On Reading the Cantos

Ezra Pound is one of those poets who tends to intimidate people, and as I finish up reading A Draft of XXX Cantos I can certainly see why. I imagine he would have been okay with that, though. Judging from his ABC of Reading, he was what you might call a “poet’s poet.” He didn’t seem to have much patience for the lazy student of poetry, though in both the ABC and the Cantos he does help the student – the truly interested student – where he can, at least in his own way.

For example, on first opening the Cantos, one notices how there seems to be little connection between different passages. Worse, these passages tend to make use of many historical and literary figures, some well-known and some obscure, and though the primary language of the poem is English, he even throws in an assortment of other languages.

So, what the hell’s going on? First of all, don’t panic. Just read. In the ABC of Reading, Pound places more stress on what he calls “melopoeia,” the sound of the language, than on “phanopoeia,” the meaning of the language. If the reader can at least appreciate the sound of Pound’s work, then he already understands a great part of the Cantos.

As for the meaning, it helps to be widely read. The Odyssey and the Divine Commedy are referenced often. Reading Pound’s ABC of Reading is also a great primer for the Cantos, since he introduces the reader to his own philosophy of writing and reading poetry, and also gives examples of works he considers especially worthwhile in the Western literary tradition.
Luckily, all of Pound’s references can be traced to specific people and characters from history and literature, as opposed to, say, Symbolist poets who sometimes give few hints for what they’re talking about. Furthermore, whenever an idea is especially important, Pound will expound on it for a while before moving on, which at least helps hint what parts of the Cantos the reader ought to focus on, and also gives some additional material to work with.

Also of importance is what Pound refers to in ABC as the “ideogrammic method.” In short, this involves juxtaposing two or more images or ideas to convey another idea. He draws this from his study of Chinese ideograms, where more complex characters are formed by combining simpler characters.
So, in the first section of the first Canto, Pound presents a translation of the Odyssey. Why? The Odyssey is by Homer, the oldest epic poet in the Western tradition, and the section he translates was, at the time, thought to be the oldest part of the Odyssey. The ideogrammic method comes in because he translates it into Anglo-Saxon verse form, the oldest form of poetry in the English language. What’s the ideogram? That he intends to make use of the Western literary tradition in this poem, and will be going back to the oldest parts of this tradition.

See? That’s not so hard, is it?

Okay, yeah it’s still pretty tough, but that’s what annotated editions are for…

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