Friday, June 11, 2004

First off, let me say how happy I am that the President has seen fit to close government offices in honor of Jordan's birthday.

Now Pound. Ron's discussion of music and the New Formalists' clumsy understanding of its centrality for poetry have me thinking about that quality in The Cantos. What exactly does he do with his own idea to "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not the sequence of the metronome"? Typing that out I'm struck by the priority given to "sequence": what follows. It's close to, though not identical to, syntax; or rather it's prior to syntax, if syntax is a sequence that makes meaning. Pound's paratactic style and general resistance to syllogistic thinking (often conflated with his fascism because it appears anti-rational) might be in service to sequence, rather than the other way around; the line makes music prior to both older formal paradigms (the pentameter, which requires you to fill in your ten syllables and five strong stresses) and the content, the way of thinking, that those paradigms tended to generate or be filled with. (Consider the argumentative structure of the sonnet, or the flexible but cumulative structure of Dante's terza rima.) Pound's musicality is most apparent in the Cantos that engage directly with other poems, particularly the epics of Homer and Dante (he has little to say to Virgil and astonishing contempt for Milton). In 47 we have an extraordinary song for Adonis, which remains marked by the modern even as it attempts to resurrect the god and his rite:
The sea is streaked red with Adonis,
The lights flicker red in small jars.
Wheat shoots rise new by the altar,
           flower from the swift seed.
Two span, two span to a woman,
Beyond that she believes not. Nothing is of any importance.
To that she is bent, her intention
To that art thou called ever turning intention,
Whether by night the owl-call, whether by sap in shoot,
Never idle, by no means by no wiles intermittent
Moth is called over mountain—
The bull runs blind on the sword, naturans
To the cave art thou called, Odysseus,
By Molu hast thou respite for a little,
By Molu art thou freed from the one bed
           that hou may'st return to another
The stars are not in her counting,
           To her they are but wandering holes.
He achieves a rolling effect by respecting each line's integrity; one may have three beats, one may have six, but each describes a complete movement. When he introduces spaces he creates a retroactive connection between that line and the one preceding it, but the space cushions the enjambment when there is any. It has a formal feeling (in the sense in which Reagan's funeral is formal, or in which an occasion may call for formal dress), but the line's clear priority over the sentence creates clarity—a surprising quality to attribute to The Cantos, but there it is. Whereas for example the tangled multi-line syntax of Milton calls attention to the difficulty of what the poet is attempting and his mastery over that difficulty, Pound's variable lines forecast Olson's breath-procedure (The Cantos are well-scored for the voice and easy to read aloud) and foreground the presentation of individual images or individual words. This is where the fugal comes in: the poem doesn't accumulate, but reading it is like swimming in a vast yet finite pool: one will eventually encounter the same repeated waters, the same ladders, the same drains. I realize now one reason I've never gotten into The Cantos before is because I would typically open the book in the middle and try to excerpt it; it simply doesn't work. They require reading from the beginning, and reading them fairly quickly, as I'm doing, helps keep individual elements and phrases fresh in my mind so I can recognize their importance and understand the particular layer of significance that they represent, a layer that becomes more apparent with each recurrence. Repetition is the friend of meaning here, a substitute for the syllogism; whereas in Stein it's the primary tool for breaking down syllogistic thinking and liberating words and paragraphs from the tyranny of sentences.

There's much, much more to say about the Fifth Decad, which contains the Usury Canto and the gorgeous Canto 49, which is composed of translations of anonymous Chinese poems. Still figuring out what relationship may exist between Pound's concept of usury and the Marxist conception of the capitalistic practices which seem to meet in accusations whose substance, if not origin, could come from Adorno as well as Pound: "no picture is made to endure nor to live with / but it is made to sell and sell quickly". The problem with Pound is that he has no understanding of how structures might work to create conditions that people accept as natural—it all comes down to intent, to the specialness of the actor. A good man can't do a bad or even a merely venal thing by Pound's lights: "This cnal goes still to TenShi / though the old king built it for pleasure". The intention of "the old king" matters more than what the canal has come to be used for; nor is there room to consider the possiblity by which the king's pleasure was itself a creation of larger economic and ideological structures. Still, his translation of a peasants' song is moving in its simplicity, in its representation of life beyond the structures of human domination (though perhaps overdetermined by its vulnerability to the demands of nature, of necessity—that's the tipping point between pastoral and wilderness, pastoral and agriculture). And to return to the question of sequence, it suggests a version of time that is musical not in its difference from the metronome, but in its realization as an attribute of recurring experience, a pleasure in itself:
Sun up; work
sundown; to rest
dig well and drink of the water
dif field; eat of the grain
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?

The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.

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