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The Russian Pound: The First Publication of the Complete Cantos in Russia


review by V. M. Tolmatchoff (review translated by Karina Ibragimova)


Ezra Pound. Cantos. Tr. into Russian by A.V. Bronnikov. Introduction, commentaries by A.V. Bronnikov. Saint-Petersburg: Nauka, 2018. LX, 881 pp.


[This review evaluates the first Russian translation of Ezra Pound’s complete Cantos in the context of Anglo-American, as well as Western, modernism. In his review, Professor V.M. Tolmatchoff also provides a short history of Pound’s reception in the West, and in Russian literary criticism, and summarizes the difficulties of translating Pound. After details about A.V.Bronnikov, the translator, Tolmatchoff compares his translation to Pound’s 1970 New Directions text of The Cantos and offers a critical evaluation of the composition of the volume, which consists of the following: «Introduction» (an interpretation of Pound’s creative biography), «The Cantos of 1930-1959», and “Supplements” which include «Principles of the translation,” «Commentaries» (to each canto), «Translation into Russian of Pound’s drafts and fragments of the 1960s,” «Annotated index» and «Table of the meaning of hieroglyphs».]

The Cantos of Ezra Pound – Pound’s will specifies that there is to be no separation of the title and the author’s name – has appeared in print serially since 1925 in volumes culminating in the present edition of CXVII cantos. It has now been published in its entirety in Russian for the first time. The length of this poem is almost equal to the artistic life of Pound (1885-1972) who, save for his imprisonment in the US (1945-1958), lived mainly in Europe: in London from 1908, in Paris from 1921, in Rapallo from 1924 and, until his death in 1972, in Brunnenburg in northern Italy as well as Venice. The first three cantos were published in 1917 in the Chicago avant-garde magazine Poetry; the last canto, a fragment, appeared in 1966.

This new translation is unquestionably significant, especially because even as a legendary modernist text The Cantos is still relatively unknown in Russia. But now, it has finally and fully been presented and available to a Russian audience. To be more precise, Pound is the last outstanding figure of the modernist era unread in Russia, and until this translation, the overall Russian understanding of his work and of modernism has been incomplete. I have in view not only the different versions of Anglo-American modernism from roughly 1910 to the 1940s as seen in James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens but also a broader, transnational modernism represented by writers from Europe, South America and, of course, Eastern Europe (in Russia until the mid-twenties) who belonged to three or four literary generations between the 1910s and 1950s marked by Post-symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Existentialism and Absurdism.

Episodes 1-10 of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) were published in the Internatsionalnaya Literatura (International Literature) literary magazine in 1935-1936 (the full translation by Viktor Hinkis and Sergey Horouzhy only appeared in 1989; corrected edition – 1993), and works by Marcel Proust, André Gide, André Malraux, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Döblin were released in Russian in the 1930s. Yet T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land did not appear until 1972 in Andrey Sergeev’s translation, and the academic, bilingual edition of the text with its drafts, implemented by V.M. Tolmatchoff (Moscow: Ladomir-Nauka) was not published until 2014. Pound’s path to his Russian readers has been much longer and more circuitous.

The erasure of Pound in the USSR was strongly dictated by Soviet ideology which labeled him a dedicated modernist in the most undesirable meaning of the word. This implied the absence of any “realism” in his work in the Soviet understanding of the term (defined in 1934 at the first Soviet Writers Congress and then used until the late 1980s). Secondly, unlike Hemingway, for example, Pound had not shown any intention to establish any political or pragmatic contacts with the Soviets. Even more disturbing was Pound’s reputation as a fascist and follower of Mussolini, who appears in Pound’s poem. It was also known to American and Allied authorities that from January 1941 to the spring of 1945, Pound delivered one hundred-and-twenty-five propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio addressed to the Anglo-American troops and, via short-wave, to the U.S. Such action and political reputation made his acceptance and/or study in post-World War II Soviet Russia impossible.

