Books: Poetry Notebook — The Arrow Has Not Two Points |
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The Arrow Has Not Two Points

In recent times I have gone back to Pound’s Cantos to find out if I was correct in so thoroughly getting over my initial enthusiasm for them, or it. (Whether The Cantos is, or are, a singular or a plural, is a question that I believe answers itself eventually, but only in the way that a heap of rubble gradually becomes part of the landscape.) Fifty years ago, when the mad old amateur fascist was still alive and fulminating, I fell for the idea of his panscopic grab bag the way that I was then apt to fall for the idea of love. As that sweet-if-weird moment in that sad-if-stilted passage in The Pisan Cantos has it: ‘What thou lovest well remains, / The rest is dross.’ I especially liked the sound of that at a time when my knowledge of eternity was nineteen years long.

When I fell out of love with The Cantos I fell all the way out, but one of my critical principles, such as they are, is to take account of the history of my critical opinions, on the further principle that they have never existed in some timeless zone apart from the man who held them, but have always been attached to him, like his hair, or, lately, like his baldness. There is a promising analogy there, somewhere: my hair yielded baldness as my enthusiasms yielded disenchantment. First the one thing, then the other, and the second thing clearly definable only in terms of the first.

But just as we can scrutinize the ageing remains of our bodies in the mirror and decide that these loose remnants would not even be here to be looked at if we had not been strong and healthy when we were young, so we can look back to when we were wrong, and decide whether we were as wrong as all that. Youth and health have their virtues even in envious retrospect, and perhaps some of our early and ridiculous appreciations were pure and nourishing. Maybe, that is, we later overcorrected, like one of those terrible old men who write articles against the sexual laxity of youth when they are no longer capable of pursuing their notorious careers as indiscriminate lechers. Maybe we overdid the disillusionment.

In the case of The Cantos, I don’t think I did. I think I can nowadays go right through the long text of that doomed project and show that although it has some arresting passages, they are not quite as arresting as their author meant them to be, and indeed claimed them to be by the way he chose their diction and set them into position. I hasten to admit that for my younger self the claims seemed valid, and that I could not have been more arrested if I had been caught breaking into a liquor store. Back there in the late fifties, in the cafeteria of Manning House, the Women’s Union building at Sydney University where the male aesthetes were generously allowed to hang out between lunch and dinner, I used to sit alone at a table fortified with a revetment of books containing, or dealing with, or else directly relevant to, The Cantos.

My basic Cantos collection was the impressively fat Faber and Faber 1954 edition that held everything previously published from Canto I to Canto LXXXIV, including the sequence that had been separately published as The Pisan Cantos. (Somehow the Roman numerals seemed historically significant in themselves: as, clearly, they had to Pound, even while what he was fond of referring to as the Fascist Era was still running. When the Era was over he called it ‘the Dream’.) Visible from afar in its strident yellow wrapper, that thick, black-clad book — black as a shirt, now I come to think of it — was the Faber edition. A well-off but wildly original architecture student called Douglas Gordon outranked me because he had brought the New Directions edition back from a trip to the US, and in those twilight days of the old Empire a US edition of anything seemed more outlandish, more international. Gordon, always ready to prove that he could quote even the non-lyrical stretches of The Cantos at length, died cruelly young a few years later: I don’t suggest that the two facts were related. Gordon was nuts all right — nobody who had seen him in the university revue playing Richard III in Australia’s first public example of a black leather posing pouch could doubt that — but he was probably born that way. I’ve just remembered that it was Gordon who got me started on Pound, like a drug pusher with a genuinely religious connection to the product. He had caught me reading Eliot and he had said: ‘The Quartets, eh? It’s OK, but he’s a minor poet. The major poet is Pound.’ Next day I was reading Pound for the first time.

I also had the 1957 fascicle, exotically entitled Section: Rock-Drill, with the super-exotic subtitle ‘85—95 de los cantares’. (The foreign language, whichever one it was, seemed particularly resonant at a time when I could read scarcely a word in any language but English: a lesson, there, in the dangerous enticement of unfamiliarity.) For once devoid of roman numerals, a third collection, Thrones: Cantos 96—109, had only recently been published. Along with all these Cantos books, and the always attendant collection of Pound’s shorter poems, Personae, was my treasured copy of his big book of essays, Make It New; and, of course, the inevitable copy of Hugh Kenner’s commentary, The Poetry of Ezra Pound. The books were stacked up around the edge of the table. In the middle of this redoubt, my notebook was open to receive the jewels as I unloaded them from the main text. I can’t remember ever having been more excited in my life, but even at the time I spotted a difference between what I was up to and the way I had first read ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. When I was reading Eliot, I had forgotten my participation in the event of reading. Posturing inside my gun pit of Poundiana, I was in no danger of forgetting myself. In my capacity as literary editor of the student newspaper honi soit, I accepted and printed long, sententious articles about Pound that I myself had written and submitted.

Finally I decided that I had been having myself on, as we say in Australia. On the ship to England I was reading late Yeats and early Auden, and my opinion of Pound was deflating fast. In London I insanely wasted the last of my eating money on a beat-up first edition of Pound’s early prose scrapbook, Pavannes and Divagations, extracted from a dust pile in a Chancery Lane second-hand bookshop, but I already knew that the thrill of his poetry was irreversibly gone, and for a subsequent half-century I held the opinion that the would-be sublime bits of his central extravaganza were undone by the solemn insistence with which they claimed their own worth. All too often, in conversation, I scornfully quoted that supposedly many-layered line from The Pisan Cantos, ‘the ant’s a centaur in his dragon world’, pointed out that not even an ant who had studied Dante would be able to attach any meaning to it, and wound up my case with the quick assurance that all the other putatively memorable bits in The Cantos (‘ “In the gloom the gold / Gathers the light against it.” ’ etc.) had never repaid the investment necessary to memorize them in the first place.

I was wrong about that. A lot of the ‘good’ stuff in The Cantos really is worth the sweat of digging it out, even if you conclude that rather less sweat went into dreaming it up than Pound was wont to claim. But you can say that he was asking for the impossible in ever wanting the thing to be taken as a unity. At one point, late in his life, he even admitted this, saying that he ‘could not make it cohere’. The failure was implicit in the language of the admission. In a unified work of art, the coherent vision must be at least partly present at the launching point: the work can’t be expected to produce the whole of its own impulse. But really nobody since Hugh Kenner in his heyday, when he was the arch example of the brilliant critic with greater communication skills than his nominal subject (if you wanted to know what Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and William Carlos Williams were really on about, you waited until Kenner had spoken), has seriously believed that The Cantos is, or are, all of a piece. In the UK, Clive Wilmer has lately been given whole pages in the TLS to continue with the old-style defence of The Cantos, but even Wilmer would concede that a lot depends on the consciously lyrical bits — what the Victorians would have called ‘the beauties’ — actually being beautiful. I wouldn’t want to sail in and say they aren’t. Certainly they still try. The typical deliberately gorgeous passage in The Cantos is working harder to be aesthetically loaded than a room decorated by Whistler, and time has added to the effect in just the same way. Something so perfectly in period acquires the pathos of freeze-dried evanescence.

To take a much praised example, the opening stretch of Canto XVII — a rhapsodic Arcadian evocation which will be more or less reprised many times throughout the magnum opus — is clearly meant to be nothing except lovely, but it is everything except specific:

With the first pale-clear of the heaven
And the cities set in their hills,
And the goddess of the fair knees
Moving there, with the oak-woods behind her.

And more (‘And the water green clear, and blue clear’) in the same vein, or seam: more then, and much more of more or less the same thing later, again and again. At irregular intervals, usually after a long excursus on economics and/or the pervasive evil of the international conspiracy of usurers, the vision returns, but the hope that it will snap into focus next time is never fulfilled. Instead, there is yet another rearrangement of standard components: the effect is at its most persuasive in the long lyrical sweep of Canto XLVII, but the props look well-worn even there, and elsewhere you are all too often reminded of how the Soviet press, as the Chinese press still does today, used to set up the leader’s clichés in ready-made slugs of type so that his latest speech could be reported in jig time. Palaces, terraces, marble columns, clouds, green sea, rocks, sea under the rocks, rocks under the sea, columns above the clouds, and so on for ever.

What Pound did instead of specificity was to toy with a kit of parts, each of them producing not much more than a blurred suggestion of neoclassical architecture with its edges outlined in neon, like a Vorticist version of a painting by Alma-Tadema. Pound said he was specific — as his criticism reveals, bringing the thing out in all its thingness is practically the key item among his poetic desiderata — but he said so more than he did so. If it weren’t for its quirky syntactical mounting, would the ‘first pale-clear of the heaven’ be any more than a stock phrase for the break of day? Aren’t ‘the cities set in their hills’ just cities in the hills? And does saying ‘still’ and ‘stillness’ over and over really make things seem still?

in the stillness,
The light now, not of the sun.

