Pisan Cantos as a Lament of Modernism

Much of the form of Pound’s Pisan Cantos continues the Modernist experiments we discussed in class. To name just a few, techniques such as fragmentation, neoclassicism, and experimentation with non-linear time are all found within Pound’s poetry, but Pound’s use of these now maybe growingly familiar techniques also happen at in important historical juncture. Produced during Pound’s imprisonment in the U.S. Army’s Disciplinary Training Center at the end of WWII, the poems are created at the closing moments of the Modernist movement that will soon transition into the Postmodernist movement. Dating artistic movements always involves an arbitrary demarcation, and suggesting that Modernism begins roughly around WWI and ends with WWII does simplify in a way I’m uneasy with. But with the restrictions of time and space in this blog, this simple formula may prove useful in showing the continuities between the Modernist and Postmodernist literary periods. This retroactive reading reads much of the mourning tone and experimental form as the Modernist movement folding in on itself. Making use of our current historical juncture, we can use the Pisan Cantos to help clarify, and problematize, the distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism.

It is fun to hypothesize that Pound was distinctly aware of experiencing the end of the Modernist movement in the ways he knew it. That when begins this section of The Cantos his mourning the fall of Fascism in Cantos LXXIV lines 1-24 is his displaced personal recognition of the ending of his artistic movement as well. Pound codes his mourning of the fall of Fascism (and really, almost everything else in the poem as well) in such a way that creates a deeply personal feel. Giving T.S. Eliot the nickname of Possum in line 9, or referring to the Fascist leaders of Mussolini and his mistress by their first names in line 4 creates an ironic personal meaning despite the “impersonal neoclassicism” that both Pound and Eliot professed. This irony though gives a tragic tone to the poem as he mourns the tragedy of “the dream in the peasant’s bent” (74.1)—a tragedy ending with a bang, and not a whimper as Eliot proclaimed in “The Hollow Men”. His references to himself as no man, or the man the sun has gone down on all engage in this simply sad tone of the poem, and the known history and details about Pound’s imprisonment and extreme conditions reinforce the tragic feeling. Pound’s often delusional senses of historic importance and sense of self also create a distressful sympathy for someone with rather unsympathetic beliefs. His thoughts that he would soon clear this all up with President Truman, his presumed significance and personal relationship with Mussolini, and his belief that he could convert Stalin to his economics (see 74.33-46 and notes on 120. I’m not sure whose version of Marxism/economics I’m scared of more, Stalin’s or Pound’s) all greatly exaggerate the author’s sense of self. Once again, the irony of this exaggeration (possibly as a mental defense mechanism) comes from this being what would start as the end of Modernism. This exaggerated sense of self is tempered with the constant identifications with the Odysseus figure of “Nobody” and a man who the sun had gone down on that suggest Pound is aware the end has come, and Sieburth’s informative intro shows how this isn’t just the end of an artistic vision but, possibly facing the death penalty for treason, potentially the end of Pound as well.

With regard to the form of the poems, Pound’s difficulty here seems to be the climax of the Modernist dense texts. Fragmentation is taken to the extreme (it was mentioned in class that his later Cantos included a line “I can’t make it cohere”), the numerous allusions and different takes on classical form make annotations necessary for reading, and rules of language are pushed to such extremes that, even for a poem, the line breaks and unconventional capitalization rules seem to follow their own rules instead of traditional grammatical norms. None of this is new however, and the subjective perspectives and stream of consciousness technique of Pisan Cantos remind me of the “Camera Eye” sections of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, though Dos Passos is far from a Fascist sympathizer. One way of understanding these poems as an extreme version of Modernism is to think of the lack of context provided in the original poem. Dos Passos used different literary genres—biographical, historical, fictional, and the stream of consciousness—to create the needed context to decode his works, or Faulkner’s difficult Benjy section of Sound and the Fury is countered/supplemented with (but still a difficult) Jason’s fairly straight forward section and the final, narrated section. Contrary to this, Pound’s Pisan Cantos takes these experiments to new levels in ways that seems to explore (if read retrospectively, map the ending) the Modernist techniques of fragmentation, experimentation of form, and subjectivity.

Perhaps through this experimental form it is possible to see in The Pisan Cantos the Modernist fetishization of form folding in on itself. Ironically, Pound seems to rely on free verse despite his (and Eliot’s) previous denouncements of free verse as lacking form. WWII being the historical impotence of the Modernist movement, the movement’s inability to prevent another bloody world war, puts enough strain as to break the Modernist attempt to impose form onto a chaotic violent world. Free verse focuses on an internal rhythm instead of an imposed, external form. The Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab suggests that with the movement from Modernism to Postmodernism is the movement from form to anti-form. While like the historical dates provided at the beginning of this reading this may simplify manners here, it does help understand and distinguish between the two movements. The mourning tone of Pound’s cry that he can’t make it cohere suggests Modernism’s loyalty to form and order, but Postmodernist would relish in “formless” ever-morphing structures. While the modernist broke old form to make it new, post-modernist celebrated broken form and structures. Pound’s voice here, at this literary crossroads, still mourns the grand-narrative style associated with Modernist authors (and critiqued by postmodernist authors).

