26 January 2009

Canto X

More about Sigismondo, in the same style - anecdotes, quotations, simulated eye-witness accounts of what was going on. Sigismondo attacked in a sermon:
... that pot-scraping little runt Andreas
Benzi, da Siena
Got up to spout the bunkum
That that monstrous swollen, swelling s.o.b.
Papa Pio Secundo
Aeneas Sivius Piccolomini
da Siena
Had told him to spout, in their best bear's-greased latinity

Sigismondo is burnt in effigy, seems to have rubbed the Pope up the wrong way.

It's all quite vague to me still, the course of events. The number of names that are scattered throughout the canto are confusing. Again, if you knew what it was about, it would make more sense, but I'm (possibly foolishly) confident that this will be part of something bigger, something that explains it better.

Something that struck me yesterday, when I was reviewing that entry, was the thought of how unbelievably different this kind of poetry must have been to its first readers. As I suggested then, it out-Eliots Eliot, and when you compare it with the mainstream of English 20th century poetry - the Georgians, the war poets, Yeats Auden - it's entirely different. I'm currently reading The Rest is Noise - a survey of 20th century music, and Alex Ross mentions there that when Schoenberg's serialism started, people hated it, partly because they feared all music would be like this from now on. Of course it wasn't. People are still writing harmonically, and hardly anyone's writing pure 12-note music. Similarly, this kind of poetry hasn't driven out all other kinds. So far as I know, hardly anyone writes like this (or like Joyce in Finnegans Wake) now. But in both fields I guess the experimentation has given later artists a wider range of techniques.

25 January 2009

Canto IX

This one, again, has a single focus, on the exploits and achievements of Sigismundo. There's a good deal about (apparently) inter-state wars in Italy and Sigismondo's role in them. It's remarkably straightforward, or at least seems that way after some of what's gone before. You couldn't use this canto to write a biography of Sigismundo or a history of renaissance Italy, but if you knew about those things, it would illustrate quite powerfully the more basic story.

There's an interesting use of a jarring modern register in some of the language:
And the Venetians sent down an ambassador
And said "speak humanely,
But tell him it's no time for raising his pay."
And the Venetians sent down an ambassador
with three pages of secret instructions
To the effect: Did he think the campaign was a joy-ride?

And those letters, translated or invented, that I mentioned in the previous canto. They come in a section where Sigismundo's post-bag is stolen: the letters are among those taken from it. They again are an illustration rather than a narrative; some are chatty, some are businesslike.

One piece of narrative that is emerging from this and the previous canto is that Sigismundo built a temple 'full of pagan works'. I've a feeling we'll hear more of this.

Another fairly short comment on a fairly long canto, because again the writing is fairly transparent. Canto X looks similar. I'm quite enjoying this at the moment!

24 January 2009

Canto VIII

I expected my aim of doing one Canto a day to break down before long, and that last one really gave me pause. The whole aim of this endeavour began to seem pointless and impossible. I could do it a different way, by searching down every reference or referring to someone else's commentary at every step, but I hate the very idea of that. There's a story by Borges, I vaguely recall, where some scholar tries to read everything that Cervantes had read, so that he can perfectly understand Don Quixote. He succeeds so well that he cannot read DQ but has to rewrite it, a new creation but exactly the same as the original. He effectively became Cervantes. C S Lewis did something similar to write The Allegory of Love but forgot to pick up a sense of humour before checking out, and so continued to be C S Lewis. I don't want to become Ezra Pound, for obvious reasons, but also because although he has a sense of humour (which we'll shortly see), I don't think it's a very good one. So that method's out, and a relatively naive blundering remains my strategy.

