Their reputation is of inaccessibility, presumably because of inscrutable references, multitudes of fragments that aren’t sentences, apparent lack of continuity of sense from one bit to another and absence of obvious verse pattern and metre.
But I read them with some pleasure after the sort of minimal preparation that an English teacher could give a class in half a lesson: I'd simply read the introduction (by Richard Sieburth) -- but not the notes that explained most of the specific references. From the introduction I knew that Pound wrote these cantos in a US military prison after the Allied occupation of Italy in 1944, while he was awaiting trial for treason on account of his wartime broadcasts on (Fascist) Rome Radio. I knew that in the first weeks of incarceration he may have been going mad, and I knew something of physical layout and location of the camp. I knew that Pound was in the medical quarters in his own tent with a packing case to write on, with the use of one of the unit’s typewriters every night, and that in the poems he gives the name of the Chinese Mount Taishan to the mountain he could see to the west.
So what could one get out of, say, the beginning of Canto 81, with just that preparation? And what could a class of older secondary school students get out of it with some help from their English teacher? Although it doesn’t make much sense to look at only one page of a 5-page canto, it doesn’t make no sense and I want to get this into one posting. So here’s the first page (click to enlarge):
OK. Lines 1-3:
Recognisable as Greek mythology: Zeus, Ceres, Cythera; we don’t need to know who they are (except that Zeus is male and perhaps that he’s king of the gods); whether he lay in Ceres’ bosom I don’t know. Greek and Chinese (Taishan) myth coexisting -- and associated with the ordinary Italian mountain visible through Pound’s tent flap. Some of us might recall that episodes in the Iliad and Odyssey often open with what the gods are doing on Mount Olympus, so we’re set up to expect something Homeric -- which in the event we don’t particularly get in this passage, though aspects of the settings referred to (marshes, mountains, goat bells in the night) are vaguely of that world.
Cuts to the world of Greek mythology emerge as a repeated device as one continues to read the Cantos. They are one example of the many elements that turn out to be repeated, echoing each other throughout the poem or, perhaps better, emerging here and there and then going back underground, tapestry-like. The repetition makes them more meaningful, and it's one reason why going back and reading from the beginning again can be rewarding.
Before sunrise, so still the night of love, is perhaps the general sense one can get.
That’s the sense: but now note the sound:
First the phonetics -- that sibilance (10 s or z sounds in 3 lines, and sh in ‘Taishan’ is similar), but note that line 2 is less sibilant and you have two t’s and two related d’s (likewise dentals) that are picked up in ‘under’. Impossible to explain exactly why, I suppose, but I admire the sound of those first three lines -- the contrast between 2 and 1 is lovely, ‘attended’ and ‘under’ are so refreshing after all the s’s -- and now I note, too, the vowel pattern in ‘loves’, ‘under’, ‘sunrise’.
There's contrast, too, (second point) in syntax:
Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom
Taishan is attended of loves
noun/subject, verb, adverbial -- but:
‘lies’: active, intransitive;
‘is attended’: passive, transitive.
Then line 3, (under Cythera, before sunrise) two adverbial phrases, no new verbs, no clean new line but the mid-way start indicating an extra item, a bit more -- the speaker not yet wanting to leave (the delicious love-making?).
line 1, 4 stresses; 7 syllables, 3 of them unstressed but no more than one unstressed at a time;
line 2, not sure whether ‘Taishan’ has two equal stresses; 8 syllables, two dactyls (one stress followed by two unstressed together, da di di): ‘-an is at’, ‘-ended of’;
line 3 breaks into two halves (caesura) with a beautiful contrast in the rhythms -- note the stresses: únder Cythéra / befóre sunrise
[Note that the line numbering here registers the lines of print in this particular edition; if the pages were wider, ‘catholithismo’ would be the end of line 4. Students need to be taught the difference between what are contingent typographers’ lines and what are (structural) verse lines.]
‘and he said’: you have to register pretty quickly that ‘he’ isn’t Zeus or Taishan but someone quite different, with no necessary connection -- and learn to expect such sudden discontinuities, which one might want to associate with the poet’s delirious state. As I read through a longer passage with many such breaks and jumps I think of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, though she’s randomly associating because nearly asleep, not because losing her mind. Whatever, I can’t help reading into the poem a disordered mind--of the speaking persona, of course, not the actual poet (this is a poem, not Pound’s direct testimony).
So now, scanning the whole page, let’s note that there are several snatches of remembered speech (and writing: Bowers, line 22); they seem to relate to Spain but come from different times: 1906 and 1917, ‘forty years gone’ (1904 or so), and the late '30s apparently -- Franco, Spanish Civil War. We don’t know when Dolores said, ‘eat bread, me lad’, but if she was painted by Sargent, who we might have heard of (but it doesn't matter if not), that could put broad bounds on the possible date if we were bothered to find out.
The Spanish that isn’t translated isn’t too hard to get: if you know that ‘Hay aquí’ is ‘Here is’ you can guess the rest -- and enjoy the wit of ‘plenty of Catholicism, not much religion’, and ponder its meaning -- and wonder if Pound’s pointing out the ‘th’ and ‘h’ sounds is a comment on the speaker’s dialect or just on how (educated) Spanish sounds (in Spain).
I've no idea (without looking at the notes) what Sargent’s descending, or not, refers to. In this poem I'm clearly just going to have to live with not getting a lot of the allusions. But we don’t have to know. I don’t know who Bowers was but I can guess that he was talking about the Spanish Civil War, and I can imagine some travelling-rough context in which the speaker long ago was advised where to eat and sleep (with more study I might see Odysseus here) and I can get it that the hostess wasn’t too distressed by the death of her husband. And notice how economically a scene is evoked, by a couple of images between which no explicit connection is made: ‘goat bells tinkled all night’ and ‘the hostess grinned [and said]’ -- that’s enough; it can be left to us to make the connection.
These are things, evidently, that stick in the speaker’s memory, one evoking another by a logic that isn’t always clear from the outside.
More tight analysis would get wearisome so I'll say the rest in a summary way. My message is that there’s much to enjoy (and that there’s more enjoyment to be had as one reads on and comes upon repetitions: “Come pan, niño” recurs several times). However, while a teacher’s or critic’s enjoyment may be infectious, one can’t teach it, and the job is rather to point out what’s there in the work and make sure that features that are important for the effect are noticed and not missed. So here are a couple of them, briefly:
The stateliness of the language (vocabulary, reference and rhythm) noted in the first three lines isn’t maintained. If you know how to pronounce ‘Yo creo que los reyes desaparecen’, there’s no way you can fit that into any recognisable metre; and your diction can’t get less poetic than ‘i.e. if he descended’ and ‘i.e. friends of Franco working in London’ -- though all the same we can sense a nice rhythm and parallelism in that last phrase, as in
‘hot wind came from the marshes
and death-chill from the mountains’
‘the books cost a peseta,
brass candlesticks in proportion’
and there’s a stateliness in the English translations of Spanish: ‘Kings will, I think, disappear’ seems more dignified than the Spanish ‘Yo creo que’, and ‘it is mourning, my husband is dead’ is powerfully stark. I can enjoy the phrasing -- the pausing and letting it run -- forced on me in saying to myself ‘but such hatred, I never conceived such’, and
but in those days he did thumb sketches,
impressions of the Velásquez in the Museo del Prado
(great second line: note the two da di di di feet -- I don’t know what they’re called)
So, the bits that we can savour for the formal patterning of their sound and structure are embedded amongst prosaic, everyday, unpoetical stuff.
Finally, look at how much gets into the page in the way of contexts and topics: gods, religion, the survival of kings, a hungry boy, a modern painter and his model, a classic painter's works in a gallery, Spain and Spanish and the Civil War, prices, climate and landscape, politics in London and Spain, sounds of the rural night, travelling rough, a bar or inn with a happy widow--her grin sticks in the mind.
What you would get in other passages and don’t here is quotations from the poets (though ‘attended of loves’ sounds as if it might be one). And Chinese characters.
If I were teaching English now, I'd risk doing a bit of the Cantos with some classes; I think they’d grasp what’s going on in this page and some would be interested -- what a different way of writing from what they’re normally invited or made to do. So I'd ask them also to write a short canto of their own: contentwise, a string of fragments of their own memory, of scenes, situations, things people said, bits of remembered poems or sayings or headlines; formwise, put it in lines in such a way as to bring out rhythms, and shape the rhythms so that you like how they go and so they may even be memorable.