Poetry Nation Review

June 1985

Peter Makin, Pound’s Cantos (London: George Allen & Unwin)

A short cut to a feeling of mastery over the Cantos might be deconstruction. The text seems to cry out for it. Antony Easthope tells us in Poetry as Discourse (Methuen, 1983) that with Canto 84, for example, the reader is ‘confronted with a typeface that is graphematic, an instance of writing’; the poem ‘does not set up a consistent narrator or represented speaker’. There is a ‘disruptive effect’ whereby ‘the shifting “I” … becomes available as a position in the text for the reader producing the text in the present.’ In other words, the reader, reception and the written word subsume author, intention and the world.

All such talk is alien to Peter Makin. He tells us that Pound’s verse is written precisely so that we may ‘read into things’ only those ‘powers that favour human well-being’. The student of the Cantos needs to be properly primed if the reading is going to have the right effect. Thus themes need expounding; and, where appropriate, the relation of theme to form. At the same time he is aware that the terms of his contract do not forbid controversy. An introduction may say new things, may revise scholarly opinion.

The author of the Cantos once declared that they were merely footnotes to the Divine Comedy. Peter Makin has taken the hint; and this volume of the Unwin Critical Library is appropriately authoritative on Dante. However, looking up references to the Comedy is apparently a lot less helpful than it is when reading T. S. Eliot — another writer of footnotes. Makin insists repeatedly that there is no literary ‘system or symmetry’ to the Cantos; but there is a semantic ‘order’, and it is this which derives from Dante. The spiritual intuition of the author of the Comedy, ‘in contradiction of his theology’, was that ‘the world is charged with God’: ‘God is its cohering, structuring principle. (This is not an argument from design; God is not the designer, but the Design.)’ Pound felt that the main achievement of Dante was to show ‘differentiated values in the universe. This leads to larger relations, and grand Structure; and also to microcosmic structure.’

We may take Makin to mean that Pound rejects God but embraces the ‘charge’. This then is a way of explaining the ‘open-ended’ Cantos. Pound assumed that ‘while no one here will get a God’s-eye view of a neat and mappable Creation, yet there is a shape in what-there-is, and that not merely the shape that the human Creative Eye happens to lend it. There is an order (not a symmetry).’ It is only by recognizing this overall vision that we can appreciate Pound’s enthusiasm for the linguistic particularity of his master (‘the single phrase, indi­vidual simile, sharply seen detail’): a skill which he sought to recreate throughout the Cantos.

One can see that Makin does not set out to provide superficial mastery over an officially problematical text. But while some of his re-readings might unnerve those who are already satisfied with their notes and sources, they will certainly come as a relief to anxious Pound beginners.

Thus he is against the tyrranical formal ‘blueprint’ of Homer’s Odyssey. He suggests that, though Odysseus may be the heroic type of the Cantos, the shape of the journey is more likely to be that of Hanno the Carthaginian, whose periplous (‘account of a coasting voyage’) is the origin of Canto 40. For as ‘a model for a cosmos-poem’ an Odyssean map ‘falsely suggests that a final overall view is possible, indeed normal’. By contrast a periplous poem ‘will give the trace of a concrete series of actions, from which one will be able to intuit all the information that such actions can validly afford.’ Makin is not talking about an endless play of signification, for again an ‘order’ is assumed; but over-insistence on a literary model inhibits a full response to Pound’s ‘values’. The truth rests with ‘things’, with concrete actions.

Initiation into Pound’s values will not even come by way of the mysteries of Eleusis. A ritual basis must be understood, but it is more accessible than previous scholars have suggested. We have to read Frazer’s The Golden Bough again, without thinking of the uses to which it was put by Eliot. A natural cycle of ascent and descent, life and death, partly represented and partly facilitated by rites of sexuality and sacrifice: that is what Pound took to be the frame of culture, the source of metaphor and the referent of all values.

Of course it might be argued that Makin in his book is really calling attention not to things but to texts. Pound’s relation to Homer, Dante or Frazer is another example of ‘inter-textuality’ (or what used to be called ‘tradition’). But I think Makin would insist that what Pound took from his sources was never simply a literary stimulus: they offered him themes, perspectives on a history which he inherited and in which he sought (albeit wrong-headedly) to intervene. It may be that finally we only master the Cantos by an appropriation of present words; but prior to this must come the understanding of Pound’s past and future worlds.

Laurence Coupe