‘Not of the sun’ is meant to be interesting because the light is from the sun, and our appreciation of the light has been purposely displaced from its source. But how interesting is the displacement? Elsewhere in the work, but along the same lines, as it were, we get ‘And the palazzo, baseless, hangs there in the dawn / With low mist over the tide-mark; /... / And the sea with tin flash in the sun-dazzle’ (Canto XXI). From a passage like that the ‘tin flash’ tends to stay with you, because it is less abstract than the imagery around it, but it rather emphasizes that the imagery around it is standard issue, even if you believe that ‘baseless’ might be a nifty pun. (Personally I think it’s tin-eared: people who construe Pound’s relentless jokiness as proof of unusual sensitivity to tone often have trouble accepting that he could be deaf to his own bum notes, but it could be doing him a favour to concede that he sometimes was.)

Cumulatively, in the course of decades, it emerges that Pound’s measures for architectural monumentality, and its relation to landscape, were all archaic, like one of those Japanese temples that are rebuilt once a decade but are always the same. Some twentieth-century artists in various fields showed up in The Cantos (Brâncuşi, Gaudier-Brzeska, George Antheil, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings) but it was always numbingly apparent that the built world of modern times meant nothing to him poetically. He could respond to an old palace but not to a new skyscraper (Manhattan was of more interest to Whitman than it ever was to Pound), and the Wright brothers might as well never have bothered.

In Canto XLVI there are a catchy few lines about snow and rain:

Snow fell. Or rain fell stolid, a wall of lines
So that you could see where the air stopped open
and where the rain fell beside it
Or the snow fell beside it.

Some actual perception has gone into that, but it’s not often that he makes the effort. By the time one of the work’s generally accepted great lines arrives — in Canto LXXIV, first of the Pisan sequence — its strategy and components are familiar: ‘To build the city of Dioce, whose terraces are the colour of stars.’ But unless we are looking through a telescope, what colour are stars? Doesn’t the line just mean that the terraces are as bright as the stars? And why would it be a good thing for terraces to be that bright, except in Las Vegas? Further into the work, up into its last published phase, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX—CXVII (after mysteriously disappearing during the Thrones sequence, the Roman numerals had just as mysteriously returned), the spasmodic reflex action of his strategies suggests that they had always been mechanical, even in their heyday. Feeble gestures like ‘as of mountain lakes in the dawn,’ sounding like the last flourishes in an old manner, can’t help reinforcing one’s suspicion that there had always been a manner, and not much more. A few hundred gleaming specks in the pan: not a lot of pay dirt after sluicing a whole hillside.

Pound would have called all these little fragments ‘particulars’. The deliberately non-mellifluous rhythm (supposedly all the more inexorable because rarely iambic) is meant to sweep them all along in the cumulative dynamism of an impressive congeries — a word much favoured by Pound and Poundians. (‘Juxtaposition’ was another — a fancy way of claiming weight for the practice of bringing incongruous objects together and waiting for a compound meaning to emerge: the hope and faith of every crackpot who creates elaborate wall charts with fragments of evidence joined together by string.) But you eventually realize that if even the bigger assemblages of bits and pieces were not being carried forward in the sluggish flood, they would look, separately, pretty much like flotsam and jetsam, not to say junk.

Despite the emphasis he had put on the isolated perception since his first phase as an Imagist, Pound in The Cantos isn’t really very good at being evocatively singular about things seen, and mainly it is because the things seen are seen generically. In the gloom, gold does indeed gather the light against it, but so does Indian costume jewellery. The unshakeable particulars are in fact amorphous, and his best technique for firming things up is to produce a tangle, like the one brought into being at the end of the same canto with the solemnly isolated clinching line ‘Sunset like the grasshopper flying.’

But isn’t that just what a sunset isn’t like? Brought up in the South Pacific, I’ve seen some quick sunsets in my time, but they were all left standing by even the most moribund grasshopper. Or is the reference not to speed at all, but just to evanescence? And why are we left asking?