Only in the 1970s (after a visit of President Nixon to Moscow) was there an end to the almost complete Soviet censorship of Pound. The appearance of Alexey Zverev’s monograph Modernism v literature SShA: Formirovanie. Evolutsia. Krizis (Modernism in Literature of the USA: Emergence, Evolution, Crisis), with one chapter devoted to the American poet, seemed to initiate the change. However, it did not allow one to form an opinion of The Cantos, unlike evaluations of Pound’s Imagist poems and works of the 1910s insightfully analyzed in the monograph. But through the 1990s, resistance towards Pound as a fascist continued to impede the publication of The Cantos in Russian, although his fascism – it has become clearer over time – became understood as more of a poetic rather than political project, an extension of his interest in the “mythology of leadership” rather than direct loyalty to a fascist ideology.

But many still refused to publish Pound. The academician Nikolay Balashov, for example, scientific secretary of a prestigious academic series «Literaturnye pamyatniki» (Literary Landmarks), would not even hear about the possibility of publishing The Cantos. Moreover, even Joseph Brodsky’s essay «Naberezhnaya neistselimykh» (Quay of the Incurable) (1989), where the attitude of the Nobel laureate towards Pound (whose anti-Semitism came into sharp view) was revealed via the description of Brodsky’s visit to Pound’s widow, Olga Rudge, in Venice (translated into Russian in 1992). This publication did not add any credit to Pound’s Russian reputation. But Brodsky’s visit to the Venetian home of Pound was inspired by both his genuine interest in Pound as a legendary master of modernism, а contemporary of Joyce and Eliot, and by respect for Pound as a poet and as an iconoclastic influence upon such poets as Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and other late modernist writers. It should be acknowledged, however, that Pound’s anti-Semitism was understood as not racial in origin but closer to something Nietzscheian and anti-liberal (shared with T.S. Eliot and even W.B.Yeats) targeting not the Jews per se (Pound had several Jewish poets in his inner circle whom he promoted). He did, however, strongly oppose the capitalist principle of “usury” (“usura” in The Cantos) which he associated with the banking system, dominated he thought by Jews, and which he believed led the Western world to the major catastrophes of the XXth century.

Because of his mix of poetry and politics, it is no wonder that in the second half of the XXth century the attitude towards Pound in the US remained skeptical, underscored by the furor of his winning the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos in 1948. Pound had been arrested by several Italian Communist guerillas in May 1945 and handed over to the American Army, eventually spending nearly six months in the Disciplinary Training Center just outside of Pisa; then, in November, he was unexpectedly transferred to Washington, D.C. where he underwent a mental exam and was determined to be mentally incompetent and unable to stand trial. This meant he avoided possible execution for treason if found guilty (an idea strongly supported, by the way, by Arthur Miller and Lion Feuchtwanger). Pound was committed to St. Elizabeths, a Washington psychiatric hospital, until his release in 1958 following pressure by Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, James Laughlin and others. He returned to Italy where he died in 1972.

Pound’s Cantos gradually found a readership in American universities, assisted in part by the work of Hugh Kenner, especially his The Pound Era (1971), a comprehensive analysis of Pound’s writing in relation to the modernist project. The close reading of texts (the so-called New Criticism) was the preferred practice of literary study in university at the time and Pound’s work with its sprawling ideas and form, seemed to resist such study (although outstanding scholars like Cleanth Brooks, whom I had the privilege to meet and talk with several times in 1991, never said anything critical about Pound). But Pound’s politics were still considered objectionable in contrast to such seemingly apolitical, formalist writers like Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings or John Ashbery. The postmodernists, however, also promoted a lingering suspicion that Eliot, Yeats and, of course, Pound were directly or indirectly anti-Semitic, a view expressed by the poet Karl Shapiro, the critic Harold Bloom and others. However, interest in Pound in the US gradually expanded as his profile as a modernist grew through study of his editing, critical essays, letters and reviews. And his texts remained in print through the efforts of James Laughlin’s New Directions Publishing, originating in 1936 at Pound’s suggestion.

