Ezra Pound: The making of the Pisan Cantos…

Whilst ‘digging’ for yesterday’s link post on the Cruiser, I unearthed that nugget about O’Brien turning up WB Yeats’s sympathy for Italian fascism. It turns out that a more obvious poet supporter of Il Duce, Esra Pound was, briefly, his secretary in 1913. Previously I’d only really known Pound through some of his shorter poems and the fact he was the man who cut The Wasteland to buggery and made it impenetrable. This afternoon BBC Radio Four had an excellent feature on the Pisan Cantos, which feature some of his lived experience in what was in effect a death row of sorts, just outside Pisa after he’d been found guilty of treason.The overall effect is (despite the allusion to Pound’s virulent anti semitism) that of swinging open a door on an elegiac world that might otherwise (for me at least) have remained tightly shut. The poet’s recorded voice (made twenty years later in the sixties) lend stirring power to the last lines of the Canto:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing
This is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
this is not vanity.
Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .

The programme finishes with these memorable lines from the much later Canto 116:

But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.

It’s a truly great piece of radio…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty