CALENDAR OF COMPOSITION
“I began the Cantos about 1904, I suppose. I had various schemes, starting in 1904 or 1905. 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. In the first sketches, a draft of the present first Canto was the third.”
“The Art of Poetry no. 5. Ezra Pound: An Interview.” Paris Review 28 (Summer-Fall 1962): 23.
The Cantos have been in Pound’s mind since 1908, at least ....
William Carlos Williams. Selected Essays 105.
He wanted - had always wanted - to write a long poem. Memory in later years traced the eventual direction of that impulse to a conversation - say circa 1904-5 – with professor Ibbotson who was teaching him his Anglo-Saxon. “I was in them days contemplatin a jejune trilogy on Marozia. Which Bib was naïve enough to agree wd/ be a man’s magnum opus if he pulled it off.” (Pound quoted in Norman 356)
Hugh Kenner. The Pound Era. London: Faber, 1971. 354.
From Scriptor Ignotus. A Lume Spento, 1908
And I see my greater soul-self bending
Sibylwise with that great forty year epic
That you know of, yet unwrit
But as some child’s toy ’tween my fingers,
And see the sculptors of new ages carve me thus,
And model with the music of my couplets in their hearts:
Surely if in the end the epic
And the small kind deed are one;
If to God the child’s toy and the epic are the same,
E’en so, did one make a child’s toy,
He might wright it well
And cunningly, that the child might
Keep it for his children’s children
And all have joy thereof.
Note: The “you” is the pianist Katherine Ruth Heyman to whom the poem is dedicated. Leon Surette considers that it was Pound’s youthful passion for Miss Heyman that made him compose Scriptor Ignotus and conceive the composition of his epic (A Light from Eleusis 28).
To Isabel Weston Pound, 24 November 1908
A 10; L/HP 144
My Dear Mother
I am by the way of trying a historical stunt on Portugal. Trying to hit a happy mene between “Sordello” which is fit meat only for cranks like myself who enjoy using their mental senses and the Tales of a Wayside Inn which are mostly twaddle or verging on it. (That is to say they haven’t much poetic magic about them.)
To Isabel Weston Pound, June 1909
Enclosed 1 tirade caused by phrase in your letter, quoting some one in Montana. […]
The tirade is to be read purely for ‘style’.
Epic to the West ? ? My Gawd ! !
What has the west done to deserve it - -
Whitman expressed America as Dante did medieval europe - & america is too stupid to see it – (- of course the result is somewhat appalling , but then - )
Kindly consider what an epic needs for a foundation –
1. a beautiful tradition.
2. a unity in the outline of that tradition.
vid. the Oddessy
3. a Hero – mythical or historical –
4. a darn long time for the story to loose its garish detail & get encrusted with a bunch of beautiful lies-
Dante in a way escapes these necessities – in reality he dips into a multitude of traditions. – & unifies them by their connection with himself.
Poor Longfellow tried to hist up an american epik.
Camoens. is the only man who ever did a nearly contemporary subject with any degree of success & he had the line of Vasco de Gamas voyage for unity. & the mythical history of Portugal for background –
Mrs. Columbia. has no mysterious & shadowy past to make her interesting & her present – oh, ye gods!!
one needs figures. to move on the epic stage & they have to be men who are more than men, with sight more than mansight, They have to be picturesque.
Bret Harte, Longfellow – (epic?) So I behold a vision – Rockfellow marches in purple robes thru a cloud of coal smoke, Morgan is clothed in samite, and the spirits of the 3rd heaven foster their progress enthroned on trolley cars
‘J’ai lutte contre les empererurs de l’acier, contre les paladins du fer, contre les princes de la porcherie. Ils ont voulu me briser les reins, mais je les ai solides’ says Theethedore Rosenfeldt. – as quoted by the satirist on the Journal de Paris’
When business begets a religion of ‘Chivalry in affairs of money’, & when 3% per annum is metamorphosized into the clult of an ideal beauty… & when america can produce any figure as suited to the epic as is Don Quixote.
and when the would be literati cease from turning anything that might in 500 years develop into a tradition, into copy at $4 per. col. within four . hours of its occurrence.
