Article Index


MLA 2017




Jason M. Coats, Virginia Commonwealth University


My focus today is to work through some of the theoretical language I’m using for my book project, which studies World War II poetry speaking for, and from, the position of the newly vulnerable, placed into situations of interminable duress, such as the London Blitz, or Pound’s imprisonment at Pisa. But beyond the vulnerable generation of lyrics during terror, I want to concentrate on their shared commitment to poetry consisting of minimalist, concatenated instants that are arranged side-by-side, seemingly paratactically, and their shared choice to employ this assembly strategy in creating longer sequences. The artist “presents [but] he does not comment,” as Pound put it in Gaudier-Brzeska, to avoid discursive interpretation of the intense speaking voices of imagist poems, many of whom push the boundaries of normativity and have no true precursors in English or American literature. However, the artist certainly curates the fragmentary sequence, and by stripping away all but language imbued with its highest energy state, unstable though that might prove, the poem advances from one glyph to another, each representative of some experiential boon, some rich source of knowledge which is somehow both gestured toward and incorporated into the text.

My curiosity today lies in their parallel efforts to encode these rich sources without providing a shibboleth to decode the surplus energy of their signs: such knowledge must be earned rather than simply imparted. Poetry becomes the representative and chief repository for the archive, radiating with significance because metonymically standing in for a much larger body of knowledge, whether that is ancient wisdom for H.D. or the tale of the tribe for Pound. Why, when placed in helpless and imperilled situations, is the archive their shared recourse? I’d like to rehearse how both H.D. and Pound thought about their poetry’s relationship to the archive, then theorize the drive to index it (what Jacques Derrida called “archive fever”) and the potential payoff revisiting such an aesthetic might impart to the poet cum archival curator when faced with impossible terror and precarity. Along the way, I’ll offer a few insights into Canto 74, the first of the Pisan Cantos, and “The Walls Do Not Fall,” the first sequence of H.D.’s Trilogy.

First, Pound. In his 1911 essay series “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” Pound explains why the search for historical understanding yields only a series of discontinuities. In “A Rather Dull Introduction,” Pound describes his travails as an amateur historian, confronted with fragment upon fragment of what life had been like in the past. He laboriously pieces together events by trying to get beyond the affective subjectivism of personal accounts, whose statements may contain germs of drama, certain suggestions of human passion or habit, but they are reticent, they tell us nothing we did not know, nothing which enlightens us. They are of any time and any country. By reading them with the blanks filled in, with the names written in, we get no more intimate acquaintance with the temper of any period; but when in Burkhardt we come upon a passage: “In this year the Venetians declined to make war upon the Milanese because they held that any war between buyer and seller must prove profitable to neither,” we come upon a portent, the old order changes, one conception of war and of the State begins to decline. (Selected Prose 22)

It’s an “Ah-ha!” moment, and Pound relishes it in part because, although in appearance it may look like any other moment he has researched, suddenly everything has clicked and he recognizes the economic basis for conflict in Renaissance Italy. The bravado of his excitement has elicited, for Michael North and Marjorie Perloff, suspicions that Pound’s fondness for isolated facts and universal truths belongs to an ahistoricity that undercuts any actual appreciation for historical awareness – the epiphanic trigger could have been any detail, perhaps. The luminosity of the luminous detail, by this argument, is circularly predicated on Pound’s assertion that it’s glowing, and really every moment of The Cantos is a semi fictionalized reconnaissance of Pound by Pound (staged for our benefit).

I think that if we are to take the “tale of the tribe” seriously, we should posit two things about the luminous detail as a structural model for The Cantos. First, Pound expected his readers to glimpse the same things he saw, or perhaps we might instead say that he hoped to train his audience to begin to see the light just as he saw it. This is an important stipulation because, unless the poem acts in good faith, reading The Cantos is tantamount to hearing a series of disembodied “ah-ha!”s in the next room, for which no context is given nor seems likely to be given, and we become irritable. Secondly, the luminous detail, because it arises out of an autodidact’s search for the truth, should set the record straight and cleanse the archive, whether or not the reader acknowledges its cleansing. The light that Pound saw illuminating the detail is embodied within his representation, and the echoes of that luminousness still linger near the sign.