Biographical and critical studies by Humphrey Carpenter, Noel Stock, Hugh Kenner, William Cookson, Carroll Terrell, David Moody, Ira Nadel, Tim Redman, Demetres Tryphonopoulos, Massimo Bacigalupo and others soon provided more balanced assessments of Pound’s poetic achievements and contributions to modernism, whether through readings of his poetry, essays, letters or manifestoes, revealing him to be one of the key figures not only of Anglo-American but transnational modernism.

Among his achievements, Pound launched Joyce into the orbit of a new literary culture created partially by himself. He played a decisive part in the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and Ulysses. The same happened with T.S. Eliot: Pound was instrumental in the publication of his early poetry, essays and editing of The Waste Land. Pound also assisted Robert Frost with the publication of his first two books. Additionally, Pound provided valuable artistic advice to Hemingway (see the detailed comments on the Parisian contacts between the two in Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast), made a decisive contribution to the dissemination of the French symbolist aesthetic in England, and to the creation and promotion of Imagism and Vorticism.

Pound also contributed poetry and prose to the Egoist, Poetry, and The Dial, while establishing a modernist technique for the application of myth (projecting classical myth upon modern situations), rare poetic forms (such as the sestina and canzone), medieval poetry ranging from Dante to Provençal poets and Guido Cavalcanti, Orientalism (with original translations of Chinese poets, Japanese haiku, Japanese Noh theatre), and, occasionally, even medieval heresies such as the Cathars. He constantly explored the intersections of poetry, prose, cultural studies, painting, music, journalism, political activism, and the transformation of personal experience into myth, all contributing to defining and shaping modernism.

Pound also regularly communicated with the most prominent representatives of the European avant-garde whether in Paris, London or Rome, including the surrealists as well as Cocteau, Picasso and even Gertrude Stein. Most importantly, he created The Cantos – an unquestionable modernist epic – a lyrical poem almost as long as Pound’s creative life, a universe formed by a musical succession of fragments, specific “leaves of art.”

Gradually, the facets of Pound's artistic works became known in Russia because of the critical publications of V.V. Malyavin (1982), Keti Chukhrukidze (1997), Yan Probstein (2003), I. Garin (2005), and V.M. Tolmatchoff – whose detailed article about Pound's literary works can be found in the academic study “Istorija Literaturi SShA” (History of the Literature of the USA) [Moscow: Nauka, 2013. Vol.6, Book 2].

However, without the publication of a full translation of The Cantos, his work still remained unknown. The Cantos demonstrates what Paul Valéery called a radical “totalization of poetry” by fusing various, sometimes competing poetics. In his constant search for the new, Pound made a curious transition from the Romantic stylistics of Walt Whitman and Robert Browning to the symbolism of Mallarmé, H. de Régnier, W.B. Yeats and avant-garde, modernist poets. But this new translation presents the breadth of Pound’s poetic approach relying on masks, historical texts, poetic allusions and lyricism, as well as individual experimental forms. The essential question, however, remains “what is Pound saying?” The original text of The Cantos included nine books of variations and divagations, or demonstrations, using his own words, of “the ideogrammic method,” and one fragment dedicated to Olga Rudge and dated 1966. They are A Draft of XXX Cantos, 1930; Eleven New Cantos XXX-XLI, 1934; The Fifth Decad of the Cantos XLII–LI, 1937; Cantos LII–LXXI, 1940; Cantos LII–LXXI, 1944; The Pisan Cantos [LXXIV-LXXXIV], 1948; Section: Rock-Drill, 85–95 de los Cantares, 1955; Thrones: 96–109 de los Cantares, 1959; Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX–CXVII, 1968 and have a complicated history of publication (here, the first book editions of The Cantos should be mentioned: A Draft of XVI Cantos, Paris, 1925; A Draft of the Cantos 17-27, London, 1928).