But when I was reading (it was just a glance really) someone else's commentary for some help with ANAXI... I think I saw a comment to the effect that the first VII cantos are a collection of background materials. I hope that's true and that the real story begins now. There's support for that view in the first line of VIII:
These fragments you have shelved (shored)

or even 'stored'. The reference, which even I recognise, is to the end ofThe Waste Land
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

and I do believe it's a joke - Ez having given Eliot a lot of advice when he was writing the poem (mainly, I suppose, along the lines of 'Tom, don't worry if it seems obscure, wait till you see what I'm going to write!'). (With my superior sense of humour, I'd have annotated the end of The Waste Land as follows: it's only a shantih in old shantih town.)

Then a bit of nonsense, some of it in Latin, before we move into a relatively coherent section, which takes up the rest of the canto. It is about one Sigismondo Malatestis. (How rarely have I been able to say what anything is 'about'?) Initially you have the text of a letter (translated or invented, I don't know) from Sigismondo accepting a post with 'Giohanni of the Medici' and giving instructions for the carrying out of some painting work. There are other translated or invented documents about the contract, and comments on wars between Italian states, but with very few exceptions it's clear where we are and when. Ez's poetry as usual is luminous.
Under the plumes, with the flakes and small wads of colour
Showering from the balconies
With the sheets spread from windows,
with leaves and small branches pinned on them,
Arras hung from the railings; out of the dust,
With pheasant tails upright on their forelocks,
The small white horses, the
Twelve girls riding in order, green satin in pannier'd habits;
Under the baldachino, silver'd with heavy stitches ....

Ez was clearly a natural lyric poet, so why did he write in such a long form here? Perhaps one of these days, when I want a break from the Cantos, I'll look at some of the shorter work.

But not yet. I've glanced ahead to Canto IX. It seems to maintain the focus on Sigismondo, and, a new feature, a few paragraphs of (translated or invented) prose.

21 January 2009

Canto VII

I honestly didn't put this off yesterday deliberately, but this is a tough one. Partly, oddly, because of the lack of references, I feel cut adrift. I don't know what the setting or the period is here.

We start with references to Eleanor, Homer, Ovid and Dante so there's already a mix of eras. Then we get some quite simple language:
The old men's voices, beneath the columns of false marble,
The modish and darkish walls,
Discreeter gilding, and the panelled wood
Suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision ... about three squares;
The house too thick, the paintings
a shade too oiled.

Every single word is easy, but put together, it's so hard to see what's going on. For some reason I get a memory of the film The English Patient, the bit where they are camped out in an abandoned Italian villa, clearing it of mines and booby traps, and there are faded paintings on the walls. There are later references to stray items of furniture, and later even my feeling of being in an abandoned house doesn't seem to match the words. I could quote more simple-sounding passages but if anything this canto proves that there's more than one way to be difficult.

I've really no idea, and true to my method, I'm not going to phone a friend for help, but move on.

20 January 2009

A day off in celebration

I've used this evening to write a hostage to fortune on the other blog. It's actually similar to what I've been doing on this blog - a textual and linguistic analysis based on selective quotation. Of course, you could say that the proof of the pudding, etc - will Obama apply these principles to, ooh, let's choose a country at random, Israel? But what I'm looking at, over there, is the language. Obama is using words - science, planet, non-believers, humility, restraint - that are in a different universe to his predecessor. I've seen one comment that, read between the lines, the speech is a clear attack on Bush's record. It's much more obvious than that, and you could imagine Bush, were he clever enough to notice, wincing at each blow.

Anyway, Canto VII tomorrow, I hope.

19 January 2009

Canto VI

A nice short one, and mainly on the troubadour theme, which means there's a sprinkling of Provençal, some of which I find I can understand - it's halfway between French and Spanish, quite a bit like Catalan. So after a brief reference to Odysseus, we move on to Guillaume, evidently a French duke or sommat (possibly Guillaume or William of Normandy) and there are scattered random facts about the genealogy of the family, participation in a crusade. It's reminiscent of a historical chronicle in the spare opinionless, contextless description of events, and there's traces of legal documentation - wills and treaties. Ooh, I think we're now talking about Eleanor of Aquitaine and I knew I should have played more attention to the film because it says Louis
Divorced her in that year, he Louis,
divorcing thus Aquitaine.
And that year Plantagenet married her
(that had dodged past 17 suitors)
Et quand lo reis Lois lo entendit
mout er fasché.