Whether by dint of the intimacy and revelatory significance the speaking voice evokes, or the deference readers give authors to construct meaning from the altercation between the archive and the artistic temperament, I think it’s hard to get through more than a few cantos without stipulating that at least some of these historical corrections are evidence of somebody seeking out the truth. Should we not celebrate the sort of poetry that condenses the long chronology into a succinct insight? If we prefer the succinct insight to the dross which surrounds it, should we not then prefer the poem constructed entirely out of succinct insights? (This is the model of The Cantos as the long imagist poem, after all). 

By this model, if (as Pound said) The Waste Land is the longest poem in the English language, The Cantos is the most intellectually taxing, because the live question of why each detail has been set next to the other is always present, and there are simply more questions in The Cantos than Eliot had the heart to ask. The potential energy of the poem’s details and their unexplained concatenation adds to the effect of their cleansing insights (their “constatation” as Pound coined the process in a delightful solecism) rather than detracting from it. What might have seemed like unlinked parataxis is thus hypotaxis: the poem gathers Osiris’s limbs for us, but it’s up to us to put him back together.

There are two rhyming examples in Pound’s prose that are instructive for how the archive has been curated for the reader within The Cantos, and are also (unfortunately) a major difference between the Pound of the 1910s and that of the late 1930s. In “A Beginnning” this curious passage appears:

Let us suppose a man, ignorant of painting, taken into a room containing a picture by Fra Angelico, a picture by Rembrandt, one by Velasquez, Memling, Rafael, Monet, Beardsley, Hokusai, Whistler, and a fine example of the art of some forgotten Egyptian. He is told that this is painting and that every one of these is a masterwork. He is, if a thoughtful man, filled with confusion. These things obey no common apparent law. (SP 24)

The thoughtful man may start off confused, but clearly the expectation is that he will then try to find the connecting thread the museum curator has exposed him to. Even if only conditionally, he accedes to their juxtaposition and pays as much attention to their relationality as to their content. The details are important, but so is the invitation to seek out significant linkages that will shed yet more light on their already-bright luminousness.

By the time Pound writes his Guide to Kulchur (1937), though, the invitation has become more of a command than anything else, and the focus shifts almost exclusively to the assembler at the expense of the assembled details:

     May I suggest (not to prove anything, but perhaps to open the reader’s thought) that I have a certain real knowledge which wd. enable me to tell a Goya from a Velasquez from an Ambrogio Praedis, a Praedis from an Ingres or a Moreau

                                                                                 and that this differs from the knowledge you or I wd. have if I went into the room back of the next one, copied a list of names and maxims from good Fiorentino’s History of Philosophy and committed the names, maxims, and possibly dates to my memory. (GK 28)

By 1937, that is, the aesthetic mission has become an attempt to find the luminous detail that will finally win over his audience to an admiration of Mussolini. The juxtapositions are designed to impress and reassure rather than to invite the reader to share in a revelation. The shibboleth to the archive is now “Pound.”

Guide to Kulchur is a running self-imposed dare to write a critique of particularity in favor of totalitarianism, without making recourse to any outside sources. Certainly, Pound’s memory is impressive, but his challenge turned out to be luxuriant in comparison to what transpired after Mussolini’s fall and Pound’s capture. Part of the relief many readers experience about the Pisan Cantos is Pound’s admission that memory has its limits: he makes guesses about dates, adds question marks, hedges on details, makes a virtue of his misspellings. Three weeks after being arrested in Rapallo during the Allied invasion of the Italian peninsula, Pound was granted typewriter, bible, and three Chinese sourcebooks at the DTC in Pisa. The rest of his references arise out of his encounter with bereft despair – a different sort of intimacy altogether. Instead of an imaginary man thrust into a museum and left to his own devices, Pound himself is now the man “on whom the sun has gone down,” who is forced to accept that “The wind is part of the process / The rain is part of the process,” no longer sure of how “humanity stands it,” with or without the fede fascista in a “painted paradise at the end.”

