May 2016

Patrick James Dunagan


Posthumous Cantos by Ezra Pound, edited by Massimo Bacigalupo

The first response of many readers upon hearing about Posthumous Cantos of Ezra Pound is likely to be something along the lines of: Ugh, yet more Pound. Why? While I admittedly do not share any such dismay even the slightest bit -- more-Pound-the-merrier! -- I do appreciate that reading or attempting to read The Cantos is nothing if not a challenging proposition. In fact, for this very reason, I believe Posthumous Cantos is a welcomed addition to the Pound canon. Here are a medley of false starts, alternate passages, and excised fragments from the full range of Pound's inarguably significant grand Modernist epic. This is a terrific introductory sort of crib, broadening any reader's access to the whole poem. As useful and mesmerizing a text as Carroll F. Terrell's A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Editor Massimo Bacigalupo has based this English edition upon his Italian edition, Canti Posthumi published by Mondari of Milan in 2002. In addition to translating included sections of Cantos, which Pound originally wrote in Italian, Bacigalupo has also written a short yet efficient introduction. A brief chronology, as well and reader-friendly notes in back, covering each of his selections, provide adequate context for grasping both textual and biographical elements at play. He thus delivers, in just over 200 pages, what amounts to a condensed alternate B-side version of the 800-page finished poem, combined with Terrell's 800-page, two-volume Companion. That's not to say readers shouldn't bother reading the full work and utilizing Terrell's commentary. Bacigalupo's text is merely less daunting as an entry point while also serving as a handy refresher and comparison vehicle for the already familiar reader.

As early as 1915 Pound began writing material for what would become The Cantos. From the beginning he was determined to write a major long poem. An initial "Three Cantos" appeared in Poetry in 1917. Further cantos continued the poem in the years immediately following, however, as Bacigalupo notes, "when in 1923 Pound gave quasi-final form to cantos 1-16 for book publication, he radically revised the overture, with the same decisiveness he had brought one year before to the manuscript of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land." As though publicly declaring the poem still in flux, Pound entitled the work A Draft of XVI Cantos, "a title still suggesting tentativeness, though cantos 1-16 were to remain substantially unchanged in later editions." Pound's rearranging and restructuring of the initial Cantos produced a poem that was "more experimental," especially as he went about removing all "doubts and perplexities about his intentions." The stark clarity of his take-it-or-leave-it presentation hardened as the sense of his visionary poem crystallized in his mind.

Where the finished Cantos present a monolithic, utterly immovable presence upon the page, Pound's earliest attempts were often hesitant and unsure. One fragment included here even begins with the open question "What's poetry?" Pound's lines are found to be probing, grasping after certainty even as the collaged, fragmentary, quote-riddled bricolage form of the finalized work begins appear. Here's the beginning of that fragment:

What's poetry?
There is a castle set,
The Auvezere, or it's Dordoigne, chalk white and whiteish blue,
Or, Goldring writes 'That night, the Loredan'
And the blue-black of Venice fills my mind
And the gilt rafters of the first floor rooms
Show there above me all a-red, ablaze,
'I knew it first, and it was such a year,
When first I knew it there was such an air'

Bacigalupo has arranged Posthumous Cantos chronologically into eight sections grouped together by common theme and/or location wherein Pound resided at the time of composition. These are: Three Cantos: London, 1915-1917; Paris, 1920-1922; Rapallo and Venice, 1928-1937; Voices of War, 1940-1945; Italian Drafts, 1944-1945; Pisa, 1945; Prosaic Verses, 1945-1960; Lines for Olga, 1962-1972. This contextual presentation of contents based upon elements of Pound's biography makes it easy for any reader familiar with the trajectory of his life and work to immediately flip the book open to a particular period of interest. I happened to be reading the final third volume The Tragic Years of David A. Moody's recent Pound biography while going through Posthumous Cantos, and Bacigalupo's groupings were of much assistance as I moved between the two texts. The arrangement also humanizes Pound's literary endeavor. Even if not reading the Moody or another Pound biography, the interweaving of the poem with Pound's personal life is further pushed front and center, unavoidably capturing the reader's attention.

The final edition of the full Cantos infamously ends with a smattering of fragments, appended after Pound's death. For decades they've offered a hint of the effect Pound's personal struggles had upon his vision for the poem's conclusion. Alas, Posthumous Cantos doesn't help resolve the ongoing questions that surround that ending. Yet the final section "Lines for Olga" does offer touching expansion upon the "final" fragment, "lines for the ULTIMATE canto":

That her acts

Olga's acts
of beauty
be remembered.

Her name was courage
and is written Olga.

Written to his lifelong extramarital lover, Olga Rudge, the mother of his daughter, Mary. This final action in the poem acknowledges her role as a vital symbiotic creative and stabilizing force to Pound's own genius. Those readers who have long found these lines touching will be only further moved by the final section of Posthumous Cantos where Olga is further given due acknowledgement:

& she, Olga, with serene
bearing it all
finding beauty
where the last
vestige of it
still was,
finding it in the least items
& in the great
In San Marco
& the piazza
by night.

hers the heroism to build upon sand

A tribute not the least problematic in terms of gender relations and power dynamics, which have since entered into our contemporary conversation concerning the role of lover/muse in the male artist's life and work, but one that is nonetheless ever clear in recognizing, as another fragment puts it, "the real poem is her poem / She wrote her Eurydice // saw her beauty & showed it / against my distraction." It doesn't seem too much to state that whether he fully recognized it or not, the paradise Pound intended to invoke in his poem's closure was in fact one he walked through every day spent beside Olga in his final years.

Posthumous Cantos doesn't dramatically add new ground to the study of Pound. Scholars have already gone over these texts. Yet it does present an accommodatingly pleasant venue for readers to approach the material and have an unmediated look of their own. A hundred years after he began The Cantos, the work continues to develop avid interest among its readers, ensuring Pound is not about to disappear from the poetic landscape.

Posthumous Cantos by Ezra Pound, edited by Massimo Bacigalupo
Carcanet Press
ISBN: 978-1784101206
192 pages