Monday, 11 August 2008

Pound’s Pisan Cantos: and Kenner

There’s a pub I sometimes go to called the Yorkshire Grey, near the BBC. I read in the paper that in their stays in London Rimbaud lodged opposite and Ezra Pound lived next door and referred to it in his Pisan Cantos. That was as good a reason as any to read the PCs (at last), so on my holiday I did. I had looked cursorily at the Cantos before and, I imagine like most of us, had been put off: Chinese and Greek script, lots of stuff in other languages, unidentifiable references. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed the read.

More on what there is to enjoy in another posting. This one is about Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound, The Pound Era, Faber & Faber, 1972. The Introduction to my Pisan Cantos mentioned that he explained how one passage of Canto 81 is a resumé of English verse forms from the middle ages to the 19th century. That sounded intriguing, and, since I couldn’t see from the poem itself how it was that, I got Kenner out from Senate House Library. (Where I always enjoy going--it’s so impenetrable and impossible and reeks of another era when students read books; the annotations in the Kenner showed that some readers had indeed been studying the Canto seriously. I was able to tease apart the layers of date-stamped issue sheets and counted that the book had been out about 120 times since 1972, though only once in 2007 and once in 2008. I hope the kids are at least reading something else instead.)

Kenner does indeed describe (pp.486-93) how Pound scans the history of English metres, but I was struck by the passage immediately before that on Pound’s notoriously dodgy translations and on sound in poetry. Then, when gets on to metre and rhythm, Kenner I think is brilliant. He has the ear and can make the reader hear what he hears (which makes him the right sort of critic for English teachers, since their job too is to get their students to hear poetry.) Here’s the passage:

What do I think about that claim that in the Seafarer bard ‘the gestures of tongue and expulsions of breath… mimed… the emotions of exile’? Like so many claims in lit crit, impossible to prove; but I find the general idea plausible. Emotions, after all, are physical as well as mental states (see Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain); there’s no reason why they should not inhere in movements of tongue and breath as well as in those of face and stance. Whether that particular Old English line expressed those particular emotions (of exile) seems more doubtful: my impression is that that language was full of wu- and wa- and wor- and -ac and -ea and -ath sounds even when the meaning wasn’t being gloomy, lonely, despairing or angry; I find more desolation in the sense that the weak hold the world--not a globe, of course, for the bard but the whole earth, however he pictured it--as if this was something the whole of which could be held, with no space left for seafarers, so total and hopeless is the takeover by the weak.

I like the idea, which teachers of poetry might take to heart even if it’s wrong in this instance, that ‘To develop his sense was the least of the Seafarer-bard’s concerns; the meanings of the words fit in somehow, vessels to receive his longing, as the structure of sound is built up, prolonged, modulated.’ Then Kenner gives us Yeats struggling to do the same sort of thing.

The pages that follow the passage I've copied deal with the iambic pentameter which Pound had tried to ‘break’, believing it be ‘a thickening (based on five stresses) of the Italian hendecasyllabic (based on 11 syllables)’ (later, p.489) and alien imposition on English. Anyone who’s tried to write poetry finds themselves being inexorably pulled towards that di-da di-da di-da di-da di-da so it’s hard to believe that it isn’t natural to the language, but of course Pound and ‘Jo Bard’ (‘Josef Bard (1882-1975), Hungarian writer’, say my Notes) are quite right to say that the speech of ‘bakers and concierges’ could never get into it. English verse, in Pound’s belief (and evidently Kenner’s), has been distanced from the rhythms of speech since its colonisation by the pentameter and the decasyllabic, of which the pentameter is one variety.

In the earlier Cantos Pound had largely escaped that literary pull: his ‘first heave’ had been to ‘break the pentameter’ (and decasyllabic) so as to readmit the rhythms of speech. In the process he developed his own signature, ‘a spondee [dá dá] terminating the line’ (that’s the sort of thing I wish I were better at noticing).

Now, however, in Canto 81, in the US military prison camp at Pisa, he transacts ‘a courtship with the eponymous English decasyllabic itself, since Chaucer the language's most pervasive measure’ (488).

‘[H]e suddenly finds himself speaking words of Chaucer’s Your eyen two wold sleye me sodenly I may the beauté of hem nat susteyne ….And these pure English decasyllabics are followed by the contemporary speaking voice: And for 180 years almost nothing. Then decasyllabic reasserts itself [with a line of Dante in Italian, and then] there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent whether of spirit or hypostasis …. Then three more irregular lines; then, then, the anonymous genius of English asserts itself: Sáw but the éyes and stánce betwéen the eyes a full-blooded iambic pentameter, not simply ten syllables but five unmistakeable stresses.’
(The ‘anonymous genius of English’ thus seems to be a genius that shows itself in verse and not in speech. I confess I don’t feel I've got Kenner’s argument quite straight.)

Kenner goes on -- well, read the scanned text as the layout and stress marks may not be preserved if I type them:
A lively feature of these Cantos is the constant irruption of ‘ordinary speech’ in amongst the obviously poetic (the ghosts are of the poets Pound has been echoing):

I find it a pleasure following a reader like Kenner. Next time I'll address Pound.

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