Pound’s physical breakdown coincides with that of his archive. Canto 74 strives to salvage some semblance of the earlier Cantos’ bravado, now recast as pomposity in retrospect. The goal is still to add “whiteness to whiteness,” to report only “candor.” But as Lawrence Rainey has shown, Pound had associated Mussolini with great male figures of history as early as Sigismundo Malatesta in Canto 8 (1923). Perhaps all the connections he had made were predicated on a mistake that rendered every subsequent association in the chain tenuous. Nevertheless, the blurred remnants of earlier historical characters and details still populate this Canto, although the desperation with which the speaking voice attempts to inhabit his past certainty is coupled now with an acknowledgment of his receding memory. He is one with those “who have passed over the river Lethe” and begun to forget. The juxtaposed images, vignettes, details now carry an expressionistic element of incoherence. His references to the archive he has heretofore bombastically curated now ring hollow and narcissistic. His open-air cell has reduced him from his vaunted position as archival curator to yet one more coincidentally-collected animal in an exhibit he would never himself have constructed.

The Kenneth Burke of Attitudes Toward History (also 1937) might have termed the difference between Pound’s and H.D.’s relationships with the archive as, respectively, a rejection frame on the one hand and an acceptance frame on the other. Where Pound read history to ferret out luminous details and argue with historians, H.D. was fascinated by a remarkable variety of religious discourses, many of which were not contemporary to the Blitz. Demetres Tryphonopoulos has termed H.D.’s all-inclusive succor to ancient wisdom “radical syncretism” (Introduction, Majic Ring xxiv): she was ready to believe, or at least to support the legitimacy of belief, in a host of outmoded, declassée, antinormative, and apocryphal traditions. This helps explain the first poem in The Walls Do Not Fall, which proceeds from an opening documentary realism to what the poem self-consciously (and not immodestly) terms “spiritual realism.”

The poem begins with a vague “incident, here and there” (3) of a piece with the sanitizing euphemisms the British press has used to understate the devastation of the Blitz. After such a concrete grounding, the poem then proceeds to compare the destruction to “the Luxor bee, chick and hare / [that] pursue unalterable purpose / in green, rose-red, lapis” (3). These latter are fertility symbols of ancient Egypt, for which translation Trilogy does not offer any assistance. Few observers would equate London’s rubble with a “stone papyrus” at first glance, but this one does. She also then proceeds to conjoin that association with the Greek myth of the Delphic Pythian as well as Yahweh’s thrice-repeated night-time hailing of Samuel in the Old Testament’s 1st Samuel—an audible, though all-too-easily dismissible call to wake up and respond to the miraculous portents hiding in plain sight.

The Walls Do Not Fall doesn’t need its readers to subscribe to any or all of the occult traditions it incorporates, but it does require respect for those who believed in them in the past, to acknowledge that each of them affords etiological and narrative explanations for why events have transpired as they have. Subscription to “spiritual realism” carries with it a responsibility to honor the weight of tradition behind these alternative discourses, and a respect for those who believe religious thought offers a valid lens through which to interpret reality: “walk carefully, speak politely // to those who have done their worm-cycle, / for gods have been smashed before // and idols and their secret is stored / in man’s very speech” (T 14–15).

The “worm-cycle” is the process by which an endangered individual can escape discomfiture by undergoing a strenuous metamorphosis from a vulnerable worm, through a chrysalis’ crucible, to a transcendently beautiful butterfly (which can then fly to safety). It’s a hard-won initiation process that in the end affords access to an idiosyncratic shibboleth to decode the archive Trilogy stands in for. It reveals the coeval energies of Moravian Christianity, Egyptology, psychoanalysis, Greek ritual, astrology, and the occult that permeate and enliven the performative tropes succeeding one another in the sequence.

