Below is the introduction to my dissertation chapter on Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos

The XXX Cantos: A Database Poem

“There must be some other way for a human being to make use of that vast cultural heritage”
-Pound in Guide to Kulchur, 1938

Introduction

Each of Ezra Pound’s biographers and the majority of scholars are compelled to remark on his early and abiding fixation on the tradition that loomed over his early twentieth-century poetry.  The Cantos, throughout the over forty year period he composed them, reflect Pound’s changing aesthetic and conceptual foci: he is by turns obsessed with literary and historical texts from Greek, Italian, American, Chinese, and many other traditions, each of which find their way into his poem.  While The Cantos present these materials without comment, as lines of text arranged on pages like any other poem, Pound’s letters and critical works continually betray his anxiety that he simply does not have enough time or energy to process, evaluate, or present the reader with enough materials from the impossibly large literary and historical archive.  The Cantos and the archive have a complex relationship because the text represents Pound’s creative attempt to reckon with the ideas that preceded him as well as an embodied methodology to manage the intractably large body of information.  Pound explicitly orients The Cantos to the archive through an inclusion of a massive number of references, allusions, quotations, ventriloquisms, and other intertextual elements.  The physical book in which The Cantos appears directly confronts the affordances and limitations of print media because of the sheer volume of intertextual material appearing in its pages.  In some sense, referring to the text as an independent object, a book, fails to describe the multiplicity of different elements that comprise it.  

These characteristics make The Cantos difficult to read.  Its difficulty results from the intertextuality, but also from the text’s lack of a stable poetic persona providing contextual cues for the reader as she moves from element to element.  The intertextuality and the the direct presentation of the intertextual elements create an aesthetic that foregrounds the selections of text and the shifting voices over the romantic poetic convention of portraying a singular simulated poetic persona.  In the absence of a unifying persona, Pound relies on calculated media effects to unify his poem.  Pound himself, in a 1924 letter to his father, deferred to a media comparison to describe how the different voices interact in the poem: “As to Cantos 18-19; there aint no key.  Simplest parallel, I can give is radio where you tell who is talking by the noise they make.  If your copies are properly punctuated they shd. show where each voice begins and ends.  it is NOT a radio” (Moody, Letters 548).  Pound’s poetry certainly is not a radio, but as he suggests, instead of unifying the voices through a simulated reality, print, like a radio, becomes a platform on which the different voices interact.  

Pound’s deferral to a new media comparison to explain how the voices interact invites interpretations of the poem drawing on familiar literary analysis paired with a comparative media studies approach.  Lori Emerson argues that Pound’s work gestures toward more contemporary textual media: “Despite what can often appear as an unbridgeable gap between digital and bookbound poetry, surely we can now say, looking at Pound through our present moment of digital literature, that his work stands as a bookbound example of what we now recognize as an emergent, flexible poetics that foregrounds the space of reading and language itself” (165).  Emerson’s argument that Pound’s work forecasts the techniques more recently implemented in digital media represents a significant recontextualization of the textual effects at work in the poem.  Emerson is not alone in locating aspects of digital media in The Cantos.  Critics frequently compare Pound’s distinctive aesthetic to other forms of media, particularly hypertext.  Implicit in these studies is a sense that the textual effects at work in The Cantos are not fully at home in print.  Rather than confining analysis of Pound’s textual dynamics to traditional approaches to poetry and print media, it is beneficial to examine how they seek to innovate on the level of form and media in ways that predict later instantiations of media technology and information management.  

