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Serif-ically Visual

To follow on from my last post and anticipate my next, I’m going to say more about how visually Pound writes/types for the page, and do so using the first example so far in my discussions of Pound using found text (more of which soon).

But I’m also not going to move too far away from considering Pound for the ear, the sound of Pound, read aloud.

My focus here is going to be Canto XXVI (Canto 26). There are excerpts online of Pound reading part of this Canto, but not the actual text, six pages long in my Faber edition of The Cantos. And it’s very instructive to read it along as you hear it.

There is an excerpt from Canto 26 on this blog entry:

The blog presents the following the lines from “And hither came Selvo, doge” to “the horses in cendato”. The lines are quoted in a sans serif font, double-spaced and left justified, with no indents, unlike the actual pages from the Faber edition. There are typos, and poor spacing around commas. Some lines begin with capital letters and some don’t (whereas in the original, only the indented lines begin lower case).

This is a shame because Pound was careful about these things. So I typed it out to show how it was meant to look:


Pound quote 1


I closed up the spacing, and chose, as with the Cantos in print, a serif font, with proper tales, bases and pennants for the letters. (I’m aware these aren’t the technical terms).

Now, Kenneth Goldsmith’s rather too dogmatic and until recently dominant school of re-purposing text has a useful exercise: prepare someone else’s text for a class presentation, and present it at your own, reporting as part of your journal what it felt like to type it. The problem with this approach is that it blands out the greater possibilities too. Too many students work with text capture and cut and paste (faced, no doubt, with my own fed-up feelings of today, on learning I had to type out the work I was looking to blog about). But typing a work out (which Goldsmith does NOT rule out, I should say) should also be an act of fidelity as much as an act of self: did I get that right, have I taken this text across into my medium and done it justice? Editors who actually make books, as I have done, or websites can attest for a hundred years to how emotional it is to type out a text, setting it up for publication. One may have accepted it after one kind of reading and sifting, but typing it out for publication really does make you read the work of somebody else. If Goldsmith had framed his exercise with a nod to the history of the work of editors, especially poet-editors like Pound, it would have been wholly richer.

Moreover, when Goldsmith asks the student to keep a journal about the experience of typing up, he frames this along the lines of one of his least interesting works, Fidget, to notice, in classic American-Buddhist-lite fashion, how the body feels, the posture, and so on when typing. (This isn’t a full-on takedown of Goldsmith, I love his Soliloquy and like the concept work in Day). However, that would make proofreading and typing part of Canto 26 not very much different from typing anything else, in terms of my fidgets. But it was different, and I recommend the experience.

I noted, for example, the italics on pellande. Why does no other word in the passage get italicized? Could it be that there is no reason for it for meaning, or for sounding aloud, but that it’s there to break up the monotony? Why only one dash, after cendato? Same reason. Notice how the repeated words “doge” and “master” in the passage do NOT jump out as they would in a list poem; so that they sneak up on one as repetitions only when one bothers to read the poem aloud. And making the font serif, as they say, totally works.

After years of reading the Cantos, I suggest that they are primarily a work for sounding aloud, which is why I began blogging with that theme.  The more I listen to Pound reading aloud, the more the work comes alive.

But, crucially, it also becomes more monotonous and less various. It is, after all, a huge work, made by someone returning again and again to a contentious theme. What always drew me was how pleasant the Cantos was to scan visually. And I hold onto that sense of the Cantos, so that while I might explore passages for meaning, what impresses me is that: here is a huge work that constantly draws me in visually. That visually suggests a plethora of voices, and the work that has been done by Pound to build in sources, to show fascination with others throughout history. It isn’t just ego, ego, ego (although there is some ego).

We can still see the passage above as a poem, though, narrated by Pound. The same Canto includes passages presented as squares and oblongs of prose, with no indents. These always fascinated me, and must have fascinated some readers at the time: prose, in a poem! Interestingly, another blog on Canto 26 says about this:

“Pound quotes a few (mostly very long and) unquotable (here, for the sake of my readers) letters”

So let’s quote one of these un-quotable letters, especially since it is the one of the passages that we are lucky enough to have Pound reading.


Pound quote 2



Let’s note that there are capital letters here that are pure whimsy if found in the world of prose: e.g., “To see a Jerusalem I have made”. Is this passage free verse, or prose? It seems to have lines breaking after “the”, but do they have any kind of implied pregnant pause or an aura of ambiguity? No, I think they don’t.  It has abbreviations, but these are only for the eye: Pound reads “great” where the page says “gt” and “satisfaction” where it says “satisfactn, etc.

I can sympathise with readers, and bloggers, who pass over such passages, skimming and saying blah blah blah. I always thought that Pound was happy for me to skim, presenting me with a varied surface, much as the lyric writer of a music piece gives the music its head as pure music. When I hear Pound read passages from the Cantos, I tend to hear one kind of voice and rhythm, although it was very useful in this case because it brought the content of the passage alive. Pound’s in the Cantos is often a line broken in the middle, avoiding being iambic and with some of the sound, as my producer Paul Bajoria noted to me as we were preparing my Pound documentary for Radio 4 with him, of a Greek chorus. But, visually, the work sings to my eye. Notice how in the audio for this passage, Pound tends to read it as half sentences, ignoring the line breaks often. He knew, I suspect, that it would read well aloud, and then let his visual sense take over. A very fine visual sense indeed.

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Image Credits:

Image: Thornton Willis, Red Wall (1969)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons