Ezra Pound, Canto I…

August 5, 2015


Does anyone read poetry today?

Obviously some people do. I read and write poetry myself. But the number of people reading verse nowadays is small. We are true minority in the world of letters.

What about reading Ezra Pound?


I can almost hear the collective gasp. Pound? The anti-Semite fascist? The madman who turned bewildering obscurities into verse? Are you serious…?

Well, yes, I am. Pound, it’s true, held some pretty unpleasant views. He attacked the Jewish people; frequently partook of nonsensical and aggressive condemnations of usury (he saw Jew and usury as synonymous terms); he thought Benito Mussolini to be the proverbial bee’s knees! And he was undoubtedly a fascist and a great supporter of the one party state, but most of his poetry – and that’s what’s important to me – wasn’t (isn’t) fascist poetry.

Perhaps for many the problem lies in the complexity of the Cantos?

Pound started composing them in 1915, and these were first published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine, and in 1925 they were compiled into A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound’s early cantos met with less than favorable public opinion, a problem that would prove to be ongoing. Even his editor, Monroe wrote that she “read two or three pages…and then took sick.” Not a particularly auspicious birthing for one of the greatest works of 20th century literature!

Ron Bush in the “The Ur-Cantos” (The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Ed. Demetres Tryphonopoulos and Stephen J. Adams.), has this to say on the subject:

“By the time Ezra Pound published his first collected volume of cantos (A Draft of XVI Cantos of Ezra Pound) he had been redrafting the poem’s opening for ten years. Manuscripts and typescripts of fragments of a set of Cantos 1-5 dating from 1915 can be found at the Beinecke Library and contain some material never finally incorporated into later cantos (for example, sections on The Mahabharata’s “Vyasa’s Wood” and the Cynewulf episode from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

“Pound worked up the bulk of these drafts into the Three Cantos (sometimes called the Ur-Cantos) he published in Poetry for June, July, and August 1917, then tinkered with the texts in versions that appeared in the American edition of Lustra (1917) and in the magazine Future for February, March and April 1918. Between October 1919 and January 1924 Pound went on to publish small press or magazine versions of individual cantos that closely correspond to the canonical cantos 4-13. It was not until shortly before the publication of A Draft of XVI Cantos, however, that he recast the first three poems into their final (or near final) form.”

Ummm. And I’ve probably already lost you, poor reader, such a chronology is bewildering to say the least, isn’t it? So let’s take a quick look at what eventually became the “first” Canto:

Canto I
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day’s end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death’s-head;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and at the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the heards, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”

And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”

And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
“A second time? why? man of ill star,
Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
For soothsay.”
And I stepped back,
And he stong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions.” And then Anticlea came.
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.
In the Creatan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:

Our journey through history begins with this loose translation from Homer’s Odyssey – in fact a translation of a translation, because Pound worked from a Renaissance translation of the Odyssey, by Andreas Divus, published in 1538. The hero Odysseus journeys to Hades to communicate with the shade of Tiresias (who was, you’ll remember, a Theban prophet blinded, perhaps, by the Goddess Athena after he saw her naked!). Odysseus (like Pound) seeks knowledge. The knowledge he acquires from the dead is supernatural and forbidden to mankind.

Odysseus uses mystical, holy rites to call forth the shades of the dead. The unmourned, unburied Elpenor appears (he, you’ll recall, got pissed-up one night and fell from the roof of Circe’s palace). He wants Odysseus to return to Circe’s Island and carry out the rituals of burial and mourning for him…This to prevent his soul remaining in limbo.

Pound is calling up the ghosts of his past as well as the shades of Homer and Andreas Divus – not to mention the shades of Odysseus’ past. Thus Pound uses the story of Odysseus to tell us the story of himself. The free verse of Canto 1 begins and ends mid-sentence. It was Pound’s view that the Nekuia, the journey down to the realm of the dead was manifestly older than the rest of Homer’s narrative. It was something borrowed from an earlier age. Thus the oldest verse we have in a western language, has a fragment more ancient still, a fragment that celebrates the oldest of human concerns: the rights of the dead.

So this Canto in its opening communicates with dead masters: Homer, for one, Andreas Divus, for another; the ancient seafarer (Odysseus) makes a third. The archaic qualities of the verse, oldest Greek melded with oldest English via the cauldron of Renaissance Latin is studied and deliberate. “Its rush of narrative is pre-syntactic; its first verb has no subject, its first adverb (forth) works like a verb, and no Flaubertian subordinates conceal the simplest narrative connective, “and”.’

Pound in this first Canto displays his glorious vision of European poetry, as “a rich multi-lingual organism which develops in time but keeps all time simultaneous, and is preserved for us in strings of letters.”

