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Presumed Dimensions and Their Contribution

to the Spiritual Character of Ezra Pound’s Asian Sources,

Early Theories, and Later Cantos


 Robert E. Kibler, Minot State University



There is a variety of images in Ezra Pound’s Cantos that presume a spiritual dimension within areas of the long poem to which Pound always inclined, and of which he found ready examples in Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks, particularly those concerning Chinese landscape painting and the Japanese Noh Theatre. These images presume or suggest a spiritual dimension because they conform to both Pound and his Asian source’s understanding of how such a dimension behaves. Much like Hugh Kenner’s subject rhymes, these spiritualized images also accrue value through recurrence in the poem.

But how does a spiritually charged image act in a poem? According to Pound, it is animate, interactive, tangible, and clearly connected to a third, unseen dimension. Such images possess the “easy power of motion,” (Cavalcanti, xxi) he suggests in 1912, are ‘fluent’ and exist both in and out of form. They act as “moving energies…magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible,” he writes in 1915 (SP, 376).  It is my assertion that their varied reappearances imply an unseen reality that is understood in some fashion as part of the images themselves, participating in the presentation of meaning.

Pound refers to such participatory images (Osiris, SP 25) in his 1913 article “Troubadors, Their Sorts and Conditions,” where he analyzes 12th century troubadour poetry generally, and that of Arnaut Daniel in particular. “No student of the period can doubt,” he writes, that the “involved forms and veiled meanings of the trobar clus [rhyme scheme] grew out of the living conditions” of Provence. (LE 94) Similarly, in Arnaut Daniel’s poem, “Sweet Cracks and Cries,” grown out of those same “living conditions,” as did the trobar clus, Pound translates Daniel’s poem of auzels, or birds, chirming in “their Latin” each to each, as do “you and I,” he writes, in our own Latin, “towards those girls on whom our thoughts attract.” (Make it New 76)

The natural relationship suggested by Daniel between cultures, lovers, birds, and words in this poem implies an unseen unity binding each to each, and this unity constitutes what must be understood as one element in a tripartite interaction occurring on location in 12th century Provence. That which remains unseen can be said to bind visible form to form, so that images and words, like lovers and birds, become the metaphors of a reality that must exist both in and out of form simultaneously--an idea that Pound was to have confirmed time and again by Fenollosa’s notebooks, in his possession from 1913 onwards (Qian 51).

Much has been made of Fenollosa’s theory of the Chinese written character in relation to the interaction between the seen and presumed unseen dimensions of reality. These characters, or ideograms, show a rooting of language in a “primitive strata of metaphor,” Fenollosa notes (CWC 22), and are thus able to “pass over from the seen to the unseen,” with ease. Pound’s ideogrammic method has its own roots in Fenollosa’s understanding of how the ideogram functions, and virtually all his poetic theories, from his moving image, whirling vortex, conflicting ideograms, his phano, melo and logo poeias, all trace at least partly to Fenollosa’s theory of the Chinese written character. At the same time, other Chinese material in Fenollosa’s notebooks, as well as that related to the Japanese Noh Theatre, model a somewhat less recognized but equally important understanding of how images imply the unseen dimension.

19th Century Japanese scholars translated the aesthetic theories of the 11th century Chinese landscape painter, Hsia Kuei, or Kakki, as he was known by Fenollosa–and Pound’s blue crayon marks are all over this part of Fenollosa’s notebooks. Discussing his approach to landscape painting, Kakki asserts that by observation and reference, “the artist will come to have before him the infinitely various mountains he has seen, stored away and amassed inside his bosom,” to be brought forth on demand, “without the eye…. spontaneously.” (Fenollosa “Landscape Poetry” 169). According to Kakki, then, the artist creates definite forms through a process that delivers a mountain or a waterfall which nowhere has its exact model in nature.

