The Cantos by Ezra Pound

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Pound’s awareness of his work’s extraordinary length, and of the amount of time he expected to take over its composition, were there from the very beginning. He wrote to Milton Bronner on September 21st 1915, ‘I am also at work on a cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length which will occupy me for the next four decades unless it becomes a bore.’ By December, Pound was working on Canto V and while ‘Cantos I – III’ are the early versions published as Three Cantos in Poetry magazine in the summer of 1917 (the so-called Ur-Cantos ), those numbered IV and V survived into the final text, though in very different forms.

Indeed, in 1915, Pound was still a long way from achieving the clarity and precise beauty of the poetry found in the published Canto IV , as this early draft indicates:

‘What do I mean by all this clattering rumble?’
Bewildered reader, what is the poet’s business?
To fill up chaos, populate solitudes, multiply images
Or streak the barren way to paradise

Too full of footnotes, too careful to tell you
The how and why of my meaning “here was the renaissance

These lines provide several clues as to what Pound’s intentions were in this early period of composition (his concentration on the idea of a ‘renaissance’ is revealing), but such lines are little more than jottings or notes. The same, in fact, could be said of passages of the (published) Ur-Canto I , such as when the speaker addresses Robert Browning as follows:

So you worked out new form, the meditative,
Semi-dramatic, semi-epic story,
And we will say: What’s left for me to do?
Whom shall I conjure up; who’s my Sordello,
My pre-Daun Chaucer, pre-Boccaccio,
As you have done pre-Dante? […]
Whom set to dazzle the serious future ages?

As Pound revised these passages, the befuddled voice of ‘the poet’ was gradually stripped away, so that the poetry was distilled down to its essentials. Pages of imaginary debate with Robert Browning about the problems of writing poetry were eventually reduced to just five lines in the completed Canto II :

Hang it all, Robert Browning,
there can be but one “Sordello”.
But Sordello, and my Sordello?
Lo Sordels si fo de Mantoana.
So-shu churned in the sea. (10/6)

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Ezra Pound
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