Ezra Pound: Posthumous Cantos edited by Massimo Bacigalupo

Ezra Pound’s life is worth several fictions, but one unlikely novel he turns up in is Elmore Leonard’s Pronto, where a Miami Beach bookie, Harry Arno, uses the money he has skimmed from his bosses to retire to the Italian town of Rapallo. Rapallo has obvious attractions for a small-time fraudster on the run – the food, the climate, the girls – but the real draw, we discover, is Pound. Arno was a US soldier in Pisa in 1945, where the poet, imprisoned for treason, was in an outdoor steel cage writing what would become the Pisan Cantos. They spoke, and Pound read Arno a couple of lines: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world. Pull down thy vanity …” Two decades later, Arno returns to Rapallo, and sees Pound, in his 80s and accompanied by his mistress of 50 years, Olga Rudge, in a restaurant. Arno speaks the lines back to him but Ezra “walk[s] right past to the can, doesn’t say a word”. This is 1967: it’s late Pound, the last Pound, the mythical, Lear-like old man, who wrote, in “Canto 116”, “my errors and wrecks lie about me”, and who, after a performance of Endgame, told Beckett: “C’est moi dans la poubelle” – that’s me in the dustbin.

Arno’s fascination with Pound’s poetry will resonate with readers of The Cantos: we recognise their vastness of conception, we may admire the grandeur and the hubris of a poem that sought, as Pound put it, to “include history”, that tried to describe the interconnectedness of things, to “make it cohere”. But what we are drawn to first is the fragmentary, the broken, the lyrical; the contemplative, almost-whisper of a voice that floats free of the rambling, shouty, megaphone epic that The Cantos became. As Joyce, Arno’s girlfriend, puts it: “He spent 40 years writing a poem that hardly anyone in the world can understand.”

What Arno experiences, defending The Cantos to his baffled friends, is what Eliot meant when he recommended that poetry “communicate before it is understood”. Massimo Bacigalupo, editor of these Posthumous Cantos, has a non-fictional Rapallo link: his grandfather and parents were friends of Pound and Rudge. This edition starts with a 1917 version of Three Cantos, and ends with “Lines for Olga”, written 1962-1972. These last poems are plangent, vulnerable, confessional, emerging like clear notes from the ruins. “Hers the heroism to build upon sand,” writes Pound:
The gondolas dying in
their sewers
& the grasshopper dead
on his stalk
& she, Olga, with serene
courage
bearing it all
finding beauty
where the last
vestige of it
still was
Many readers come to Pound via the “Drafts and Fragments” that end the collected Faber edition, attracted by the depth and the nakedness of their feeling. This book movingly adds to them, but also, at the other end, to our sense of the early Pound. In the first canto, Pound addresses Robert Browning, whose Sordello, set in 13th-century Italy, begins by invoking the shades of the poets who came before. Pound often does this (Eliot, too), displaying the classic modernist anxiety that there’s nothing left to say, and no new ways to say it. The problem is also one of form. He tells Browning: “the modern world / Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in”.

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