Pound experiments with these media effects beginning in his early poetry and critical works, and the innovations each solve a particular problem of representation.  For Pound, these problems include the material limitations of the book and the page as media forms; managing the overwhelming volume of information the archive represents; and the difficulty he experienced bringing his creative impulses into being.  In analyzing Pound’s solutions to these problems I will focus on A Draft of XXX Cantos, published as a group in 1930.  Though they only represent a small percentage of the entire epic, the poetic techniques exhibited in XXX Cantos represent the culmination of a long and labor-intensive series of experiments, the results of which would persist relatively unchanged through the following approximately 90 cantos.  From the earliest versions, called the Ur-Cantos, to the final versions of each canto, Pound made several significant aesthetic and technical changes that have as yet unexplained consequences for how we view his poetry and print media in the modernist period.  Over 30 years later, in an interview with Donald Hall for the Paris Review’s Art of Poetry series, Pound would recount his motivations for developing what would become the poetic, aesthetic, and media functions at work in The Cantos:

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.  … Hugo did a Légende des Siècles that wasn’t an evaluative affair but just bits of history strung together. The problem was to build up a circle of reference—taking the modern mind to be the medieval mind with wash after wash of classical culture poured over it since the Renaissance.

The form Pound sought was elastic enough to integrate anything.  Developing the “circle of references” is an aesthetic and conceptual solution to the waves of “classical culture” confronting individuals since the Renaissance.  Pound explicitly discusses the form arrived at in The Cantos as a technical solution to the conditions of modernity in which the individual is assaulted by the accumulated force of the entire archive.  Viewing Pound’s poetic tactics as both aesthetic and technical constitutes an orientation to both literature and media that draws the two together while overturning certain prejudices associated with each.  Among the fundamental assumptions of this approach is that print is one media among others, and as such, its affordances and limitations overlap with other spheres of culture and media technology.  

By 1930, the XXX Cantos had become a series of elements “strung together” like the Légende des Siècles.  However, the elements were not arbitrarily placed alongside one another.  Pound identified “circle[s] of reference,” or patterns emerging between elements in the archive.  These patterns consist of associational connections that emerge between elements according to every imaginable type of relationship: character roles, orthography, phonetic rhyme, subject-rhyme, gender, socio-political circumstances, transmission history, mythological origins, metaphysics, power relations, industry, agriculture, government, economics, etc.  Pound used these links between elements as an embodied tactic for interacting with the overwhelming overload of information the archive represents.  He extracted elements that exhibited characteristics according to these patterns and included them into his poem, which, because of the flexibility of associations, was able to integrate anything.  These elements are fragments from other texts, references to literary and historical people and places taken from their original contexts in order to, through both their individual definitions as well as their associations with other elements, provide structure to the poem itself as well as a representation of literature and history.  It is essential to emphasize that associational connections are not neutral structural links.  Any association persists between characteristics that the two elements share and therefore, though an associational link may lend structure to the network of relationships of which it is a part, each associational connection is the expression of a particular and definable relationship between the elements it links.  The entirety of the XXX Cantos and the over 90 that follow them, are constructed according to these patterns.

In order to investigate how these different textual and poetic effects operate, I will begin by tracing the changes from the first Ur-Canto, Three Cantos I, to the 1930 version, Canto 2.  This development represents all the technical and conceptual changes necessary for Pound to arrive at the final form for the rest of his work on the poem.  From there, I will transition to a discussion of Pound’s critical work.  The critical texts not only feature his explicit discussions of aesthetics, poetics, and art more generally, but they are also sites of experimentation with print media and feature techniques that will appear and develop in parallel with his creative work.  I will demonstrate that the critical and creative works confront the same problems by seeking to capitalize on the affordances of print media in ways that facilitate a poetic expression of aesthetic, conceptual, and material strategies for engaging with the information overload of the modernist period.  His remarks in these critical works provide evidence that Pound not only factored in the affordances of print media to the production of his texts, but that he also sought to rethink certain conventions of print and how the page functions as a media interface.  Finally, I will turn to an analysis of the relationships between particular elements appearing in the early cantos to demonstrate how the associations operate both proximally and across distant locations in the poem.  Comparison with the database as a media form best illuminates all these interlocking conceptual and technical strategies because the XXX Cantos, like a database, is an open-ended information management media that derives its structure from the interaction between individually defined elements linked to one another through a flexible but precise associational logic.  These effects, each necessary to the proper function of the others, share the essential characteristics of the database as a media form.    

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