To prove my provençal, those last two lines read "and when King Louis heard this he died of anger". But I'd also grab one straw of appreciation for the word "dodged".
Aquitaine has a resonance, even I know that, as a home of poetry and song, so it's no surprise that Sordello reappears. More provençal:
E lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana,
Son of a poor knight, Sier Escort,
And he delighted himself in chançons
And mixed with the men of the court

I don't know if Ez identifies himself with Sordello. It wouldn't be surprising: the poet wandering far from home in a multilingual culture. He quotes (I think) a song of Sordello to his wife:
Winter and Summer I sing of her grace,
As the rose is fair, so fair is her face,
Both Summer and Winter I sing of her,
The snow makyth me to remember her.

Which, actually, isn't that good. Perhaps it's a deliberately poor translation, signalled by the unnecessary archaism of "makyth".
The canto ends with these lines, which I can't be bothered to get into just now:
And Cairels was of Sarlat ... Theseus from Troezene
And they wd. have given him poison
But for the shape of his sword-hilt.

When I started this, I thought there might be some continuity from one canto to the next, partly because of the way they may start or end in midstream. Clearly, that's not happening. Each canto is self-standing, an incident or a scene in its own right, but there are recurrent themes. There must be some overall scheme of organisation, though, but I can't see what it is.

18 January 2009

Canto V

A self-referential opening?
Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus

but it seems we're now looking at Ecbatan, one of the unresolved references in Canto IV. Here's information from iranonline:
Hamedan is situated 400 km south-west of Tehran, where the ancient city of Ecbatan use to stand. Ecbatan was the Medes capital before they formed a union with the Persians. Some of the archeologists estimate that the first signs of civilization in this area to go back as far as 3000 B.C.

Ez goes on:
Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out
The bride awaiting the god's touch; Ecbatan,
City of patterned streets; again the vision;
Down in the viae stradae, toga'd the crowd, and arm'd,
Rushing on populous business

and from then the discussion seems to move on from a recreation of when the city was busy and thriving to its decline, but then drifts away into discussions that I can't follow, featuring someone called Poicebot and others. I've checked out Poicebot, and his story is apparently that he left his home, and his wife was seduced and left pregnant by an Englishman. You can kind of trace that story in the canto, but you'd need to know what you were looking for.

"You need to know what you're looking for" might be the motto of the whole thing so far. Let's go back a canto to Anaxiforminges, and the commentary I quoted, describing it as an extreme example of Pound's wish for condensation. Which I take to mean the ability to pack a lot of meaning into a few words, rather than the result of cooking without a lid on the pot. Anaxiforminges is a word packed with so many associations that it expresses complex ideas very briefly. Except it doesn't. By the time you've found out what those associations are, you might as well have read a few more words. A little exposition could go a long way.

The canto moves to the Tiber so something's going on in Rome, involving John or Giovanni Borgia, but really I can't decode what it is.

17 January 2009

Canto IV

No let-up here. We open with a reference to the ruins of Troy, and then in line 3:

I bet this is the most common point for readers to give up the whole enterprise. It's not just a word I don't understand but you're shouting at me! I've cracked and looked up someone else's commentary:
An EXTREME example of EP's ideal of "condensation." Foist woid, from Greek of Pindar, relates to poetry as source of civilization; second woid, from Latin of Catullus, relates to sexuality as root of family/tribe/society etc

"Foist woid"? is this commentator trying to sound like Ez? anyway, the canto continues with descriptions of the scene, and the sight of an unnamed woman moving towards a window. Bear with it and you get passages like this:
The valley is thick with leaves, with leaves, the trees,
The sunlight glitters, glitters a-top.
Like a fish-scale roof,
Like the church roof in Poictiers
If it were gold.

which make these early cantos worthwhile.

