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21st Century Canto: Pound, Resounding

So, we have looked at the timbre of words. Sometimes one also explores a different metre (one based on length of syllable rather than stress, for example) in order to get at a good line in a good timbre. This is what we tend to do when we remember poets’ work: we remember a line.

Once more unto the breach, the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. It would be making too big a claim to say that most people remember the whole poem because the music of the good line radiates throughout the whole poem. The truth is that the whole poem manages not to mess up the good line. People don’t routinely say, yeah, but watch out for line 2, it’s got some really bum notes.

By contrast, we can often remember whole songs when all we have been initially drawn to is one line.  And again, the effect is one mainly of the timbres of all or most of the words of one line all coming together (also with the music). If we had poems being recited  daily (or if they had to rise and fall by that test, and were written to be heard first not read) then maybe we’d have the same thing happen. That after reciting a line, motor memory would bring a big chunk of the whole back into memory. Basil Bunting certainly spoke about poetry for the ear, and I listened to a tape of him reciting Briggflatts about once a fortnight for about two years. At one point, I felt the lines themselves move perpendicular to each other, a pure kinaesthetic feeling of movement. Chunks of Bunting come back to me whole. Because I’m also a songwriter, I know that my song lyrics (which I also recite as poems) come back to me once I have a few lines.

I’ve also been an actor in my twenties (amateur, youth group then university) and enjoyed committing the script to memory. But the way I remembered the lines was more to do with a certain emotional generalisation, if I can put it that way. That I would be surging towards the end of a passage, with a music that would be quite crude if anyone could hear it. I learned all the dialogue for David Mamet’s Oleanna, a three act play for two actors, in about a weekend, having previously rehearsed it for a month with book in hand. I knew some of the basic emotions, and how to bounce off the other actor.

Then I watched the film of the play. Knowing the script, I could really pay attention to the craft, of writing and of acting. The acting was really, really good. Making the character move forward and entangle himself, but with so many delicate grace notes, so much added that I would never have been able to add without forgetting my other lines. The professional actor’s acting was doing what I like to hear in a poem, having the flexibility to dawdle, and I had been doing what I don’t like in bad readings and interpretations of a poem: one driving emotion moving the whole poem forward like an exercise in memory. On the other hand, I can forgive this kind of heavy hand at the wheel when a composer sets a poem, because the music is beautiful and because it brings an aspect of the poem alive. Pound said that when a master comes along, he or she will produce acolytes who run with this aspect, and the acolytes may get more credit. But, through loving the acolytes we come to see how the master had everything they had and more. So too can a reading or a recital produce a sort of “acolyte version” of the text.

But I’m also talking about trying to write from music, not add music to a text. I know that I’ve written poems, to a pattern, that I can reconstruct from memory if I’ve remembered one or two lines of them. Sometimes this brings back the pleasure of writing them TO a pattern, some feeling of what Pound calls the ‘formed trace’; or what Hugh Kenner describes as the typical Poundian form: a knot without the string in it. Kenner says, in a wonderful metaphysical conceit, that we simply supply the string into the shape of the knot, but the knot always existed. Pound called this the “rose in the steel dust”. I intensely identify with this line as I used to play, as a child, for hours moving iron filings from under the table with a horseshoe magnet.

What is the magnet under Pound’s table? It’s not a code, a glossary, or a mathematical formula. It’s solid, and possibly in a horseshoe shape, and it makes a particular feel as it fits in the hand. One of his magnets is Greek, or other languages generally, and how they string words together in what we would think of as an unnatural word order. Another is music. One of my favourite rare books on the Cantos shows how they move like a fugue, each line patterned in the overall shape. (It’s a contested theory).

(At the same time, and this is a topic for another day but brought out in A. David Moody’s multi-volume biography, Pound sometimes has a very personal logic. This is the analepsis again. Pound shows us figures from history but they are to him self-evident baddies and self-evident goodies. He shows us fragments of a sentence from a history book as if he were showing what dreams do to books he’s read – but surely we need to have read the books in order to dream about them. Yes, I think he’d say, that’s the point, go read the books.)

A final thought. Donald Davie shows in his great 1975 book on Pound how cleverly Pound can open up in metre. Pound can write one line in dactylic trimeter then the next in a non-dactylic meter (but probably still trimeter) then the next in the same meter but with one more foot. This is, bluntly, genius. Pound can open and open and open a metre, modulating from one to another. He can by this method incorporate almost any language by spotting its metre and then working out what material he needs to link it to what material he has. He can also hold lines in his head for years, working out when to use them. Like a good rhymer, he chooses to avoid filler words, and to only use material that fits thematically (although he has a broad and idiosyncratic idea of what theme is).

I envy Pound all of this. I know that I tend towards neatness, and a love of coincidence. As a poet, maybe not as a garrulous blogger, I don’t like to outstay my welcome. I like aesthetic neatness too, and I like a regular beat, or I like to splat all over the page. I have achieved many of the effects of timbre of which I’m proud by riffing in a particular repeating vein. And I love regularity in the foreign poems I translate, because it gives me a texture to translate into, and it throws up lines I wouldn’t normally write.

But imagine being able to write nearly anything, and to make the writing spacious and always sonorous but not having to return to one beat. That’s the joy of being able to write a poem that doesn’t rhyme: the first freedom that practised poets feel over the amateur, the first thing they condescend about (what a yokel you are, thinking you have to rhyme). Imagine not only being free of rhyme, but to free of stanza, free of repeating measure, of all the lines being roughly the same length, and still to write memorable musical poetry over pages and pages. That’s what Pound does, and what so few do. That’s what makes one passionate about reading him, and so sad that he made his work, through his racism and fascism, so repellent.

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Image: ‘Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) seen from the Campanile. I like the way the pigeons form patterns around the people like iron filings near a magnet’

Image credit: astronomyblog