The Cantos

"Say I take your whole bag of tricks, / Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form, / …and that the modern world / Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in…"

So begins Ezra Pound in 1917. Calling on the ghost of Robert Browning, educating his reader on his motives as he embarks on his personal epic, The Cantos, a "poem to include history," is Pound's "tale of the tribe." Pound would continue to hector, harangue, and attempt to enlighten his readers by supplementing his serial masterwork in eight additional volumes over the course of the next fifty-two years. "The life so short, the craft so long to learn," he’d quote from Hippocrates.

First published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine and later compiled in 1925 into A Draft of XVI Cantos, Pound’s early cantos met with less than favorable public opinion, a problem he would continue to face for the remainder of his days. Monroe herself wrote that she "read two or three pages… and then took sick." Pound alienated not just his editor but readers by rejecting formal completeness and proportion, preferring the litany and the list instead. He privileged poetry as song, proclaiming that "meaning is all tied up with sound" and that "Beauty is difficult."

Indeed, The Cantos is polyphonic in theme and structured on recurrence rather than any idea of linearity, with syntax (normal sentence construction) yielding to parataxis (such as an absence of conjunctions). A gloss of the book is impossible. No one can hold the whole of The Cantos in his or her head. Pound himself said: "I cannot make it cohere." This sort of break with the predominant poetry of the day earned Pound accusations of "dumping [his] notebooks on the public."

However, Pound’s cantos on the subjects of economics (XLV:"With Usura") and good governance (XIII)—to say nothing of his embrace of fascism and anti-Semitism—have frequently detracted from seeing the man as a maker of extraordinarily shapely phrases. Add Pound’s unpopular political opinions to his poetry's difficulty and, by 1951, Hugh Kenner was able to write that "there is no great contemporary writer who is less read than Ezra Pound."

Poets, however, have always turned to Pound, in emulation and resistance, as antidote to the stiflingly tidy New Criticism of the day. Basil Bunting wrote of The Cantos: "You will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them." In 1949, while imprisoned for treason, Ezra Pound won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry for The Pisan Cantos, a sequence he began while in jail. He died, following a decade of silence, in 1972.