ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



Ezra Pound's Cantos have been called the Alps of Modern poetry -- as well as a few less savory names. They are, among other things, massive, difficult, exhaustive, elitist, brilliant, frustrating, at times morally repellent. But there they are: an unequaled demonstration of poetic technique by a genius who was, as he wrote them, gradually losing touch with what most people call reality. Pound worked on The Cantos for some thirty-five years, maybe forty-five if you count early fumblings toward their genesis. The poems we now call The Pisan Cantos were drafted in 1945 when Pound was imprisoned in a US Army detention center in Italy, following his arrest for treason. That the Objectivist poets -- nearly all of whom were Jewish leftists -- took Pound's poetics as their starting place testifies to his extraordinary usefulness to 20th century poets. George Oppen had already, in the 1930s, detached himself from Pound's charismatic attraction, though he never denied the older poet's central importance to the kind of poetry he believed in. Following Pound's fascist activities and Oppen's war service, they did not meet again until 1969, when they crossed paths in the offices of New Directions Publishing in New York. Oppen served in the infantry and was wounded by artillery fire in France shortly before VE day, trapped in a foxhole with two dead companions. He has written of this experience:

"I was with ((tho perhaps not very useful to)) the US infantry in France during the Second World War, and in the final days of that war found myself trapped in a foxhole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt's little poem – 'they flee from me...', and poem after poem of Rezi's [Charles Reznikoff] ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is."

We will talk about their poems individually, but we'll also try to think about (the varieties of) Objectivist poetics in relation to war experience. The DuPlessis article I've excerpted on this page will form the center of that discussion.


Ezra Pound: from The Pisan Cantos: LXXVII, LXXVIII, LXXXI; & the last Canto: CXVI. (Recommended: Canto LXXX.)
  • Let me know if you have The Pisan Cantos. If you don't have them, I can supply copies.
    (If you have the Selected Cantos, you'll have LXXXI & CXVI, but will need the others.)
  • I include LXXX because Kenner's discussion of it is brilliant. If you are a poet and want to engage with Pound, you should attend to his discussion of this poem. For our immediate needs, however, it's not central.
  • Our class discussion will focus on LXXIII and LXXXI and on the general significance and method of the Cantos.
  • Bookstore Photocopies: <>Hugh Kenner: "The Cage" (Required)
    Kenner narrates Pound's journey toward Pisa and provides brilliant readings of some passages as well as commentary on the whole project of the Cantos.
  • Optional reading, available in class: Anthony Woodward: "The Heroic Paradigm"
    Woodward's chapter is a close reading of Canto LXXVIII.

  • Optional reading on line:: An on-line annotation of Canto LXXXI http://www.uncg.edu/eng/pound/canto.htm

  • The Pound page on the MAP site http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/pound.htm includes a bio, comments on his relations with Fascism, and excerpts from his wartime radio broadcasts. There are many other sources on Pound, including a Listserv. Start the hung on the Electronic Poetry Center page http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/pound/.

  • George Oppen: from Collected Poems:
      • Route p. 184, Myth of the Blaze 242, From Disaster 29, Blood from Stone 31, Power 198, Of Hours 210 (to Ezra Pound), The Speech at Soli 234 (to Ezra Pound), Semite 246.  Page numbers are from the New Directions paperback. We will revisit Oppen in our reading on the Vietnam War.

      • <>An introduction to Oppen From: "Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen."
      • <>Also optional: one young poet's meditations on Oppen as a metaphysical poet: Dan Beachy-Quick, "The honest conversation: on reading George Oppen." The Southern ReviewBaton Rouge: Spring 2004. Vol. 40, Iss. 2;  pg. 369, 15 pgs.  Access through http://library.gmu.edu - choose Databases - Arts & Humanities - Expanded Academic ASAP - then search for this article. <>This article also narrates Oppen's post-war, post-asylum meeting with Pound at the offices of New Directions.

    From: "Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen." George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen.  Orono, ME:  National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1981. pp. 23-50.

    [This excerpt begins more than 10 pages into the interview with George Oppen and his wife Mary, conducted in 1980 when the poet was 72.]
    BH: I'm curious about your sense of syntax. In many of your poems you seem to be engaged in a deliberate disruption of syntax, breaking sentences down into detached phrases or even isolated words. I wonder how conscious you are of syntax in your poetry. Are these disruptions of syntax the result of a consciously thought-out set of poetic principles?

