Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The poem including history also excludes history to reveal itself as a poem. That is, as a poem poeming, transforming its materials into poetry; when those materials include historical documents, the poem becomes literally history-in-the-making, for history is always only recognizable ex post facto as text. History as such, like the sublime that Romantic poetry pursues, registers only as an aporia, an inaccessible Real as invisible and inescapable as air pressure ("atmospheres"). The poetic process ("The wind is part of the process / The rain is part of the process") surrounds and transforms the document and citations, marking them as made, compressing and condensing their qualities as historical documents—their quiddity, the contexts trailing behind them, their authority (centering the poem, decentering the poet). Pound has a couple of lines near the middle of Canto 77: "Ils n'existent pas, leur ambience leur confert / une existence" (They do not exist, their surrounding confer on them an existence). Pound's ambience here becomes the poem itself.

I think it's been established that most Chinese characters are not the "ideograms" that Pound claimed them to be; many are phonetic, for instance. The notion of the ideogram as providing unmediated access to the thing it represents was an attempt, as if by algebra, to realize Williams' "No ideas but in things" at a single stroke. So it's interesting how Canto 77, which has perhaps more ideograms in it than any other (the Confucian Cantos not excepted), and for which Pound even provides a glossary at the end, deploys many ideograms that are neither concrete things nor philosophical concepts (like his favored cheng ming, "right word" or "le mot juste") but particles, possessives, and odd bits of speech: how (is it), not, one's own, and, is, and my favorite, bi gosh. They're like signposts (the right margin of one page is filled with 'em) of what Pound's attempting to do, to concretize the process of the poem's making. If "and" and "is" are ideograms, they're halfway to things—it's the opposite tack to that taken by Gertrude Stein, who materializes conjunctions and simple verbs in their strangeness and quiddity through repetition (and a sly sense of humor alien to Pound's own heavy-handed ironies). There's also some Joycean onomotopoeia: in Canto 77 we get some thunder: "k-lakk.....thuuuuuu / making rain / uuuh". These kinds of materializations of language go hand in hand with Pound's notion of seeing for oneself contained in the word "periplum": "not as the land looks on a map / but as sea bord by men sailing" (Canto 59). Here is an ethical and aesthetic claim of Pound's that still seems valid and useful; though as a cousin to his "Go in fear of abstractions" the bare concept remains subject to abuse (fostering a simple rejection of abstraction, that is, theory. Taken to its edge "periplum" becomes an anti-intellectual bit of shorthand, a refusal of rationality. But here the ideograms and periplum are staked on behalf of personal sovereignty in resistance to others' myths: Pound translates the Chinese characters on a page describing various religious rites, Catholic and pagan, as "not one's own spirit and sacrifice is flattery[,] bi gosh" or "To sacrifice to a spirit not one's own is flattery (sycophancy)."

Materiality of language also comes up more amusingly when Pound muses on the language of his fellow prisoners or "trainees": "the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words / one verb and participle one substantive [Greek "hyle," matter or in this case, shit] / one adjectiev and one phrase sexless that is / used as a sort of pronoun / from a watchman's club to a vamp or fair lady." Words are shit: I'll bet someone's done a Freudian thesis on that coupled to Pound's crazy ideas about money, which like words also represents without (Pound sez) having any intrinisc value of its own.

Oh, and I forgot to mention a truly strange detail from Canto 74: Pound mentions the hanging of a prisoner named Till "for murder and rape with trimmings"; he's referred to again as "St. Louis Till" in 77. Sieburth's note informs us that Louis Till was none other than the father of Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 galvanized the Civil Rights movement. How bizarre are the eddies of history.

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