Alongside the coded evidence of the vulnerability of people, structures, ideas, and images precious to the speaker, H. D. strategically places testimony of their preservation within the performative language of her poetry. She proceeds from the readily acceptable assumption of the ill effects of terror to the less widely known traditions of the inviolability of the scribe, the indelibility of the word, and the ineradicable nature of the palimpsest to proffer some good that can be salvaged from the Blitz, provided we at least tolerate the possibility of the vatic register in the poem’s curation of its disparate components.

Spiritual realism requires a belief that language can be powerful: signifiers that have been potent and mystical, irrespective of human agency and temporality:

we take them with us

beyond death; Mercury, Hermes, Thoth
invented the script, letters, palette;

the indicated flute or lyre-notes
on papyrus or parchment

are magic, indelibly stamped
on the atmosphere somewhere,
forever (T 17)

The permanency of the spoken word relies neither on the speaker, since she attributes her source casually to “Mercury, Hermes, [or] Thoth” as if they were interchangeable deities, nor on the medium (“papyrus or parchment”), for they have been “stamped / on the atmosphere somewhere,” and that is somehow enough to make them “indelible” “forever.” All of this reveals the talismanic power of words, which she believed could provide a more conventional form of protection for those aware of their mysteries. The archive she summons is illegibly protective for those who need its protection, but it’s also decipherable for those whose arcane research would already have qualified them to respect believers.

What fascinates me at this point is the very live question of whether the curation in both The Walls Do Not Fall and the Pisan Cantos assists these talismans in protecting both the reader and speaker, or whether the signs themselves are inherently powerful regardless of our knowledge of their discursive origins. By double analogy, this is the distinction between the skewed angle and particular light one needs to view the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors on the one hand, and on the other hand a substance like radium, which is deadly radioactive regardless of one’s belief in radioactivity. The truth Pound sought throughout his career is no less true, to his mind, if no one but him still swears by Il Duce. And many of the more obscure references in The Walls Do Not Fall may indeed be powerful whether we know anything about their portents or not; regardless, each one begins more and more to resemble the “wrought, faceted, jeweled / boxes” by which the vatic vision can intersect with the quotidian. In the 15th poem of The Walls Do Not Fall, H.D. advances further: “grape, knife, cup, wheat // are symbols in eternity, / and every concrete object // has abstract value, is timeless / in the dream parallel // whose relative sigil has not changed / since Nineveh and Babel.” Every concrete object may prove the conduit to occult knowledge, every signifier may be a relic of some submerged or ill-understood energy that a poem can bring to new life. Is it necessary for us to know that “grape, knife, cup, wheat” is a listing of the illocutionary props necessary to begin the Eleusinian Mysteries for that list to radiate with the energies H.D. derives from that ritual?

Pound had pioneered the minimalist concision of early imagism in favor or an impoverishment of unnecessary connective tissue, which is a striking similarity the two of them share. As Hugh Kenner has stressed, the elision of most verbs in imagist poetry means, for Pound, a strong preference for the planned over the fortuitous: this is like the practice among many archives of forcing the curious researcher to sign in, wait patiently, be brought precious items, and be told how to handle them properly while a security guard watches. While H.D. shares with Pound the winnowing desire to provide only luminous details, concrete objects, and magic sigils, her curation is less prescribed though perhaps more reverent: this is like the exhibit of Minoan pottery for which the anthropological archivist is not much help -- beyond the frame of “this is Minoan art,” one is reduced to observations like ‘this seems to be a vase,’ ‘they liked statues of women,’ ‘they fished and sometimes caught octopus,’ etc. H.D.’s concision affords each sign and its surroundings a new prominence that can help us understand and benefit from what others in the past had found important, even useful.

The unexpected convergence is their shared attitude toward their own archives, once constructed. At the beginning of Archive Fever, Derrida isolates the etymological roots of the word “archive” as both “commencement” and “commandment.” Two competing drives animate the archivist: the first, the desire to be the sole curator of the vast repository of knowledge that surrounds any event or cultural product—to be the first person to know this knowledge again, before locking it up and keeping it safe from thieves, critics, and blunderers. As head Archon of the excavation one can make final determinations about placement, assemblage, and curation, all while positing the individual importance of each archival constituent. The second desire is the competing desire to act as archival follower—not just the pioneer of the archive, but its ambassador, adherent, chief advocate. Out of these two drives spring both the insistence of Pound and H.D. of the importance of their buried treasure and their reticence to unbury it.

