sections: 1) an intellectual, critical, and historical account of the poem’s gestation from the late twenties to 1945; 2) a fully annotated presentation of Pound’s Italian Ur-version of the poem as it evolved from December 1944 to April 1945, both in the original Italian and in English translation; 3) a textual and critical narrative history of the notebook composition and typescript revision of the English Pisan Cantos that Pound began to compose in the camp with his Italian drafts still ringing in his ears; and 4) a set of textually and substantively annotated facing transcriptions of Pound’s manuscripts and typescripts, reproduced toward the aim of establishing a new setting copy of the poem.
The last volume of the edition—the critical edition itself—consists of two hundred pages of introduction and tables as well as two hundred and fifty pages of a critical text that includes a full textual apparatus and accounts for every document in the line of descent of the text from the manuscript onwards.
I have presented and published pieces of this work in progress in various international venues, and these publications include more than twenty essays published since 1995 that (to quote Peter Nicholls, Henry James Professor of American Letters, NYU) “have shaped in fundamental ways the ongoing reception of Pound’s major poem.” In 2011 David Ten Eyck and I presented an all-day workshop to the International Pound Conference in London on the last difficult cases remaining in the text of the critical edition.
There still remain, however, the last stages of the work, including what will probably amount to a year or more of tying up the loose ends of various narratives and checking and proofing the material before sending it off to OUP. There will then follow at least another year devoted to shepherding an enormously complicated TS and a text composed in two primary and four subsidiary languages (including Ancient Greek and Mandarin Chinese) through the press.
Articles derived from the project:
- “A Critical Edition of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos: Problems and Solutions.” Textual Cultures 8.2 (forthcoming).
- “‘Young Willows’ in the Pisan Cantos: ‘Light as the Branch of Kuanon.’” Modernism and the Orient. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2013. 185-213. Print.
- “Between Religion and Science: Ezra Pound, Scotus Erigena and the Beginnings of a Twentieth-Century Paradise.” Rivista di Letterature d'America. XXXII.141/42 (2012): 95-124. Print.
- “La Filosofica Famiglia: Cavalcanti, Avicenna, and the ‘Form’ of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos.” Textual Practice 24.4 (2010): 669-705. Print.
- “Pisa.” Ezra Pound in Context. Ed. Ira Nadel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010: 261-73. Print.
- “Ezra Pound’s Fascist ‘Europa’: Toward the Pisan Cantos.” Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent.Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009. 210-28. Print.
- “Poetic Metamorphosis: Ezra Pound’sPisan Cantos and Prison Poetry.” Rivista di Letterature d'America XXIX.126-7 (2009): 37-60. Print.
- “Art Versus the Descent of the Iconoclasts: Cultural Memory in Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos.” Modernism/modernity 14.1 (2007): 71-95. Print.
- “Pound, Emerson, and Thoreau: The Pisan Cantos and the Politics of American Pastoral.” Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry 34.2-3 (2005): 271-92. Print.
- “The Expatriate in Extremis: Caterina Sforza, Fascism, and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos.” Rivista di Letterature d'America XXV.108-9 (2005): 27-43. Print.
- “The Pisan Cantos.” The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Eds. Stephen J. Adams and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos. New York: Greenwood Press, 2005. 41-43. Print.
- “The Pisan Cantos.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Ed. Jay Parini. Vol. III. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 415-18. Print.
- “Confucius Erased: The Missing Ideograms in The Pisan Cantos.” Pound and China. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. 163-92. Print.
- “Towards Pisa: Ezra Pound’s Roman ‘Emperors’.” Rivista di Letterature d'America. XXIII.98-99 (2003): 135-59. Print.
- “Remaking Canto 74.” Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry 32.1-3 (2003): 157-86. Print.
- “Science, Epistemology, and Literature in Ezra Pound’s Objectivist Poetics (With a Glance at The New Physics, Louis Zukofsky, Aristotle, Neural Network Theory, and Sir Philip Sidney).” Literary Imagination 4.2 (2002): 191-210.
- “Late Cantos LXXII-CXVII.” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira Nadel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 109-138. Print.
- “‘Quiet, not scornful’?: the Composition of The Pisan Cantos,” in A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in The Cantos. Ed. Lawrence Rainey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. 169-212. Print.
- “Towards Pisa: More from the Archives about Pound's Italian Cantos,” Agenda 34.3/4 (1996/7): 89-124. Print.
