Updated: Jul 15
Reality intrudes at the start of “Canto III” of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, creating the pivot on which the poem rises from the land of the dead described in the first two Cantos to announce itself as an epic, with the poet as its hero. This moment of reality comprises just six lines describing a decade-old memory. But they carry tremendous weight. It is the process by which they acquire that weight and how they come into the poem in this form that interests me here.
Here’s the background:
It is April, 1908. Ezra Pound has just arrived in Venice. There is scandal behind him: He was fired two months before from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, after his landladies discovered a girl in his bed. Attempting to defend himself, he said he’d slept in his office, and not in his rented rooms, because the woman, a chorus girl, was stranded in a snowstorm, and he’d given her his bed; but few believed him. Besides, the college has found his behavior since he started teaching there a year ago to be deliberately provocative, what with smoking, drinking, staying up to all hours, and entertaining women, and is looking for its chance to get rid of him. This report from the landladies stokes the priggishness of the college administrators. It’s the necessary last straw. It turns out to be good for the college, the landladies, and ultimately for Pound himself, that he left a town in a state which he labeled “the sixth circle of hell” (the one where the heretics burn).
He sailed from New York to Gibraltar, and has come to Venice, renting a room over a bakery near the San Vio bridge. It is a short half-mile walk to the Dogana, the old custom house, and he takes it sometimes to look wistfully across the Grand Canal to Saint Mark’s Square. He is poor, having only what’s left of his severance from the college, and so is too poor to hire a gondola to cross the canal and mingle with the crowds and see the sights up close. He has written poems before this, but with this break from the academy he is following his star and beginning his serious career as a poet. Three months from now, in July, he will self-publish his first book, A Lume Spento, then in August he will abandon Venice for London, where he will persuade the bookseller Elkin Mathews to display the book in his bookshop, an influential London literary venue. In another good turn, the London Evening Standard’s review will call the book “wild and haunting stuff, absolutely poetic, original, imaginative, passionate, and spiritual.” By October of that year, London literary circles will be talking about him; he is a still a young man, only age 23, but he is beginning to have a name. In a hurry to capitalize on his changed circumstances, he will turn to the handwritten manuscript which academics now call The San Trovaso Notebook for poems for a second collection, titling it A Quinzaine For This Yule. It will appear under the name of publisher Pollock and Co., but is in reality another self-financed venture. Pound is making the most of his new persona as artiste and poet, of being noticed. His appearance, for example, always somewhat eccentric, now takes a wilder turn. Ford Maddox Ford gives a description:
Ezra … would approach with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring.
This is not frivolous activity; it is one of many masks he will adopt in his career as a way to develop his work. Persona and work are related in his view, as the persona is the finder of fact, the maker of tone, the creator of the made piece. As the persona changes so does the work. Assaying the early work and the first thirty Cantos, the critic R.P. Blackmur will write in his influential 1933 essay, “The Masks of Ezra Pound” that “Mr. Pound’s work has been to make personae, to become himself, as a poet, in this special sense a person through which what has most interested him in life and letters might be given voice.”