    GO--Yes, definitely. All along I've had a sense that the structure of the sentence closes off the little words. That's where the  mysteries are, in the little words. "The" and "and" are the greatest mysteries of all.

    MO--Well, also, George almost never uses punctuation or he uses it very sparingly, and this use of the line and the way one is directed to read because of the use of the line accomplishes, much more powerfully it seems to me, than the use of punctuation...

    GO--Yes, I use space.

    MO--Well, that can be compared almost to the spaces in sculpture, which sometimes accomplish s much as the solid stone itself.

    BH--Was a musical analogy important too, the silence as a kind of defining of the form, or do you think of it more in visual terms?

    GO--The music is very important to me, extremely important, but it's the music of a poem not the music of something else... I mean the progression of the thought which is music.  
    (pp 37-38)

    [Burton Hatlen then explains that when he gives an Oppen poem to his students they aren't particularly bothered by the fragmentation--]
    TM--In a funny way people of their generation have the advantage and the disadvantage of never knowing any grammar or syntax... they have no expectations because they have no...

    MO--They haven't been taught any.

    TM--Yes, they haven't, it's not a violation for them. Sentence as fragment is really the form of language that they have come to, rightly, I mean,... there's nothing the matter with it...

    BH--One of them said it looks to me like someone has erased half of the words and it's my job to find out what goes in the missing spaces. I wonder would that strike yo as  good way to responding to or seeing the poem?

    GO--Yes, that's good, sure. (pp 39)

    From Rachel DuPlessis: "Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision: A Study of Oppen and Pound," George Oppen: Man and Poet. Orono, ME:  National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1981. pp. 123-148. Where DuPlessis quotes sources I haven't consulted, I give her whole citation. When she quotes sources on the course bibliography I use MLA style to cite it.

    Oppen was an important mentor to DuPlessis, a member of the "Vietnam generation," corresponding with her for years on matters of art and politics. These selections address Oppen's syntax and method of constructing meaning at that level, as well as the various ways this method operates on a social or political plane.

    ...Oppen produce[s] profound, dramatic, and almost unspeakable situations, along with the implicit web of many interacting forces: work, longing, fatigue, craft, boredom, power. From the very first poem of Oppen's oeuvre, he announces the project: to identify "what really is going on" in "the world, weather-swept, with which one shares the century." This broadly social vision is the essential Oppen. It is a vision that precisely does not make the poetry say the right thinking thing, correct "line," or pre-established statement.

    Oppen has been so perfectly clear, however, about his non-relationship with the demands of a proletarian aesthetic or "socialist realism" that it might be easy to overlook the nature of the poetry he actually wrote. It is a poetry that talks about culture and society as a nexus of affiliations...

    Oppen writes the poetry of affiliation because he is concerned to understand and reveal
    an often implicit network of peculiarly cultural (not natural, biological, or crudely ideological) associations between forms, statements, and other aesthetic elaborations on the one hand, and on the other, institutions, agencies, classes and fairly amorphous social forces. (Edward Said: "Reflections on Recent Amnerican 'Left' Literary Criticism," Boundary 2: 8.1 (1980) 26.)

    He writes a poetry whose effect is to pursue these analytic affiliations, while at the same time immersed in other meanings of affiliation: having to do with parenthood and personal, communal bonds....

    It is evident that Pound wanted a social and political poetry. In this he represents the world-transformative project of modernism, and this is one reason he was admired by ...Oppen. One must criticize not this ambition but its manifestations. Pound's desire was totalitarian, heavy with what, in his view, ought to be. Hence it is a poetry that propagandizes, not even so much in its content (although Mussolini wafts in and out interestingly) as secretly in its structure and in the meaning Pound ascribes to his form. When Oppen rejects Pound, it is that deep political bias in Pound's use of the "epic" form that Oppen addresses. Hence in their objectivist poetics, Oppen and Pund were in fundamental agreement. In the carrying out of that poetics, they divided.