The Purdue Owl Writing Lab offers a list of Modernist versus Post Modernist techniques, and I think three can be seen to immediately help situate Pound’s Pisan Cantos as a text between the transition of the two movements. The lab suggests Modernists prefer form but Postmodernists prefer anti-form, Modernists prefer transcendence but Postmodernists move to imminence, and finally the movement from hierarchy to anarchy. Pound seems to be between, or simultaneously both, in all of these categories. His free-verse still involves a plethora of forms, but these forms seem to be dissolving before the reader’s eyes. The poem seems to exist at the limit or implosion of High Modernist form. His religious imagery, despite his atheism, suggests a breakdown between the separations of transcendence/imminence when he reminds the reader that paradise is not artificial (74.458 is one place of many he uses the phrase). And while so much academic work has made these Cantos accessible to new student, and while much of Pound’s writing seems to strive to make a new paradise from bits of the past, every moment of this “cohesiveness of a project” seems to unravel as the poem continues. Despite Pound’s best efforts, despite his hope he would convert the ruins and rumbles of his Fascist dream to a new paradise, he in many ways fails. This failure, this extreme experimentation in form and language, offers a transition point to Postmodernism. A movement I think best understood if considered to be a continuation of the Modernist project. Postmodernism will turn modernism on itself, apply its critiques to Modernists own (frequently considered grant/master narratives) form, and as Pound’s Modernist form falls in on itself in Pisan Cantos Postmodernist will continue and revel in this unraveling.



Eliot and Tradition

The Modernist artist was painfully aware of his or her historical position, and the Tradition that preceded the artist was just as important to the work of art as the artist’s contemporary context. During this historical period in art, critical judgment also begins to look at art through its context and the tradition preceding the artist’s works—a tradition that defines and is redefined by the contemporary work. Russian Structuralism “scientific” approach to literature, the New Critics move from the poet to the poem, and T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” are just a few examples of this critical shift during the period that moves focus from the artist to the art itself. Eliot’s 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, is probably one of the more cited examples, and understanding how his idea of Tradition and how it functions with the individual artist helps understand Modernist’s relationship to the past.

In his 1919 essay Eliot expresses a preference for a mature poet who sacrifices his own personality in order to situate his work within the artistic Tradition: “His [the artist] significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead”. Eliot’s essay then answers the cliché question, why read dead white poets? On a surface level, Ezra Pound’s Modernist motto of “make it new” can hide the Modernist indebtedness to the past (Eliot’s personal artistic preference is for the Tradition of complex metaphysical poets); this Modernist new, for Pound’s student Eliot at least, is a new reworking of preceding traditions. This reworking of past traditions results in a kind of symbiotic relationship between the past and the present where the present both influences and is influenced by the past: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. . . Whoever has approved [of] this idea of order . . .[will] not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Tradition and the Individual Talent).

Butler suggests the Modernist use of allusion is part of this merging of past and present that can be found in Pound, Joyce, and Eliot (15), and those of us from the Faulkner class can add him to this list. Faulkner’s notion of a past not past seems very similar to Eliot’s notion of Tradition, and his novels are often informed and influenced by past canonical works and literary tradition. The Sound and the Fury takes its title from the famous “Macbeth” soliloquy, and Absalom, Absalom! is a retelling of the King David narrative from the Old Testament. But for Faulkner and the other Modernists as well, these allusions and use of previous form are not mere imitation; there isn’t a direct correlation between the past forms that inform the contemporary works, but frequent inversions and new, playful expressions.

This “really new” then isn’t exactly “new” per say, and Butler points out that many of the avant-garde artists were classically trained (for example Picasso, Eliot, and Schoenberg were all considered experimentalist at part of their careers, and all well versed in their artistic traditions). This fact should be remembered when we read in the M&M anthology excerpt from Eliot’s “The Music of Poetry” that “Forms have to be broken and remade” (53). These broken forms that are to be remade are not to be remade ex nihilo, but must reconstruct the broken forms into more appropriate forms for the contemporary age. The poet’s “task is both to respond to change and make it conscious, and to battle against degradation below the standards which he has learnt from the past” (M&M anthology 53). The two quotes from “The Music of Poetry” come from the same paragraph, and show how the Modernist notion of Tradition and New can often be paradoxical and incorporate both progressive and conservative strands of thought.

There’s a lot of conservative and elitist thought in Eliot’s work, especially in his essay on Tradition and individual talent. His claim that “there are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence” demonstrates the extreme end of Modernism’s high art spectrum and its exclusive tendency, and there is a potentially alienating effect of this aspect of his criticism. Yet, Eliot is often cited as a forerunner of what is often considered a progressive Modernist movement.

I don’t necessarily have an answer or unique insight into Eliot’s odd mixture of personal, conservative beliefs and his progressive criticism. Eliot alone seems to embody a kind of tension and contradiction inherent in the Modernist movement as a whole, and Eliot’s complex idea of self sacrifice to Tradition speaks towards the way Modernist viewed the past.

Here’s a link to an online source for Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” essay if anyone is interested (I read this for a class a while ago and reread it for this blog entry. After revisiting the essay I would say it isn’t my favorite and I don’t think a lot of fun to read, but that’s just a personal preference): http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html