It’s interesting how often critics and lay people describe the Cantos as a mix of poetry and prose. Ezra Pound himself said “The problem was to get a form—something elastic enough to take the necessary material. It had to be a form that wouldn’t exclude something merely because it didn’t fit.”
But, let’s note, this doesn’t mention prose. When prose passages seem to occur in the Cantos, as I’ve shown in a previous blog, they can feel a bit blah blah, like posted-up bills on the wall of the verse. Then we hear Pound read them aloud, where there is audio of this, and we find he heard a sing-song voice even in these passages.
So, when we say that the Cantos include found material, we should not assume the material is merely dropped in. There is elasticity, not endless storage space. When we look at Pound revising drafts, we see him making each component that bit more bouncy: taut, not just trimmed. And Pound held lines in his head for years, by himself and others, until he could find a place where they would bounce best.
It’s important to note that Pound is not the normal introspective poet: he quotes things as a child does, seeing their shock value, trying out a role. I was listening to that great attitudinising album, Slow Train Coming, over the Easter holiday and it struck me forcibly (now that it’s been years since it ever shocked me) that I needed to hear the chorus of the lead track (“and there’s a slow, slow train coming, coming round the bend”) as Dylan trying it on for style: as throwing out verses to keep with the gauntlet thrown down by the chorus. This is, in many ways, typical Dylan but it comes alive in that track. It’s not phrase-making so much as phrase-borrowing.
There is moralising, in other words, in both Pound and Dylan’s use of found material, but at the same time it seems sometimes done in a spirit of anti-complacency or even a discomfort with peace. (We may always need such sorts, of course). I’m not sure that I prefer other uses of found material: to make us feel that something is said in another voice precisely to challenge our assumptions that the author, or indeed “anyone normal”, would say this. Lemn Sissay completely tricked me this week by posting his support of my anti-plagiarism work by saying that another defender was “erudite and true”, and then going to add lots of other very thoroughly argued points. The trouble was: he had copied and pasted these. The “erudite and true” showed his own stance. But it was glorious mischief, of the sort I don’t want to see go. I like some clues, though, in most cases.
Finally, I’m not sure that there’s that much lasting joy to showing oddments alone. Sometimes, found material can suggest a world. But the difficulty there is that the narrative through the found material can be sentimental.
Let us look closely at an important use of found text by Pound: how he works with one of his contemporary economist-heroes, C. H. Douglas. This is from Canto 38:
has also another aspect, which we call the financial aspect
It gives people the power to buy (wages, dividends
which are power to buy) but it is also the cause of prices
or values, financial, I mean financial values
It pays workers, and pays for material.
What it pays in wages and dividends
stays fluid, as power to buy, and this power is less,
per forza, damn blast your intellex, is less
than the total payments made by the factory
(as wages, dividends AND payments for raw material
bank charges, etcetera)
and all, that is the whole, that is the total
of these is added into the total of prices
caused by that factory, any damn factory
and there is and must be therefore a clog
and the power of purchase can never
(under the present system) catch up with
prices at large,
and the light became so bright and so blindin’
in this layer of paradise
that the mind of man was bewildered.
Here are the original sentences from the source text:
- “A factory or other productive organisation has, besides its economic function as a producer of goods, a financial aspect. It may be regarded on the one hand as a device for the distribution of purchasing power to individuals through the media of wages, salaries, and dividends; and on the other hand as a manufactory of prices financial values. From this standpoint its payments may be divided into two groups:
- Group A All payments made to individuals (wages, salaries, and dividends).
- Group B All payments made to other organisations (raw materials, bank charges, and
- other external costs)”
Let’s cut that into some line breaks:
… has, besides its economic function as a producer of goods, a financial aspect.
It may be regarded on the one hand as a device for the distribution of purchasing power … wages, salaries, and dividends;
and … prices….
….. financial values….
… payments made to other organisations (raw materials…”
Search the PDF of the book. “Fluid” is not in there. “Power of purchase” is not in there. “Clog” is not in there, nor “catch up”. Notice how Pound has avoided just citing fancy coinages like “manufactory”, any mere ostentatious flourish of vocabulary. Note too that he avoids the expression “media of wages”, which in Douglas usefully helps us step back and abstract from real life into the counter-intuitive world of economics, and this is a risk for Pound. I can tell you as a maths teacher that to teach that subject is counter-intuitive: it doesn’t work the way you’d think it would; and you have to be confident with one level of abstraction and then build on it to the next, like a card-tower. Economics is not taught counter-intuitively by politicians. Margaret Thatcher said an economy is like a household budget and shouldn’t run any debt: this is hokum for national economics, where countries run debts and prosper all the time. Keynes, on the other hand, said the stock exchange makes us think like a silly farmer who pulls up all his crop mid-morning because it hasn’t flowered yet. We need intellect AND good metaphors.
Why is the light “blindin’” here though? Isn’t it just Pound’s impatience, and a bit of hokey bluff? Some say that Pound considers this explication of Douglas, using and adding to and editing the words, is clear, and Pound is being sarcastic. Having met a few bluffers in the world of maths teaching, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps the greatest frustration I have with reading Pound is that, according to some of his explainers, he quotes things to show how self-evidently silly or evil they are. And I feel implicated in my attempt to read something positive in them. And not ultimately sure that he himself had weighed everything up deeply enough.