Presumably, through an act of cognition, Kakki scans remembered images in order to produce compounded ideal ones. In a sense, the idealized images are the tangible production of an unseen reality in process, brought to form, the result of the artist using what is observed in order to produce what is only subsequently imaginable. Yet each idealized image produced must at the same time serve as the sum of referential bits linked in the mind in such a way that the end-product exists fraught with unseen but tangible meaning, meaning embodied as an image that is itself clearly summoned by the artist into reality. It is many mountain bits stretched and distorted through time and space, each with reference to one another, kin to many but clone to none.

We see images the result of a like effort to Kakki’s in the Japanese Noh plays, which Pound translates from the Fenollosa notebooks in 1916–only within the Noh, given the content of the plays, these linked images carry a specifically spiritual value. As Pound notes in his preface to the translations, spiritual energy in the Noh plays is functionally embodied in what he terms a “unity of image.” Thus “the red maple leaves and snow flurry in Nishikigi,” the pines and lone owl cry in Takasago, and the “blue-grey waves and wave patterns in Suma Genji” accrue meaning unto themselves as images, and while this accrued meaning informs the environment in which any given leaf or pine occurs, meaning is built and largely held among those united images themselves (Noh 27). They move through or emerge in various locations within the plays, and perhaps share meaning within them, but their home, or place, so to speak, is elsewhere, amongst their own kind. The blue-grey waves, for example, occurring in the last stanza of the Suma Genji, linked to the Shite, or spirit of place in the play, are described by the Chorus as follows: 

     It was as he came down

     From the halls of Tao Thahu Zen,

     He, the soul of the place.

     He, who seemed but a woodman,

     He flashed with the honour of colours,

     He the true gleaning.

     Blue-grey is the garb they wear here,

     Blue grey he fluttered in Suma;

     His sleeves were like the grey sea-waves

     They moved with curious rustling,

     Like the bell of a country town,

     ‘neath nightfall.”  (Noh 236)

The Suma Genji chorus envisions the blue-grey garb of the people, the fluttering soul of the place, the blue-grey waves, and the bells in a far away town. Collectively, the seeming incongruence between these images set in different parts of time and space suggests a moving set of forms that nevertheless remain linked to one another through the blue-grey. Yet bells clanging in the gray of what must be the twilight of a town elsewhere have no obvious conceptual link to the blue-grey color of the garments worn by those who live at Suma. At the same time, there is everything between them, and the passage enacts an understanding of conceptual unity located in multiplicity, rippling through material form in just the same way as idealized mountains seem to be produced in the landscape paintings of Kakki.

            Pound clearly understands images as moving and accruing meaning in the same way as described by Kakki and as in evidence in the Noh. In 1912, he writes, “I imply the circle and its mode of birth. I am led from the consideration of particular circles formed by my ink-well and my table-rim, to the contemplation of the circle absolute, its law; the circle free in all space, unbounded, loosed from the accidents of time and place…. [such signs] are a door into eternity and into the boundless ether” (SP 362). And earlier in 1910, he writes, “in painting, the color is always finite. It may match the color of the infinite spheres, but it is in a way confined within the frame and its appearance is modified by the colors about it. The line is unbounded, [however], it marks the passage of a force, it continues beyond the frame” (Cavalcanti, xxi). Significantly, for either the circle absolute to be imagined, or the unbounded line to continue beyond the frame, Pound necessarily assumes a movement from observable forms to unobservable ones, forms seen and unseen linked to one another through a cognitive interaction with the observed forms that presumes a third unseen dimension of unity existing between them, much like the blue-grey at Suma both comes from and tends again towards the unbounded reality beyond the finite.