    Charles Altieri has defined the symbolist and the objectivist world views of modern poetry in ways pertinent to this discussion of Oppen and Pound. The romantic symbolist approach values the mind's shaping and interpretive capacities as it reflects upon the meaning of perceptions; this mode increases "the distance between the empirical and a realm of imaginative values." The objectivist begins with the detail, the seen or perceived unit, and proceeds by "thinking with the things as they exist" and as the person in context registers them. In this process, the poet abstains from "predatory intention," without teaching, converting, or hectoring the reader. Presentations -- not the rhetorics of self expression or confession -- become the poet's most exacting and comprehensive task. There is, then, in the purest objectivist poetics, an implied interrogation of the self and of any stated position or system because of this "sincerity." Sincerity can pull the poetic project back to unpredictable starting points: such a poet's test of vocation may then be that s/he is always beginning in "poverty" once again, that poetic closure is unstressed, and that the encapsulation of idea into system is avoided, for all would distort the poet's task. An example is the characteristic bewildered pleasure of Oppen "left with the deer, staring out of the thing, at the thing, not knowing what will come next.” (Altieri, 9).

    One may test Pound against what Altieri calls "the temptations of closure--both closure as fixed form and closure as writing in the service of idea, doctrine, or abstract aesthetic ideal" (Altieri, 15). Certainly The Cantos is an endless poem in formal terms, presenting "complex" by "instant" in a fusion of spatial network with temporal articulations of the self and its changes. Yet as certain values or discoveries are treated as settled, Pound's poetry can settle into his own repeating codes, with only perfunctory (dare I even say, only rhetorical) engagement with the tactic of beginning from poverty over again. From the inter-war period on, I would argue, while the collaged form of the poem did not change, the meaning which Pound gave to his formal acts did indeed alter. In the mid-twenties, that is, The Cantos modulated from an early concern for re-illuminating moments of full cultural and emotional achievement (moments of renaissance), to the concern which controls the bulk of the poem: making a "totalitarian synthesis" by the didactic insistence upon certain verities.  (128-131)

    . . . . . . . . . .

    What, in Oppen's view, is wrong with Pound's alternative? One answer may occur in the apparently innocuous word "want" [in Oppen's "The Speech at Soli" : "What do you want / to tell."] ....

    A social ethic cannot be constructed unless we know, finally, what we want. [Oppen to DuPlessis, personal letter 24 Jan 1969]

    And what we want changes, situationally, in time. It is only possible to live morally if one recognizes that different situations and historical moments demand different responses. This adaptability, I think, should not be reduced to opportunism....

    One of the largest differences between Oppen and Pound is that Pound was perplexed by, and resistant to, historical fluidity and its demands on praxis. He wanted things settled once and for all. Oppen did not resist fluidity, but was always fascinated by the ways the dimensions of "want" changed and could be reassessed. (134-135)

    . . . . . . . . . .

    Syntax in poetry, like narrative choices in fiction (e.g. coincidences, the nature of beginnings, what is resolved or excluded at conclusions), is the area where ideology or world view is most keenly revealed. What then is it like to read The Cantos, to read Oppen's Collected Poems? What world views does the poetry convey? (139)

    . . . . . . . . . .

    Therefore the tragedy of Pound, who staked too little on his poem as poem and too much on a narrow understanding of the historical realities with which he was confronted. Pound's Cantos have the shape and meaning they do because Pound's political desires overrode, eroded, and negated his poetic practice--the poetic practice which was the major source for the Objectivist position. And this gradually intensifying encapsulation of the poem was the result of a profound choice made in the inter-war years in response to the disaster of  World War I. Thereupon follow a series of tragic ironies. The poet who wanted the end of a symbolist poetics, the end of a hermetic, unrealistic poetry, the end of the poet's ivory-tower seclusion becomes more hermetic, more arcane, and inaccessible than he had ever desired. The poet who railed against allegorical equivalencies created a poetry of scholastic signals, to which one must be specially trained to respond. The poet who wished to convert readers and energize them into action ends by sapping the readers' strength or at least preoccupying them permanently in the very consideration of the poem. And the poet who wanted to educate a politically active elite has educated a far more inturning elite of Poundians.

    But Pound's legacy is neither his hierarchy of values nor his own hectoring insistences which could be written as mottos on half a page. Rather it is the flat, vast, uncoordinated canvas of poetry into which one steps as into world itself. Pound's legacy, then, is not his content, but his struggle within form, recorded on the level of syntax. He is such fecund soil for poetry because he struggled so hard with the seriousness of his objectivist poetics and of his political vision. And the Cantos are a ragged and bloody record of that struggle--between imposed categories and immanent lyric experiences, between kinesis and stasis, between the totalitarian and the democratic worlds, between the imposition of knowledge and the discovery of knowledge.  Pound, indeed, thought that his achievement was in "totalitarian categories": his readers generally think otherwise.... [T]his is Oppen's Pound: the Pound of struggle itself.