The answer, I think, is that his main way to leave you wondering is to leave you puzzled. Even the statements most obviously aimed at creating an impression of limpidity (a loudly trumpeted limpidity, if such a thing were possible) raise the question of whether very much is going on at all. A typical moment of stentorian tranquillity is ‘and with hay-fields under sun-swath.’ It means, when you peel back the appliquéd anachronism of the vocabulary, that the hayfields are in the sunlight. It is important to register how commonly he uses this trick of defiant obviousness, because the avowedly compressed moments, his proclaimed quiddities, are a deliberate escalation of it, and we had better be sure that what is supposedly being intensified actually exists:

The sun is in archer’s shoulder
in crow’s head at sunrise.

This comes in Canto LII, in a passage marked with his favourite tag — flatteringly delivered to the reader as if one Renaissance prince were advising another — about the necessity of calling things by their right names, lest misrule ensue. (In various English forms and in other languages, including Chinese, this incontestable exhortation recurs throughout the work, decade after decade, with never a concession that some of Pound’s heroes, notably Mussolini, misruled whether they called things by their right names or not, and were often enough numbered among their own victims, a pretty convincing indication of wisdom’s absence, one would have thought.) But I can’t see how the sun being in the archer’s shoulder, or even in the crow’s head, or in both, tells us much more than the contention that the ant’s a centaur in its dragon world.

Robert Conquest was the first critic ever to dare question the centaur status of Pound’s Pisan ant, but in the early sixties it was still too soon for Conquest to shake even the Soviet Union’s reputation, let alone Pound’s. Nor did Randall Jarrell, who could appreciate the best of Pound but used that as the exact measure for finding The Cantos a mess, ever manage to put a big enough dent in the masterwork’s reputation to hamper the academic attention that gathered against it like light against pyrites. The less precise Pound was, in fact, the more he invited explication. But if we don’t know, and can’t know, what one of Pound’s more arcane pronouncements means to us, we are left with the obligation to be impressed that it means a lot to him. It’s just a bad gag when he assures us that ‘ZinKwa observed that gold is inedible.’ ZinKwa, or someone like him, crops up frequently, straight out of an episode of Kung Fu and always making an observation that nobody in his right mind would ever try to rebut. A proclivity for Confucius-say-style, potted wisdom was high among Pound’s worst habits, almost on a level with his admiration for the monetary theories of the Social Credit pundit Major Douglas. The two kinds of verbal tic were particularly deadly when connected, like a scorpion’s double tail. In Canto LXXVIII there is a passage meant to get Pound’s economic theories into a nutshell:

                                       ‘taxes are no longer necessary
in the old way if it (money) be based on work
       inside a system and measured and gauged to
inside the nation or system

Or, indeed, inside the space station of Battlestar Galactica. Every economic system features money based on work done inside a system and gauged to human requirements. The question is about whether it is based well or badly. But no amount of exhortation and incantatory repetition can make a guide to conduct out of hot air. In Section: Rock-Drill, Pound’s faith that a sufficiently gnomic utterance will yield an unswerving truth reaches absurdity with such lines as ‘The arrow has not two points.’ Well, it certainly shouldn’t have one at each end. Usually these cracker mottoes are adduced as translations of Chinese characters floating on the page in isolation. For too much of his life, Pound was convinced that his grasp of Chinese was improving proportionately with the length of time he would spend gazing at the form of a character. But reading Chinese involves a lot more than looking at the pictures, just as understanding an economic system involves a lot more than analysing the metallic composition of its currency. Pound was convinced that he could assess whole countries, periods, empires, and eras by whether and how much their gold and silver coins were debased. Even as late as Canto 103 of Thrones he can be heard saying, ‘Monetary literacy, sans which a loss of freedom is consequent.’

He was always convinced that he possessed monetary literacy. With better qualifications both by heredity and on paper, the same conviction was later to be shared by Bunker Hunt, who tried to corner the market in silver, and found out the hard way that money is a lot more than chunks of precious metal. But it was certainly true that Pound never possessed much literacy about the loss of freedom, even his own. The Pisan Cantos are correctly regarded as the height of the work, the best it ever got, and even the admirers of his epic historical sweep would admit that they are because they contain the most of his personal story, at a time in his life when not even he could dodge the obvious about what had happened to a world which had been ravaged by some of his theories having become actual.