In 1937, discussing the Japanese hokku poetry he had been studying since 1908, (Hakutani 52), Pound offers an example of the same kind of interaction between seen and unseen dimensions in his discussion of the “swift contraposition of [bilateral] objects,” characteristic of the style. He writes:

     The foot-steps of the cat upon

     The snow:

     Plum blossoms. (SP 453)

Yet what seems the contraposition of two images in the haiku actually implies a third. The cat’s steps and the plum blossoms, Pound writes, “are so placed as to contain wide space and a stretch from the fruit to the shadow in the footprints. The third element is there, its dimension from the fruit to the shadow in the foot prints” (SP 453). Pound notes the same thing 22 years later, in Canto 93: the third element – “always there” (93/624).

           What is important to note about these examples from Pound and from Asia are the unseen ties presumably binding images each to each, the vitality implied through movement, and our ability to recognize that there must be a link between these recurring images and the unseen dimension for which they must partly speak. Moreover, the relationship between the seen and the unseen tends, if anything, to give more spiritual weight to what is seen over that unseen. We note the tangible circle before imagining the absolute one, for example; so too the paw print and plum blossom before inferring a certain tangible dimension between them. According to Yamazaki Masakazu, it is the same in the Noh, where the spiritual is drawn toward humanity for humanity, thus putting emphasis on the seen over the unseen (Masakazu xxxviii). In keeping with Masakazu’s idea, Pound could write in 1940 that the “religious man communes every time his teeth sink” into a crust of bread” (SP 70). He implicitly recognized that all things have value, and all are linked. But such a man communes in the same way that Kakki creates--through the blue-grey–so to speak–moving from the tangible toward that which is only subsequently imaginable and mysteriously linked.  Presumably, the unseen relation between the consumption of the bread, and let’s say, the man’s ability to walk down the lane, confirms and illustrates the role of the unseen dimension in a way that can almost be measured, just as the shadow between the paw print and the plum blossom can almost be seen. It is there, between the points of reference, the act of sinking teeth into bread and the subsequent walking down the lane. Images to images, actions to actions, bound together, each to each.

 Further, Kakki’s ideal mountains carry with them the accumulated freight of past mountains partly recognized and perpetuated. Pound’s unbounded circles and lines have their point of reference in like images seen and then unseen. The clanging bell in a distant town has meaning in relation to blue-grey waves, fluttering sleeves, and the garb of the people in Suma. The shadow shared by the cat’s paw and the plum blossom exists as the linking third dimension between them.  Meaning is shared and accumulated within the specific ongoing reality of tangible images compounded through seen and unseen means, spread out in linear fashion through time and space. As such, meaning remains primarily bound to the linked images themselves more than it is shared or expended in the cause of some other way of meaning or even within their value to a particular literary locale. They keep some portion of autonomy.

We do see such images operating in The Cantos. In Canto II, for example, one of the metamorphosis cantos, the story of Acoetes serves as the central morphing event. Yet in the nooks and crannies of the canto, other images appear to transform but retain an essential character. Picasso’s eyes appear in the eye sockets of a swimming seal, sporting about the “spray white circles of cliff wash.”  Swimming artist seal transforms into a swimming Neptune, swimming Neptune becomes a moving ship; sailors on the ship become swimming fish, and swimming fish transform into a swimming Daphne, a young girl who, for protection from a god, becomes a waterside reed—a thing invested in water like a swimmer, but not of the water itself. The elemental value of successive movement is thus highlighted through these images, movement as a tangible reality at work in art as in life. It is this movement from one image to successive kin image that suggests an intrinsic value beyond that given to any particular poetic environment in which the images are situated. Swimming Neptune, for example, has no obvious conceptual relationship to swimming seal, but as swimming things, they share an affinity that does not morph, suggesting something durable and continuous between images--and even if we do not quite know what it is, we recognize that like the shadow between cat paw and blossom, it is there. In the instance of all of these swimmers in Canto II, for example, myth, art, craft, and movement become compounded through what may be termed a centrifugal action drawing together multi-lateral images by the magnetism of some unseen dimension holding them in common.   