These difficulties, apart from the peculiarities of Pound’s individual free verse, involve almost the complete absence of plot and narrative (except for “Canto I”); the removal of logical and semantic transitions and consistently structured images; the prevalence of multiple poetic “voices,” not descriptions; the coexistence of a multitude of contemporary and dead languages (used without translation); presence of direct and indirect quotations; insertion of documents, glosses, hieroglyphs, musical symbols and pictures within the text; effects of the anti-syntactic accentual verse based on long lines (the number of syllables between the stresses vary from 1 to 3; the lyricism is built upon the effects of “reverberation,” specific intonation, forcing the tempo) and lengthy poetic paragraphs. But the ideal reader of Pound needs to be aware of the poet’s biography, his inner circle, his travels, his literary, intellectual and love interests, besides having a deep knowledge of world culture, history (including the history of Ancient Egypt, Rome, China), and politics.

In other words, a meaningful as well as inevitably slow “eye-oriented” reading of Pound’s poem (if it can be read in this way) is impossible without an impressive referential background which was often not provided by American editions of Pound. Two exceptions are Richard Sieburth’s edition of The Pisan Cantos (New York: New Directions, 2003) and his edition of Pound’s poetry entitled Poems and Translations in the Library of America series (New York: Library of America, 2003).

However, there is another strategy of perception of The Cantos — let me call it an attempt to out-Joyce Joyce – plus an unstated artistic competition with Eliot (The Waste Land) in the symbolist-modernist text reflecting the decline of the West, the crisis of the Western word, and the individual understanding of life in modern Hell (as being devoid of true culture). Although Pound became an expatriate (in this way his paradise is lost and he becomes a modern seafarer, an Odysseus plunging into the dark waters of the new Middle Ages), America was of constant artistic importance for him. His view of history, however, meant a confrontation with the idea of the modern as vulgar, ugly, and driven by capitalist profit, all to be opposed. But this “imperialist” genius, including his absorption of the worldwide pretensions of the American poetical language, and transmitter of the historical “imperialism” of leaders, whether Pharaoh-Caesar-Confucius-Mussolini or Pound himself, turned decay, chaos, darkness, and a critique of money into poetic Gold, Light, order, imaginative statement.

The strategy of reading Pound’s “epic” aloud is also effective, providing the experience of listening to the inner music of his poetic world. Pound compressed his poem into metaphors of sound: the endless clashes and combinations of everything – important and trivial, high and low, cultural and daily life, history and modernity, his own words and quotations, myth and time – occur in this musical “fourth dimension.” Hence we find an attitude towards The Cantos as the wavering sea ­– a kind of non-classic polyphony which, occasionally overcoming the resistance of the poem’s non-musical material, generating clusters of musically penetrating but occasionally visually challenging images.

All of the above highlights the complexity of translating The Cantos, if the poem is translatable into any language different from Pound’s own language – both as a whole or a constellation of discreet sequences.

Attempts to translate The Cantos into Russian have been made before. In “Palomnichestvo volhvov. Izbrannoe” (Adoration of the Magi. Collected Works) (2005) compiled by Keti Chukhrukidze, 7 cantos of 117 were interpreted by Lev Gunin and K.S. Farai, who in their choice paid special attention to a theme of usura (only 4 of the first 50 cantos were published: I, XXXV, XLV, XLVII) but unfortunately there were some inaccuracies in their commentaries to the text. In my opinion, there were both advantages (a stress of Pound’s gift for parody and satire) and disadvantages (rigidity and unnatural prosody of a Russian text, due to insufficient attention to Pound’s intonations; as well as inaccuracies in translating of some names) in this translation.

In 2003, Ian Probstein (a translator and an enthusiast of Pound’s work living in the US) announced the publication of a collection of cantos in his edition (“Stihotvoreniya i izbrannye Kantos,” [Poems and Selected Cantos], Sankt-Petersburg: Vladimir Dal) which became two volumes, although the second of which (containing The Cantos) was unfortunately not published. The first volume was over-saturated with Pound’s early poems (T.S. Eliot, who in 1928 compiled Pound’s Selected Poems, the most popular early anthology of Pound’s poetry, included only few of these works) but also included an essay on Pound based, as it seems, mostly on the readable but not always scholarly biography by John Tytell, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987). By 2014 or even earlier Ian Probstein had translated a complete set of The Cantos, but its publication in “Literaturnye pamyatniki” series is still delayed by the editors who are unsatisfied with the commentaries. As a result, the translation by A.V. Bronnikov under review is the first complete Russian edition of The Cantos.