- “Modernism, Fascism, and the Composition of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos.” Modernism/modernity 2.3 (1995): 69-87. Print.
- “Excavating the Ideological Faultlines of Modernism: Editing Ezra Pound's Cantos.” Representing Modernist Texts: Editing as Interpretation. Ed. George Bornstein. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1991. 67-98. Print.
A scholar’s kitchen: Ron Bush in conversation
Interview by Roxana Preda
Date: 27 June 2014, after the session on large projects in Ezra Pound studies at the conference Modernism Now! in which Ron had presented his work on the critical edition of Pound’s Pisan Cantos.
Scene: At the kitchen table in Ron’s London flat, over tea and Oreos.
RP: Looking back on your academic career, how did you come to like and study Pound?
RB: I wanted to know something about the poetry my older contemporaries were writing. I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and there were no courses on contemporary poetry, or even on American modernism. Yeats and Eliot were taught, but Pound wasn’t. And so I persuaded our resident poet Daniel Hoffman to do a special reading course leading toward contemporary poetry, and we started with Pound. So that’s when I first read him. I had grown up probably about a mile and a half from Pound’s house in Philadelphia, so he was a “presence,” though one that was not much talked about, especially at Penn. When I first started reading Pound I realized that he played tennis in Cheltenham, where I played myself, and I thought “Aha, at least I know something about that!” (laughs). And I liked his irreverent attitude, I gobbled up the ABC of Reading.
Then I went to England for two years and I did not have much to do with Pound, though I had a very painful conversation with the senior tutor (Tony Camps) at my college, who turned out to be one of the world’s experts on Propertius. He didn’t tell me that, but he asked me what I liked reading, and I mentioned Pound’s Propertius.
RP: Did he explode?
RB: He said: “Hmm, tell me about it” (laughs). It was only afterwards that I discovered what he had written, and nearly died of retrospective embarrassment. In any case Pound had led me to other things that I enjoyed reading and I went back to Princeton to do a PhD. When I finished my assigned courses I had to find a thesis topic. I asked my thesis advisor Walt Litz, who was a wonderfully helpful man, if there was something involving Pound that we might do—Walt was the one who set me onto the early Cantos. He said, you know, the material is there, no one is looking at it. So I took his advice. The material WAS there, he was very sure-footed about these things, he knew what needed to be done, what could be done within a certain amount of time, he tried to match what was available to people’s interests, he was definite when you asked him a question. As I was working through the material I became interested in what Pound read, as everyone does—he leads you to the world’s great literature and when you come back to him it doesn’t matter if you think he himself is a master—he’s been your channel to the masters of the past, so you are grateful.
I published my thesis as it was more or less, and I started teaching Pound at Harvard and that was a great reinforcement because I first taught him as part of the tradition of the Odyssey. I devised a course that was three times too long and we all somehow laboured through it, it was the first course I ever taught and it was great fun. I still keep in contact with some of the students in that class, among whom were some very fine poets. I discovered that because of Pound’s reputation as a poet’s poet, the seminar attracted some of the best students—poets who wanted to know how Pound did it. Which was more than I knew—but I didn’t get in the way and they seemed as appreciative as I had been to have a chance to read The Cantos.
I did not expect to work on Pound again. I started a project on Eliot that became my second book. It took me a while, until after I had left Harvard, to finish that, but while I was doing it I did a few more essays on Pound—once you write on a subject, people want you to write more. I’m going to collect them at some point—the essays on major poems other than the Pisan Cantos. And while I was writing those essays and working at the Beinecke, I came across the Italian fragments, and they pointed to a bigger and bigger project that involved me with history in a central way, it involved learning Italian and going through the archives of Italian newspapers …
RP: So you found traces of him in Italian newspapers?
RB: No, I found the background to what he had written in Italian newspapers—a background that had been largely blacked out. The Corriere for example was in fascist hands till the end of the war. Rome was taken in June ’44 but Milan and even Bologna weren’t taken until ’45. So the newspapers that Pound was reading maintained a fascist perspective on the war until the very end; that was his information. The story, though, was even on its own terms very odd—if you read the Corriere, you would think that the Italians won every battle, and then always ended up farther behind their own lines!
The unpublished Italian fragments talk about the destruction caused by allied bombings, churches being blown up. Well, there is very little information about that, even in current books. I was going through the most recent material in Rome and there are conservationists who work on different things in different cities but it is very difficult to get a full compilation of what was damaged in the war. The damage was not reported immediately. The reports appeared a day or a week later, and they were filtered through censors so that the damage was diminished or aggrandized depending on what propaganda it might serve. In some cases it is very difficult to determine what actually happened.
In one case the Allies bombed Zoagli, the beach town just beyond Rapallo. The Germans had installed anti-aircraft guns along the beach to protect Genoa. And there was a railroad that ran from Genoa down the coast to Rapallo and the Allies knocked out the railroad’s trestles and the antiaircraft guns, and also destroyed a church near the beach.
The ruined vault of the church of St. Martin after the bombing of Zoagli
And there was a Madonna in the church, I discovered, whose motto says more or less what the Madonna says in the unpublished fragments. But hardly anyone remembered. I had found a book in which the destruction of the church is documented, yes that was confirmed, but whether the Madonna was damaged or what had happened to it—it was just a detail and no one took the pains to record it except the church. So I went to the town historian and he didn’t know and then he went to the administrator of the church who confirmed the statue wasn’t damaged but it had to be moved—so it was very possible that Pound ran into it on the road. And there was an inscription that ended up in the Canto.
RP: And you are saying these things in the introduction!
RB: Yes, these are the kinds of things that I’ve been writing about, but I wouldn’t have predicted them when I started.
RP: I see, you have thoroughly expanded what we mean by scholarship. What is David [Ten Eyck] doing in the project? How do you split the task?
RB: We play it by ear. Unfortunately we have time available at different moments and he has a heavy teaching load. David and I together developed the editorial principles and he has done much of the heavy lifting for the critical text itself. He started well after I found the first Italian scraps, many of which were still sequestered when I stumbled across notes for them at the Beinecke.
RP: When was that?
RB: Who knows!
RP: Please! There must have been some sort of beginning to this massive undertaking.
RB: It was sometimes in the late eighties but quite honestly, I’ve forgotten. Because I went there for other things and I happened on these. I didn’t know what they were but they seemed important. And as I kept going back for other things, more and more documents became unrestricted.
RP: Why were they restricted at all?
RB: Because Olga’s papers at the Beinecke weren’t available and catalogued until well after Pound’s had been acquired. I suspect there was some hesitation about making the Italian notes public because of their content, but that is just speculation. So I began to work on a genetic study beginning with those early fragments through the longer Italian drafts and then to when the material was revived in the camp. By then I had assembled so much material from the archive that I realized that I had enough for a critical edition of the poem, which badly needed doing. But I couldn’t do it myself: people who do these things have many assistants and big grants and I had none of that. But I did get a little money for an assistant from St. John’s College just after David had finished his dissertation on the Adams Cantos. So it seemed reasonable to expand the project. After David came on board we had to talk through what kind of edition it would be because all complex editions differ according to the history of their texts. And it took us some time to work out the procedures I was talking about today [at the conference, n.ed]. It wasn’t immediately obvious that we should go use Pound’s own typescripts as the copy text for the edition, but we finally realized that was the right thing to do. Well into the research we even had a moment of confirmation. It turned out that when Hugh Kenner was thinking about doing a “corrected edition” of the Pisan Cantos he was a visitor at the University of Virginia and he related his project to the great textual scholar Fredson Bowers. And the first thing Bowers said was ‘go back to the manuscripts’ because the poem’s transmission was too corrupt to start from the published text; you have to go back to Pound’s own documents. Kenner couldn’t do that, though, because the manuscripts and typescripts were then unavailable. But that’s more or less what David and I had decided to do on our own. Even then it wasn’t straightforward because rather than producing one finished master set of typescript pages Pound had incorporated different variants on the several leaves of each page. A lot of head-scratching and a lot of detail work ensued.
RP: What is your work on Eriugena and how does it relate to your project on the Pisan and to Mark Byron’s new book?;1
RB: Eriugena and Avicenna (whom I have also written about) were two of Pound’s many stations on the way to the Cantos’ paradise, all of which required individual research. Pound derived what he knew about Eriugena from Francesco Fiorentino’s Manuale di Storia della Filosofia (1879-1881) but in the winter of 1939 when he went to see George Santayana in Venice, he finally located the Patrologiae edition of Eriugena in the Marciana library. We have his notebook on that occasion, recorded over two sessions. Then he went back to Rapallo and asked a friend to get him the same volume out of the Genoa public library and he made a longer set of notes. Within the space of a few weeks in other words he had raced through twelve hundred pages (double columns) of Eriugena’s Latin! What kept him going was the knowledge that Eriugena had translated (and wrote a commentary on) the Celestial Hierarchies of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysus, and that Dante drew on the translation for his Neo-platonic spheres in the Paradiso. Pound’s reading starts there, as it would! But he also goes through this enormous work The Divisions of Nature. And to go through so many pages in Latin in a few days is eye-opening. He’s looking for the terms that Cavalcanti deploys in Donna mi prega. Every time he sees ‘formato,” for instance, he makes a note of it and beside the note puts a GC in the margin—he wants to confirm his ideas about Cavalcanti’s Neo-platonic philosophy.