Likewise, in the Pisan Cantos of 1948, birds begin to come into prominence. There have been many of them already scattered throughout the previous cantos, all of which must have some meaningful point of inception in Pound’s early understanding of chirming auzels in Daniel’s poem, and are further informed by Janequin’s Song in Canto 75—“not of one bird but of many.” There are cacklers and yellow resting birds and escaping birds, “chested martin[s],” one of whom Pound begs to take a message to “La Cara” in canto 76 (76/459). And in cantos 78 and 79, we see birds arranging and rearranging themselves on wires:  “… 8 birds on a wire,” Pound writes, “or rather on 3 wires.” “4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one….5 of em now on 2; on 3; 7 on 4” (79/485). There are bearded owls, larks, mocking birds as the cantos continue beyond Pisa, birds like singing swans and phoenix birds, crests of birds, and birds happy in their nature, all linked to one another, and through their kinship of recurrence, speaking with us. “Watch birds to understand how spiritual things move,” Pound writes in 1957 (SP 71) and repeats in Canto 90, following the 11th century Scotsman Richard of St. Victor, who asserted that contemplation of the visible carries the soul beyond itself to rapture (Catholic Encyclopedia). 

Perhaps what Richard of St. Victor notes about birds is key to understanding all such images in Pound’s long poem, for we watch them to understand how spiritual things move, communicate, from beyond their respective poetic environments, but also from beyond us. They are partly from the dimension of the UNSEEN OTHER—or whatever one wishes to call it–liminally both observable and mysterious, speaking to us from that part of our reality extending beyond our ability to fully understand it, thus compelling in us a kind of intellectual engagement with the Unseen Other that itself enriches and spiritualizes us as people. At the same time, recognizing that meaning accrues through mysteriously linked images inculcates in us a certain familiarity with the other, for we begin to see it as a phenomenon in evidence over long spans of the poem, and as operating according to durable patterns that through long scrutiny, we may be able to decipher.

It is conceivable that the many ideograms inhabiting the pages of the later cantos function as decipherable spiritualized images, speaking to us from what we know about them from past usage, while arranged as so many birds on wires, carrying intimations of meaning more than meets the eye into their respective cantos. Antoine Compagnon agrees that these later ideograms exist in their own right, as “self signifying ‘graphic marks,’” that do not especially reinforce the texts around them (Gefin, xx). Or water, everywhere, but rarely of signal importance, yet definable as a sort of divine essence tangibly understood just as much through the accrual of waters past as through any one poetic context, ideogrammic collision, whirling vortex, or set of representational images chained in series, as Marjorie Perloff suggests, to a flat modernist plane.

In contradistinction to the ideogrammic method then, such images as the swimmers, the birds, and the ideograms move within the Cantos, accruing meaning unto themselves progressively, each image loaded in a way that in part, leastways, reloads into others only subsequently understood through the unseen third dimension active in the poem. Birds, for example, offer varied gradations of a mostly positive essential nature, just as water collectively serves as a sort of ambient locus for action. As such, our compounded understanding of birds or water functions differently from Hugh Kenner’s subject rhymes, for example, because his subject rhymes vary in figure but not in shared traits, whereas these swimmers, birds and ideograms compound varied traits to associated figures (Kenner 92-3). The former help us recognize similarity in difference. The latter rather suggests the difference mysteriously embedded in similarity.

All of which suggests that the unknown comes to us as bits surfacing as images accruing value somewhat unto themselves, making a place, so to speak, with their own kind, however stretched out in the spiritualized time and space of Pound’s poem they may be, and however much they may offer in value to us through the doing so. Further, the random surfacing of such images in the poem, as well as their autonomous character, perhaps suggests that such images are really the antithesis of the keynote Odyssean wanderers of the Cantos. They are rather the homebodies, connecting all of reality into their own moment, while what appears to us as movement is just another surfacing of the kind implying that all along, in all ways, reality has been recognizably whole, speaking to us from a home world that we too inhabit, even if our understanding of it must be partly inferred by our spanning the gaps between linked images produced, shifted, or transformed, as best we can. 





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