The Canto ends with an evocation of Aphrodite. This hymn taken from “Hymni Deorum” appended to Divus’ book. “Cypria munimenta sortita est” translates as “The citadels of Cyprus were her appointed realm. We should make an offering to the Goddess, a “golden bough”. Why should we do this? “So that…”

And we are left to decide for ourselves. To make up our own minds. The essence of all ancient Greek philosophy…

Maybank Road, Plymouth

August 5, 2015


The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God (Deuteronomy 22:5)

Mum’s bedroom breathes the doze of Californian Poppy
the damp of Izal lingers in the outside lav
kitchen exhales the scent of tinned tomatoes
and cheese on toast

flap of washing stretches across the silence
of carless, cobbled, rubbish-free back lane
and Mrs Pentecost is shrieking for Diane
I don’t remember rain

in secret I’m wearing Marks and Spencer’s trousers
conspiracy with Mum in seersucker blue
my first – three quarter length and banned by Dad
as anti-scriptural

our front door opens straight onto the long steep terrace
with Salisbury Road Juniors at the top, scholarship class
the chosen forty, my favourite hymn
(in minor) God is Love

Marilyn Longstaff

(Marilyn Longstaff is a poet who received a New Writing North Promise Award in 2003. She completed her MA in creative writing in 2005 at Newcastle University in the UK. Her work has been published in a range of magazines and anthologies. Her first pamphlet, Puritan Games, was published by Vane Women Press in 2001. Her full collection, Sitting Among the Hoppers was published by Arrowhead Press in 2004. Her second full collection Raiment, poems based on the theme of how we clothe our physical and spiritual selves, was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.)


Not snow but off-white, almost bone, made of some early, heavy plastic. A big comb – as long as my arm, wrist to elbow.

I carried it in a leather purse hung from a strap on my shoulder. If I was old enough to carry a purse, I must have been thirteen or fourteen. I would stand in the girl’s bathroom at school or in the guest powder room at a friend’s house and run the big white teeth through my hair – which, at the time, my mother kept cut short enough to clean with a wash cloth, shorter than the fur on the kind of dog that has to wear a coat in winter.

I would comb my hair carefully, then – not quite on purpose – leave the comb behind on the vanity or next to the big porcelain sink. It always came back to me. Classmates, teachers, complete strangers, would run after me, calling, “Isn’t this your comb?” And why not? It was the only white comb in a world of black combs and furry, linty brushes. I admit it. I left it behind just for the pleasure of having it come back, boomeranging – thunk – into the palm of my waiting hand.

Then one day, it didn’t. I didn’t notice for awhile. I had such confidence – I had never lost anything important to me. What did I know? First the comb. Then my mother went to the hospital and came home without her breasts. Then my father left one day for work and never did come back.

I did the only thing a girl with no comb could do. I let my hair grow, tangling down my neck, shoulders, eventually past my waist. I grew the very hair my mother had always been afraid of, the kind that got her off my back for good. If the white comb had come home begging, banging on my door – it would have been for nothing. Even that comb would have broken its. teeth, weeping in such hair.

So the white comb stayed gone, unless – the thought occurs to me – it’s been here all along, a trellis lost in densest, deep wisteria. Could it be? I feel my heed gently, fingers searching between my shoulder blades – there, I feel it. Those bumps along my spine. The comb! Clearly this is the source of those sharp pains in my liver. What a relief to know! When I finally have an attack so acute I am rushed to the hospital, they will find it. The nurse will wash it in alcohol, hand it to me in a plastic bag. The white comb. Perhaps a little pink after causing so much bleeding. The white comb, my comb, in my palm again.

Worth any amount of pain, any number of stitches, to have the past again.

Jesse Lee Kercheval

(Jesse Lee Kercheval is a poet, memoirist, translator and fiction writer. She is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of numerous books, notably Building Fiction, The Museum of Happiness, and The Dogeater. She has published 3 collections of her poetry: World as Dictionary; Dog Angel; Cinema Muto.)


No boy can toy with the exposed portions of his reproductive system without finally suffering very serious consequences. In the beginning it may seem to a boy a trifling matter, and yet from the very first his conscience will tell him that he is doing something that is very wrong. It is on this account that a boy who yields to such an evil temptation will seek a secluded, solitary place, and it is because of this fact that it is called the “solitary vice.” Because the entire being of the one who indulges in this practice is debased and polluted by his own personal act it is also called “self-pollution.” It is also called “Onanism,” because for a similar offense, nearly four thousand years ago, God punished Onan with death (Genesis xxxviii, 3-10). This sin is also known by another name, and it is called “masturbation,” a word which is made from two Latin words which mean “To pollute by the hand.”

Sylvanus Stall
What a Young Boy Ought to Know.

Undo the sin of Eve…

August 5, 2015


“There is lust and then there is love. They are related, but still very different things. To indulge in one requires little but honeyed speech and a change of clothes; to obtain the other, by contrast, a man must give up his rib. In return, his woman will undo the sin of Eve, and bring him back into Paradise.”

Anne Fortier, Juliet

Sound advice…

August 5, 2015


Be Warned…

August 5, 2015


In the bathroom…?

August 5, 2015


“I kind of have to go to the bathroom,” Aria said woozily.

Ezra smiled. “Can I come?”

Sara Shepard
Pretty Little Liars


“What happened to Katzie?” (“KATZ!” the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used to focus energy and intention, named for Katz who had died after a long illness and been given a traditional Buddhist burial – but the little girl, Gita remains troubled by his death) “Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made – lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’

So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.
Zen Master Seung Sahn
(In conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students)
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn


August 5, 2015