The longer one writes in this vein about a set of subjects, the more closely one’s aesthetic is allied to it, and the harder it can be to walk away from their recognizable approaches to the archive. After a long enough period of time, the difference between obsessive caretaking and actual belief may recede indistinguishably into a horizon where irony and sincerity coalesce. But this does not stop either poet from encoding shibboleths into their representations of the much larger archives their poems gesture toward. Easily-gained knowledge isn’t fit for the unworthy, the enemy, the uninitiated. And after all, leaving the archive mysterious creates the environment by which someone else might create on one’s own the desire to discover its richness for themselves.




Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

H.D. Trilogy. Ed. Aliki Barnstone. New York, New Directions, 1998.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

North, Michael. The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1970. 

—. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970. 

—. Guide to Kulchur. New York: New Directions, 1970.

—. Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1973

Rainey, Lawrence. “‘All I Want You to Do Is to Follow the Orders’: History, Faith, and Fascism in the Early Cantos.” A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in The Cantos. Ed. Lawrence Rainey. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999. 63-114.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., ed. Introduction. Majic Ring. By H.D. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2009.


Response to Jason Coats’ paper

Matte Robinson

       What a pleasure to encounter a paper that contrasts Pound’s and H.D.’s relations to the archive, positioning the two figures as would-be archons, curators of the accumulated knowledge of what Pound calls “the tribe.” Coats raises the stakes in the game of competing arches by choosing the word “shibboleth” (rather than “key” or “password”) to designate each author’s curatorial fulcrum: shibboleths grant entry by sorting people. Those who make the cut are included in the group; those who do not were never included and must be put to death. The shibboleth reveals what always has been, and it is uniquely performative: unlike a password, which can be any random word (and which must be changed regularly), the shibboleth comes to itself in its own utterance: it is what it is.1

For Pound, “the shibboleth is now ‘Pound’;” the Cantos, the poem containing history, appears in the light of Coats’s analysis as a concatenation of interior “ah-ha” moments, a history of Pound’s discoveries of the key turning points hidden in the volumes of history he consults (and reiterates). In the Pisan Cantos, when access to the archive fails, Coats remarks, the wind and the rain become “part of the process.” For Pound, the abandonment of the arche is an opening to the world around him, as he is writing. Contrastingly, H.D.’s indifference to the authority of the curatorial impulse is grounded in faith in a timeless co-existence of the past, the present, the mythical, and the everyday. For H.D. the rain and wind are always already part of the process, because what is laid bare in the everyday spaces (with their absence of rails) at the opening of Trilogy is another “presence” and another order of presence.

In Coats’ estimation, H.D.’s faith in the “outmoded, declassée, antinormative, and apocryphal” seems to help inoculate her poetry from some of the historical errors and bad judgments of her peers, while placing her work squarely into the context of high modernism: who is the reader who would “equate London’s rubble with a ‘stone papyrus’”? Who would read Mercury, Hermes, and Thoth as “interchangeable deities”? Modernist fragments are curated, but there is an element of randomness based on the “ah-ha” moments. Images, like Tarot cards, are chosen yet plucked out of the unknown, presented in new patterns without a predetermined connection.




1. Its definition in the OED is not a definition but context for its use. The first part is tautology: “shibboleth” is “the Hebrew word [‘shibboleth’]”; the rest of the “definition” merely explains why it remains in the lexicon. The definition itself is not what we are looking for in nearly any context: it means both “stream in flood” and “ear of corn” i.e. “wheat,” one of the four objects Coats names as examples of “relic[s] of some submerged or ill-understood energy that a poem can bring to new life” and identifies as “illocutionary props necessary to begin the Eleusinian Mysteries.”