Andrey Bronnikov was born in Novosibirsk (1963), where he graduated from Novosibirsk University and received his PhD in Physical and Mathematical Sciences in 1999 for his thesis “Algorithms for Solving Nonlinear Inverse Problems of Physical Optics.” Since January 1993 he has been living in the Netherlands where he is known as an author of patents on mathematical methods of computer tomography. Since the 2000s Bronnikov has turned to poetry – «Elegii dzen» (Zen Elegies), «Korni vremeni» (Roots of Time), and «Ischezayushchij vid» (Endangered Species), 2009-2015 – as well as to the study of Platonism. As he told me, he was translating The Cantos almost without interruption – day after day – between 2014-2017, which led to health problems when he was finishing. The St. Petersburg office of the publishing house «Nauka» (editor M.S. Sludnova), to its credit, released this thick book with a circulation of 500 copies printed on high quality paper without any delay. By the time of writing this review, almost all of the copies have been sold, in spite of the extraordinary price of the book (more than 6000 rubles or about $100 dollars).

The Russian edition of The Cantos is a well-bound volume in a readable format designed by P. Palei. Pound’s face, taken from a drawing by Gaudier-Brzeska, is embossed on the burgundy hardcover, as well as the title «Кантос» (the literal Russian transliteration of the English word “Cantos”); this title is also present in the publication data given on reverse of the title page. It seems that the latter fact should confuse the Poundian scholar, because the rendering of the original title either using this method or another one (Cantos by Ian Probstein is in his Russian text), is based on a mistake which is very common in this country. For some reason, there exists a view that the word Pound takes as his poem’s title is of a foreign origin (possibly Italian, but the plural of this Italian word is “canti”), while it is obvious that Pound, extravagant in many other linguistic respects, preferred the traditional term in its exact English spelling. Poems by Dante, Pope, Byron, and other poets have been divided into “cantos.” And if there is a need of a calque, according to British or American pronunciation, the title should be transliterated into Russian as «Кэнтос.” But this strategy is irrational. According to the author’s will, the entire collection of cantos has to be named «Песни Эзры Паунда» («Pesni Ezry Paunda», The Cantos of Ezra Pound) in Russian. The title also accurately summaries the full text: a collection of individual long poems that appear thematically or historical connected.

However, the confusion of the title does not impede the excellence of the edition and its organization: after the translator’s Introduction “Ezra Paund i ego ‘Kantos’” (“Ezra Pound and His Cantos”) (pp. I-LX) is the main text, “The Cantos” (pp. 7-694) which include seven – but not nine – of the previously published editions from 1930 to1959. Next are the “Supplements” consisting of “Principles of the translation” written by A.V. Bronnikov (pp. 697-701), “Commentaries” (pp.702-775), and the section “Drafts and Fragments.” This includes translations of canto fragments written between 1962-1967 and collected in the 1968 American edition Drafts and Fragments. These were not approved by the poet at first, but were released afterwards in the last edition to appear in Pound’s lifetime: the 1970 New Directions text. “Supplements” end with an “Annotated Index” (pp. 802-866), and “Table of the meaning of hieroglyphs” (pp. 867-880).