Then there may begin to be the possibility of an American epic.
An epic in the real sense is the speech of a nation thru the mouth of one man
Whitman let america speak through him. The result is interesting as ethnology.
Just at present I can see America producing a Jonah, or a Lamenting Jherimiah.
But the american who has any suspicion that he may write poetry. will walk very much alone, with his eyes on the beauty of the past of the old world, or on the glory of a spiritual kingdom, or on some earthly new Jerusalem, which might as well be upon Mr. Shakletons antarctic ice fields as in Omaha for all the West has to do with it. – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – set your hypothetical scene where you like.
Epic. of the West – it is as if I asked some one to write my biography. – it is more as if I had asked them to do it 12 years ago.
From Walter Rummel, 16 September 1910
J.J. Wilhelm. Ezra Pound in London and Paris. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP. 62.
When is your epic coming out! Do you see light there?!
From Dorothy Pound, 31 December 1911
L/DS 82; A 10
I am sure I have no suggestions for your long poem.
Ezra Pound, 1 September 1914
“Vorticism” FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW XCVI.573 (1 September 1914)
P&P I: 285; G-B 94; A 11
I am often asked whether there can be a long imagiste or vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved also the Noh plays. In the best “Noh” the whole play may consist of one image. I mean it is gathered about one image. Its unity consists in one image, enforced by movement and music. I see nothing against a long vorticist poem.
“The Classical Stage of Japan. Ernest Fenollosa’s Work on Japanese Noh. Edited by Ezra Pound.” Drama V.18 (May 1915); P&P II: 57-58. Republished with changes in Noh, Or Accomplishment. Macmillan 1917, 44-46. [Pound’s commentary to Suma Genji and his note. Text below reproduced from Drama]
I dare say the play, Suma Genji, will seem undramatic to some people the first time they read it. The suspense is the suspense of waiting for a supernatural manifestation — which comes. Some will be annoyed at a form of psychology which is, in the West, relegated to spiritistic séances. There is, however, no doubt that such psychology exists. All last winter I watched Mr. Yeats correlating folk-lore (which Lady Gregory had collected in Irish cottages) and data of the occult writers, with the habits of charlatans of Bond Street. If the Japanese authors had not combined the psychology of such matters with what is to me a very fine sort of poetry, I would not bother about it.
The reader will miss the feel of suspense if he is unable to put himself in sympathy with the priest eager to see “even in a vision” the beauty lost in the years, “the shadow of the past in bright form.” I do not say that this sympathy is easily acquired. It is too unusual a frame of mind for us to fall into it without conscious effort. But if one can once get over the feeling of hostility, if one can once let oneself into the world of the Noh, there is undoubtedly a new beauty before one. I have found it well worth the trial, and can hope that others will do so.
This last play of Genji shows us the Noh very near to the original, or early form of the God-dance. The first legendary dance took place when the light-goddess hid herself in a cave and the other gods danced on a tub or something of that sort to attract her attention and lure her out of her cave. The parallels with the religious origins of Greek and mediaeval drama are so obvious that I will not delay the reader by pointing them out. There are various differences: in Greece the chorus danced, in Japan the hero dances, and so on.
The arrangement of five or six Noh into one performance explains, in part, what may seem like a lack of construction in some of the pieces; the plays have, however, a very severe construction of their own, a sort of musical construction which I shall present in a future article in connection with the text of the Takasago play, when I get that latter ready for the public.
When a text seems to “go off into nothing'” at the end the reader must remember (as before said) “that the vagueness or paleness of words is made good by the emotion of the final dance,” for the Noh has its unity in emotion. It has also what we may call Unity of Image. At least, the better plays are all built into the intensification of a single Image:* the red maple leaves and the snow flurry in Nishikigi, the pines in Takasago, the blue-grey waves and wave pattern in Suma Genji, the mantle of feathers in the play of that name, Hagoromo.
* This intensification of the Image, this manner of construction, is very interesting to me personally, as an Imagiste, for we Imagistes knew nothing of these plays when we set out in our own manner. These plays are also an answer to a question that has several times been put to me: “Could one do a long Imagiste poem, or even a long poem in vers libre?”