David Ten Eyck.

“Evaluating the Status of Ezra Pound’s Selected Cantos

Selected Poems: From Modernism to Now.

Eds. H. Aji and J. Kilgore-Caradec.

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2012. 23-40


summary by Andy Trevathan


Nomina Sunt Consequentia Rerum


In David Ten Eyck’s well-written article, readers are given a brief glimpse into the confusing composition, compilation, and publication history of Ezra Pound’s Selected Cantos (1966, New Directions). Ten Eyck’s research, often culled from unpublished Faber & Faber archives, addresses the poet’s critical attempt to “indicate the main elements in the Cantos” (Pound, Foreword, 1). The objective of the Selected Cantos was revealed to consist in certain “key thematic strands” in order to elicit the reader’s perception of them. Ten Eyck contrasts this to the publisher’s objective, which was in part, to edit Pound’s long, challenging poem down to ‘bite-size’ pieces in order to make it more accessible to readers overwhelmed with the length and inherent difficulty of Pound’s pivotal work.

We now take for granted The Cantos of Ezra Pound as inclusive of the later cantos, but until this edition, Ten Eyck maintains, that was not necessarily the case.  While Pound had virtually ceased to produce new work after about 1960, with this new volume, he and those he trusted made selections from what amounted to be a work in progress.  This had become necessary since Pound was not at all thrilled with another, earlier compilation: New Directions’ Selected Poems, edited by John Berryman and published in 1949. Selected Cantos was to serve as an antithesis to that “mess of snippets” which had in his view completely perverted The Pisan Cantos (Ten Eyck quoting Richard Taylor, 168).  Pound wrote to Laughlin that it would have been better to “omit the whole of it [rather than] to print with invisible dots for breaks” (168). Though by 1965 Pound was eighty and in bad health, he made an effort to read through The Cantos, with the help of Olga Rudge, in order to determine which parts should appear in the 1966 edition. Ten Eyck warns us to keep two factors in mind: in 1965, the poem was officially a work in progress, so the question of significant themes was still open to a certain extent. Secondly, Pound could not for reasons of health and age be the only authorizing instance – the Selected Cantos was to be a collaborative volume with conflicting instances of authorization.

Pound’s intervention as an editor changed the nature of the project as publishers viewed it – instead of simply providing points of entry to beginners (which would have presumably focused on “beautiful” passages), Pound used the opportunity to provide thematic threads of coherence through the poem and to shine a light on the main heroes of the Cantos: Odysseus, Malatesta, Confucius, Jefferson and Adams. He did rely on Berryman’s selection until the Pisan Cantos, but oriented his selection towards economic and political themes as well as his “documentary method.” As to his policy for the Pisan, he worked to counter Berryman’s selection. He thus included only four incomplete poems out of that sequence and when he did so, the included material supplemented earlier cantos. Ten Eyck’s comment on the effects of selection seems to me the essential and most useful part of his article. He thus criticized the linearity of the selection process and what it did to our experience of the full poem, adding:

his selection also simplifies The Cantos in another sense: that of severely reducing the layers of association that exist between cantos in the full text. Instead of offering a glimpse into an encyclopedic work where each node of meaning branches out simultaneously in multiple directions, Selected Cantos follows a much more linear progression, tracing the development of a handful of major themes. In this sense, Pound’s efforts at conciseness and simplification can be said to impoverish his poem. It is worth noticing, for example, that his selections from Eleven New Cantos and the Fifth Decad of Cantos push the economic theme to the forefront, while eliminating poems on the subjects of love, sexuality and the permanence of natural processes that offer a counterpoint to the economic theme when these volumes are read in their entirety (Ten Eyck 33).

For the taste of his publishers, both British and American, his selection was too tight – both thought of ways to supplement it. At Faber, du Sautoy hesitated for a year until he finally gave in and accepted Pound’s selection as was. Laughlin delayed publication until 1970 and when he brought out the volume he supplemented it with other poems without Pound’s authorization: the “final lines of Canto LII, the first part of Canto LXXXIII and the full Cantos CXV and CXVI” (30).  While Laughlin’s intentions might have been good, the result, according to Ten Eyck, “significantly chang[ed] the character of the book, combining two distinct sets of selection criteria” (31). 

David Ten Eyck’s purpose, in elucidating the large-scale consequences of publisher whims upon a poetic legacy, is to show the connection “between Selected Cantos and the final stages of Pound’s work on the poem as a whole”; moreover, to serve as a “moving evocation of the conflict between the inherently open form of The Cantos and the desire for poetic closure. Ten Eyck reminds us that Pound’s Selected Cantos, including the Fragments which serve as tribute to Olga, operate as part of the whole of the poem which is the real “great acorn of light” and even with superfluous publication versions, the Cantos represent Pound’s struggle to lead us “back to splendour.”