The format of this review, however, limits the opportunity to comment on these sections. The lengthy “Introduction” provides all important but mostly well-known, general information – Bronnikov does not go into details and does not, unfortunately, provide his readers with footnotes (which raises questions as to the intent of the “Nauka” edition) in order to create a general image of the poet as an ingenious exile, a kind of “eternal wanderer.” Bronnikov then offers an empathic apology for Pound (in some sense it is inevitable in Russia because of Pound’s reputation as a fascist) who, in fact, needs no apology. However, in the essay and commentaries there is a general lack of commentary and review material by Pound’s contemporaries. There is also little attention to details of the psychology of the man and poet, nor to his literary interests, or voluminous correspondence (especially his letters to his parents, or the long-time exchange of letters with T.S. Eliot and Joyce). There is also a neglect of Pound’s diverse essays with little attention to such books as his Guide to Kulchur (1938). However, a good deal of this material has been collected in recent American editions of Pound’s work, along with his numerous reviews.

None the less, let me highlight Bronnikov’s idea of Pound as a conservative modernist, the idea of Pound as embodying the spirit of poetic revolution now outdated. The majority of the great modernists reconciled the conflicting elements of apostasy and a search for God, the abandonment of tradition and creation of a canon, revolutionary and reactionary ideas, totalization of poetry and art for art’s sake. They further integrated a lack of criteria in understanding and evaluating art with establishing the new good taste, and balancing national (if not nationalist) with transnational aesthetics.

In contrast to the “Introduction,” the reference section of the book will be of great use to scholars (especially PhD students) as well as the general public who might be interested in studying The Cantos line-by-line. One of the greatest advantages of Bronnikov’s edition is the fact that he, following the example of Sergey Horouzhy (the Russian commentator of Ulysses), first gives a general outline of each canto’s main idea and then explains detailed references, plus largely accurate translations from nineteen languages. Nevertheless, the commentaries are not overloaded with information because various names that one meets in the text in a direct form are moved to the “Annotated Index” (although it would be certainly better if well-known characters like “Tristan and Iseult – legendary characters of a medieval chivalric romance of XII century” would be minimized). Another value of the book is, in my estimation, Bronnikov’s professional work with Chinese and Japanese script and the presence of a table with their meanings.

Let me now turn to the most important issue – the composition of The Cantos and the anticipated principles of their translation. If the composition of The Cantos given by A.V. Bronnikov raises questions, the translation itself – its close reading requires much time – provides a genuine sense of satisfaction, if not delight.

But there are disruptions: the cantos and fragments of cantos written in 1960s are extracted from the main body of the text and moved to a section labeled “Supplements.” And I do not agree with the absolute omission of cantos LXXII-LXXIII written in Italian and dealing with the war: without them it is impossible to understand Pound the propagandist, as well as the autobiographical figure who speaks in The Pisan Cantos.

But importantly, the translation was performed by a well-read, educated poet with his own lyrical voice which combines the “neoclassical” and the “aesthetic.” There is no place for tasteless ornamental phrasings or manufactured words (although Pound sometimes provokes them), or vulgar inlays of contemporary Russian slang. Here (where possible) a sort of “word by word translation” prevails which remains problematic for the majority of contemporary Russian translators who prefer to create images parallel to the source text. It is true that Pound the satirist and parodist is not seen as clearly as Pound the Francophile (a true “Mediterranean” in this sense) or a creator of modernist modulations, built on variations of what is essentially iambic, two and three syllable feet. But it is one thing to capture Pound’s rhythm by trial and error, and another to listen to the audio recordings of his readings of individual “Cantos,” where the tonic accents, often separated from semantic stresses, form a system and remind one of either Ovid or the author of “The Seafarer.”

A.V. Bronnikov also believes that everything in Pound’s poem has sense which needs to be conveyed in Russian one way or another. This belief, which is not clear to all readers of Pound, shapes the translation (although the original text lacks such a consistent purpose) and makes it readable without damaging its melody.

However, before reprinting this translation of The Cantos, further work needs to be done to avoid misprints and inaccuracies (in “Canto I” Argicida is replaced by “Агрицидa” (Agricida), and at the very beginning of “Principles of the translation,” the edition of 1930 is dated 1933. But this does not reduce the most important thing, as I see it: we have a complete translation of The Cantos in Russian and Pound in Russia is no longer terra incognita.