A character called Vidal pops up and there's a reference to Actaeon. I recognise this one, partly. Actaeon, as I recall, peepingtommed on a goddess, and was torn apart by his own hunting dogs as a punishment. (Vidal, of course, was a hairdresser.)

Towards the end there are references to So-Gyoku and Hsiang, preparing us for an eastern influence that's sure to come along later. At this point all I can do is float on the language to the last few lines, where the following references pile up:
Pere Henri Jacques, the Sennin, Rokku, Polhona, Gyges, Cabestan, Tereus, Ecbatan, Garonne [ooh, I know that one, it's a river in France], Adige [isn't that an alpine region of Italy] Stefano, Madonna in hortulo, Cavalcanti.

You're not making this easy, Ez.

16 January 2009

Canto III

A short one, just over a page, so maybe chance to consider some of the big questions about poetry as allusive and difficult as this. The Canto is in two main sections: in the first, the speaker seems to be recalling a fairly contemporary experience by the sea, and starts:
I sat on the Dogana's steps
For the gondolas cost too much, that year,
And there were not "those girls", there was one face,
And the Buccentoro twenty yards off, howling "Stretti",
And the lit cross-beams, that year, in the Morosini,
And peacocks in Koré's house, or there may have been.

So several terms there that it really is not reasonable to expect everyone to recognise. Just this once, I'll try to decipher them.

Dogana is Italian for a custom-house. (It's also a town in San Marino, but I think that's coincidental.) Use of the Italian term suggests the speech of someone who's been travelling in Italy a long time, and is beginning to use the local terms.

Who are "those girls", flaunting themselves in quotation marks, as if we should recognise them? Is it a quotation from something else? It's such a simple phrase, it's unlikely to be memorable.

Buccentoro. First thought is that it's clearly Italian, so strengthens the broad geographical setting. Googling gives this: In 1908 Pound heard traditional Venetian songs at the " Buccentoro" boat club. Someone else has done the research, presumably in some autobiographical writing.

Stretti: I already know that this is a musical term. A stretto is a term for when a fugue motif is used to accompany itself. Why is stretti in quotation marks, as if the singers were singing the word?

Morosini: again wikipedia is my friend: the Morosini were an important family in Venice over several centuries.

The best guess I have for Koré is that it's a variant name for Persephone, the embodiment of earth's fertility. I don't know if there's any particular relationship with Venice.

Do we need to know any of this? One way of looking at this bundle of obscure references is as a barrier to those less knowledgable, a way of keeping out the riffraff. I'm sure it works as such. It looks like a vain display, too, of the writer's knowledge. Could we have got through this first section of the Canto without this twenty minutes spent looking things up (and imagine how long it would have taken without the internet and google?) Most of the time reading these cantos I'm not looking up every reference. Without looking up the references here, I'd have worked out that we're in Italy, probably Venice (do they have gondolas anywhere else?), sometime in the fairly recent past of the speaker ("that year"). The obscure references can be seen like reading an old postcard sent by someone you don't know; he's mentioning sights and experiences that mean something to him, that hold the memory. You don't know what he's talking about but you understand the feeling. Perhaps that's the best we can usually ask for.

The canto goes on to describe, relatively straightforwardly, the scene:
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers,
The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple,
As Poggio has remarked.
Green veins in the turquoise,
Or, the gray steps lead up under the cedars.

This is one of the clearest sections, but even here there's a reference (Poggio), which this time I'm going to leave. Let's just register "almond-white" as a Homeric tag, and admire the use of "glazes". In the lines before this section there are several apparent references to mythological figures. Surely one of the common impulses of the Cantos, as in T S Eliot, as in Joyce's Ulysses, is to compare and collide modern and ancient experiences. Sometimes this can be mock-heroic, as in the Waste Land, where it's done apparently to belittle contemporary life, and sometimes, as in Joyce, to stress that it's still possible to be genuinely heroic in 20th century Dublin.

