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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm studying Pound's poetry with his daughter. She told me that "Stretti" was a popular song at the time that Pound wrote this, and he simply remembered it and heard it everywhere he went, the way that we hear snippets of songs wafting from buildings/clubs nowadays. Pound is the speaker in Canto 3 and is reminiscing about when he sat on the steps behind his house in Venice, not so much concerned with "those girls" (attractive females) but about the one face--Venice. He was in love with Venice and how beautiful the city was.