Reading room at the Marciana Library, Venice
RP: Did Peter2 cover this terrain in his book?
RB: Of course. That’s a great book. But Peter didn’t have the space to talk about Pound’s notes, which is what Mark Byron’s book does, or to talk about the poetic drafts— the kernels of a paradise—that Pound inscribed in those notes.
RP: So what Pound hopes to find in Eriugena is the Neo-platonic philosophy behind Dante’s paradise!
RB: Yes, he wants to find Dante’s source, which must be even better than Dante!
RP: Does he use it at all? What does he find in Eriugena?
RB: I talk about it in the “Between Religion and Science” article.3 In the unpublished Italian drafts several vignettes are given the title Eriugena. Eriugena speaks with an Irish accent and refers to Dante as a wilful schoolboy who goes off to Florence and gossips while Eriugena has to keep reminding him of what’s important. But the drafts also have dark moments—they were written as the world was going to war and I think Pound uses Eriugena as a figure of the philosopher in a dark time, in a cosmopolitan court that is not going to last very long, at the apex of a tradition that will soon decline.
RP: Have you considered that he might be a type of a dangerous thinker who was allowed to be at court unmolested because people did not understand the implications of what he’s saying?
RB: Yes, certainly Pound is intrigued that Eriugena is censored after the fact, that people in his time did not understand him well enough to censor him.
RP: It is incredible how much philosophical research he did—and very arcane too.
RB: The more arcane the better!
RP: So did he write a paradise in the Pisans, or not?
RB: Yes, in so far as he was going to write a paradise. He was reluctant to call it that because he didn’t want to be seen to follow the Dantescan schema too closely. But the moment in Canto 81 when the sun rises is much more steeped in Neo-platonism than I suspected.
RP: The splendour of light!
RB: The sun doesn’t rise until the middle of the Canto 81 and when it does rise, Pound invokes Kuanon as the light dissolves the mist. The paradisal moment.
RP: So this is the present—for the future, do you have other projects running on the side?
RB: I have suspended a large project on Joyce.
RP: Is it at the beginning?
RB: I have a hundred pages written, which turned out to be an overlong introduction. I had a contract for a small book, a critical biography, but I didn’t want to write a biography as much as a book about Joyce’s presence in his work.
RP: Joyce in his fiction… so he’s not God paring his fingernails. He does not really disappear.
RB: Joyce was very aware of the dangers of pretending that a work of art is utterly self-sufficient. He knew what happened to Flaubert, who had some difficulties maintaining that illusion. So the phrase about God paring his fingernails in Portrait is more than a little ironic.
RP: So your introduction was rather about his presence in the Portrait, in Ulysses?
RB: It was about his relationship with the trials and tribulations of the previous century’s modernism, starting with Flaubert, and his awareness of the unintended consequences of art for art’s sake. I published a version of it in J. M. Rabate’s Palgrave Advances in James Joyce Studies.4
RP: And you’d like to return to this project…
RB: I would, yes. But at a certain point I realized that there were too many details still to be attended to in the Pisans’ work; that had to be my focus, so I put the Joyce on the back burner.
RP: So this is what we will be waiting for in the first instance: the massive edition of the Pisans and your collected essays on Pound’s poetry. Thank you for this interview, Ron.
Zoagli - La Chiesa di San Martino today.
1. Mark Byron. Ezra Pound’s Eriugena. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
2. Peter Liebregts. Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism. Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson, 2004.
3. Ron Bush. “Between Religion and Science: Ezra Pound, Scotus Erigena and the Beginnings of a Twentieth-Century Paradise.” Rivista di Letterature d'America. XXXII.141/42 (2012): 95-124.
4. “Joyce’s Modernisms.” Palgrave Advances in James Joyce Studies. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 10-38.