Cantos from a cage

Cantos from a cage
What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
From Ezra Pound Canto LXXXI
If modernism was a kind of Renaissance of this last century, as the critic Peter Craven intimates, then Ezra Pound is surely one of the greatest and most troubling figures of these dying generations, this botched civilisation.
His poetry reaches across cultures and centuries like a prophet in a tower. He is the great progenitor, whose heritage is stained by both his politics and his madness.
Overshadowing his poetic achievements – and the magnificent difficult music of the Cantos – are his failures as a man of judgement. Broadcaster for Mussolini. Convicted traitor, but spared by a sentence of insanity. Caged outside Pisa, where in the arid ruins of Europe, he sang the broken magnificent threnodies, the defiant laments of Canto LXXXI: what thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee.
Here is Pound himself reading from this most enduring Pisan canto. Unlike so many poets, Pound’s voice gives an extraordinary timbre to his lines, a shaking echo of suffering.
And then there is the great controversy of his stay in St Elizabeth’s lunatic asylum. Was he mad? Was he bad? Was his poetry the mind of poison or of greatness? Strange that Pound should not be a symbol of the language of madness in Foucault’s histories. Was the salon he kept an indulgence? Were the poets who gathered around him, and forgave him his misjudgements, naive fools, willing traitors, unwitting collaborators with the atrocities of antisemitism?
What do I learn from Pound? Neither acclaim nor ostracism can extinguish the voice. Neither tradition nor its breaking can constrain the voice. Neither madness nor politics can define the voice. Out of the cages of our lives, we sing our greatest cantos.

But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.

Ezra Pound from Canto CXVI

EP & White Cat_edited

3 responses to “Cantos from a cage”

  1. […] But it was not that strangely birthed book of misreading – Bloom’s own account of its place in his life appears in the much later, An Anatomy of Influence – but his later, deeper readings of longing and tradition that influenced me most. Bloom’s The Western Canon sits on my desk as I write this shambles of grief. I open it at random in the first chapter, An elegy for the canon, and read the sentence: “Where did the idea of conceiving a literary work that the world would not willingly let die come from?” (The Western Canon, p 19) This idea grips me – that our task, when surrounded by the flames of the burning archive, is to do what we can not to let the books burn, not to let the culture die, not to let what thou lovest well to be reft from thee. […]


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