Well, after three years of episodic and often painful reading, I have finally finished “The Cantos” by Ezra Pound. The ordeal, and that’s exactly what it was, has left me with one mind-drumming question. Why the hell did I ever put myself through such torture?
All I can say is that he’d always struck me as an exotic, an enigmatic character, and, at the outset, I figured that reading a work which took him more than fifty years to write would surely reveal the hidden autobiographical essence of the man.
I admit to no credentials as a literary reviewer. I am merely a reader with a fondness for poetry. But having labored through Pound’s epic, I can’t conscientiously move on without first saying something of the experience. So, for what they are worth, I offer a few brief, albeit highly personal, conclusions.
Of the Poem:
In a word, indecipherable. Odd, because his language is usually quite precise, even when the grammar and syntax are lazy, if not completely butchered. Continuity and connection of imaginable thoughts and meanings to the words are, for the most part, nonexistent. The effect is to leave the reader frequently lost. And as a member of Mensa International since I was ten years old, I’m not easily lost.
All the more disappointing because the structure, such as there is any to discern, is effectively a cascading linguistic jaunt through the paroxysms of history. It could have been so much more interesting.
But this journey-through-time quality usually devolves into seemingly purposeless litanies of times and events and personages, some of which are repeatedly mentioned in later stanzas without apparent suitability to context.
Quite frankly, in all of this veritable mountain of so-called epic poetry, the only thing I can honestly say I appreciated, and perhaps understood, if only in part, was his erudition in and allegorical affinity for classical mythology. He uses it extensively, although his allusions were sometimes bizarre.
As the son of Italians, I also appreciated his seeming affections for things Italian, with the notable exception of his perverse adoration of the fascism of (Adolf Hitler and) Benito Mussolini.
Of the Man:
The Cantos reveals nothing good about Pound to my eyes. Instead, what I took away was a portrayal of a poet with a decidedly disordered mind. A resolute fascist who repugnantly admired the Nazi regime. An economic Rasputin and vituperative ant-capitalist. An unabashedly vulgar anti-Semite. A self-exiled American who clearly hated America, prone to snide and often illogically laid slurs against our founding fathers and principles.
Outside of the poem, history records that Ezra Pound was indicted by the US government on 19 counts of treason, but he escaped trial with a (spurious?) determination that he was insane, committed to an asylum instead of a prison.
Of the poem as well as the man, I came to detest both without the least hesitation.
How it was that Ezra Pound was granted Yale’s esteemed Bollingen Prize for American Poetry is utterly baffling to me. No less a disturbing mystery is how he grew to become, for many elite academics, a leading light of the modernist poetry movement.
If I’ve insulted any Pound fans out there, I apologize. But as a matter of personal integrity, I call them as I see them. And what the hell do I know, anyway?
Interestingly, by his own lights, Ezra Pound came to the reflective conclusion that “The Cantos” had been a failure. In a letter to a friend he confided “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.”
To which I can only say “Yup.”
– Paul F. Lenzi 2015