Yet The Pisan Cantos, the strongest examples of his favoured form, are surely at their weakest when they presume to deal with his personal despair. There is the total and crippling failure to realize that his own personal despair doesn’t rank very high against the personal despair of many others whose fate he never cared about, and who were not, like him, fed, looked after, and given reasonably humane treatment when they fell into the hands of their enemies. (To be fair, it should be noted that much later, in his last years, he was ready to admit that anti-Semitism had been the ruin of his mind.) There is also his incomprehension of ‘the Dream’ he had been mixed up in. A line like ‘Not getting it about the radio’ is shorthand for his contention that the diatribes he broadcast on behalf of Fascist Italy had been wilfully misunderstood by his own countrymen. The facts, alas, proved that his accusers had found no difficulty in ‘getting it about the radio’; that he had been locked up for a good reason; and that he was very lucky to be still alive. It was mightily impertinent of him to suggest that to condemn him for his broadcasts was a denial of freedom. Since his broadcasts had not only proclaimed the irrelevance of democratic freedom, but had also suggested the desirability of its being denied to the politically helpless, this stuff has to be called the ravings of a crackpot in order to save him from the consequences of calling it a reasoned argument.

Though we might question the putative greatness of a poet who can’t get much out of his own spiritual disaster beyond a display of self-pity occasionally energized by spite, there could have been an excuse for his solipsism. He was undoubtedly miserable, and misery is not relative. The conditions he was kept under were calculated to make him realize that he was not in a hotel: he can be excused for feeling lousy. But to excuse him for being vague is harder. After all, the poems in Personae had boasted of their precision, and he had supposedly left the smaller forms of those poems behind, and got into the limitless form of the poem, The Cantos, mainly in order to be precise on larger scale. In the Pisan sequence there is an admission that something has gone wrong: but what has gone wrong, he would have us believe, has gone wrong with the world, not with his view of it. Perhaps because so narrowly personalized, his recorded anguish is curiously unspecific in the detail: the abiding fault of the whole work is, in its best part, brought to a head along with all its virtues:

When the mind swings by a grass-blade
        an ant’s forefoot shall save you

But if the ants hadn’t got into his pants, he would still have been done in by the bees in his bonnet, and one of them was his unquenchable conviction that every image was an epic in embryo. To the end of his life, he went on believing that if he could just define every aspect of existence clearly enough, it would all add up. Not all that far in the future, his central belief would be echoed all over the Internet, and really The Cantos is, or are — or perhaps was or were — a nut-job blog before the fact. But there were considerable poets who were inspired by him directly — Bunting, Logue — and there is no modern poet who has entirely escaped his influence, if only through the salience with which he raised the question of whether there can be any worthwhile poetry beyond the poem. And I, for one, owe him for that first blaze of his enthusiastic example. Reading his absurdly confident critical prose, I could scarcely catch my breath when he talked about poetry as if it were the most exciting thing in the world, which indeed it is.


One of the many dangers posed by the academic study of poetry is that the student might be encouraged to worship giants. And indeed if the history of poetry were like the field of study we usually call history, Ezra Pound would loom like Bismarck. But a collection of big names would give us only a skeletal account of what has happened to poetry in modern times. There were things the lesser names could do that the greater names couldn’t. If you were looking for a major poem about the anxious political and cultural texture of the late 1930s, for example, a batch of Pound’s Cantos would tell you drastically less than Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. For one thing, MacNeice had the flexibility of technique to make a plain narrative into a medium for every shade of both the factual and the lyrical. For another, he was sane: storms of enthusiasm were confined to his love life, and in his social views there were no radical fashions that he fell for. At his creative best — which came both early and late in his career, but not, alas, quite so much in the middle of it — he was the necessary counterweight for W. H. Auden. Unfortunately Auden was the more newsworthy, and in the long run MacNeice’s reputation always had to be fought for by his admirers, and could never be taken for granted. I never forgot how I had been spellbound by his early poems, several of which I learned by heart; and in my later years I have made a point of mentioning his name to the young. Some of the Irish poets of my generation also admired him as a recent ancestor, but for them, because he was born in Belfast but lived in England, there were often complex questions of nationalism and loyalty. My own affection was unencumbered. So when the National Literacy Trust organization Reading for Life asked me to introduce him in a few words, my only task was to arouse curiosity. With a poet so inventive, you can do that with a few quoted phrases: a powerful hint that the energy of a poem saturates its every component.