The second half of the Canto, told in a fairly straight narrative, is an episode from the story of El Cid. I wasn't expecting that! It concerns The Cid's banishment from the Spanish court, his journey to Valencia. I'm better prepared for this than some people. I know what's going on here, but I don't know what it's doing here. No doubt we'll come back to this.

15 January 2009

Canto II

Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but the one 'Sordello.'

And although I'm resisting the temptation to google every reference I see, I see that Sordello was a 13th century Lombard troubadour. OK, I've been expecting troubadours. The address to Browning catches some of Browning's conversational, button-holing style, and again thanks to WP I know that Browning wrote a poem about Sordello.

The rest of the Canto seems firmly Homeric, though (with minor exceptions). It depicts a seascape, and a seal playing in the waves, or as Ez puts it:
Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash

which I have to admit is better.

The sea journey continues: the ship sails on to Scios (I don't know the significance of that), and then the ship is apparently trapped and transformed:
And where there was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk,
And tenthril where cordage had been,
grape-leaves on the rowlocks,
Heavy vine on the oarshafts,

Seamen also transformed:
Medon's face like the face of a dory
Arms shrunk into fins ...

The swimmer's arms turned into branches

The canto concludes again with seascape:
Glass-glint of wave in the tide-rips against sunlight,
pallor of Hesperus
Grey peak of the wave,
wave, colour of grape's pulp

And the final word, is there a theme here? is "And ..."

So I think we're still in background here on the Homeric story. We've now got a troubadour introduced; no doubt he'll come back later. And in the middle of it, this passage:
And an ex-convict out of Italy
knocked me into the fore-stays,
(He was wanted for manslaughter in Tuscany)

which is clearly and strangely modern. (The first 30 Cantos, known collectively as "A Draft of XXX Cantos" are dated 1930).

14 January 2009

Canto I

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coiffed goddess.

This is how the Cantos begin. Isn't it brilliant? The sense of a beginning quite literally portrayed in the images of setting forth on a sea voyage, although starting with "And" - already in the middle of something. The language is simple, almost monosyllabic, but rich with internal assonance and alliteration reminiscent of middle-English verse. Unembarrassed repetition of "and". And then the reference to Circe takes us into Greek mythology.

The journey takes "us" to "Kimmerian lands". May need to come back to what they are. There are sacrifices made and prayers offered, apparently in appeasement of the dead, who demand more and more animal offerings.

Then "But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor." He is described in Wikipedia as a good friend of Odysseus, so it's clear that this is an episode from the Odyssey - as other commentators note. This means the narrative "we" is the voice of Odysseus. The Wikipedia entry gives the story. Elpenor is dead and asks Odysseus to give him a burial. It's not clear (to me) if the incident in this canto is immediately after the death of Elpenor or later, when Odysseus returned.

Odysseus then encounters Anticlea and Tiresias. Tiresias seems to be predicting future wanderings and travails:
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions.

(One thing I know about Homer is that the sea is often described as "wine-dark".)

And then suddenly these lines:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

So we're moving into a renaissance timeframe, and the language moves into 3rd person:
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.

And the canto ends with an even more impenetrable four lines, in which the word "golden" appears three times, and the final words of the final line are "So that:"

The canto ends as it began, mid-sentence.

What can we make of it? We seem to be in the middle of a retelling of the Odyssey, but we're moving into an examination of the process of retelling, of translation, perhaps. We've had enough of the story (which I've not recounted) to make it interesting as a pure narrative: there's been a vigorous start, a conflict and (I think) a prophecy.


I won't keep this up, but the aim is to read and comment on Ezra Pound's cantos at the rate of one a day. I've only read extracts before, and I know that it's going to get tough. There are chinese characters and egyptian hieroglyphs waiting for me, and references to madly obscure medieval and renaissance characters. There's probably also an unpleasant amount of anti-Semitism (as opposed to a pleasant amount?)

So that's my starting point. Let's start, AND what a start!