    The formation of meaning in Oppen occurs in linearity or forward movement... In Oppen, the reader experiences a forward pulse of language, especially marked in Seascape and Primitive:

    if you want to say no say
    no if you want to say yes say yes in loyalty

    to all fathers or joy
    of escape

    from all my fathers I want to say
    yes and say
    yes the turning

    of oceans in which to say what one knows and to
    limit oneself to this        (CP, p. 250)

    This pulse is ur-syntactic, seeking connectedness, yet a-syntactic because suppressing certain conventions for connection:
    That most complex thing of syntax, of those connections which can't be dealt with outside the poem but that should take on substantial meaning within it. [Power, 198)
    Oppen's poetry is built with strongly marked line breaks and a rejection of terminal punctuation in sentences: this takes place on a canvas with an uncompromising use of white space to solemnize the encounter between the chosen and the void.



    song?        the world
    sometime be

    world the wind
    be wind o western
    wind to speak

                              of this        (CP, p. 249)

    The vocation of poetry is never taken for granted: it is, in fact, reinvented at every turn. It is never a tool to get something else accomplished; it accomplishes only itself. Yet it is not an aesthetician's poetry, because through language it is announcing the world as ensemble. The syntax engenders that poetry of affiliation. By consistently placing the first words of a subsequent thought on the same line with the end of the last thought, a simultaneous hovering over and forward pulsing is created on the scale of the smallest unit. Further, a ratio or metonymic resonance is created between  the words on any given line. And finally, there is almost no descriptive amplification of any unit of meaning. These tactics create three feelings in the reader: mental weightlessness, physical density or pressure, and a sense of the void.

    The mental weightlessness of this syntactic movement occurs because no thought closes before it gets pushed past the possibility for such closure or terminus. One has a sense of freedom, of risk and also of the connectedness of things. These feelings become associated in their turn, and it is the connectedness and affiliations of the world as ensemble that Oppen is addressing, and which subsequently, and simultaneously, cause this sense of freedom and risk a sense of possibility and of awe.

    inshore,        the rough grasses
    rooted on the dry hills or to stand still

    like the bell buoy         telling

    tragedy so wide
    spread so

    shabby a north sea salt
    tragedy 'seeking a statement

    of an experience of our own' the bones of my hands

    bony        bony        lose me the wind cries        find
    yourself        I?

    this?        the road
    and the traveling        always

    country forever

    savage ....        (CP, pp. 239 240)

    When I think about the physical density of the experience of reading Oppen, I do not mean the richness of a cultural and mythohistorical circuit, the Poundian periplum, but rather a sense of navigation itself. Say when we sailed in the boat, going from Sunset Cove to Eagle Island, George handed me the tiller. Not sure what I expected, but  the sea pulled hard in every which direction. It was heavy and it pulled. The poem is then the person on the sea, steering, the sea pulling: the poem changes force and weight at every word but moves on its way, forward. Indeed, many of Oppen's poems have the sea as that force or element against which and in which all is tested. Syntactically and intellectually, the poems create a tension filled vector: "trying to find the thought that will take us somewhere" (Mary Oppen, in Power 203).

    A sense of the void is, of course, hard to describe. I am talking of the illuminated blankness before an image, an accident, an event. This is a defining moment in which the self is elected (out of its own resistances) as the explorer of that silence in which it is also dissolved. And from which it may emerge, stammering the relation of poetry to aphasia. This is the point at which Oppen's "take" on Pound cited as epigraph here -- that poetry should be at least as well written as silence -- becomes a serious matter of approaching a mystery of being without having to populate it with opinion and strained hope....


    In the sense of transparence,
    I don't mean that much can be explained.

    Clarity in the sense of silence.        (CP, p. 162)

    . . . .

    For one, it allows for the expression of spiritual heights and depths without assigning to these a structure from religion or myth as such. For another, it creates, within the texture of affiliation, spaces that prevent the social and ethical world depicted from seeming simply busy, chattering. For a third, it allows a space against which contradictions play, and which accords them the fullest possible force precisely because they are weighted against the void itself.

    Part of what Oppen achieves is a constant set of contradictions created within syntax, and these are, at the same time, the ethical experiences he proposes: love and rage, alienation and populism, the singular and the multitude, the "level of art" and the "me too of art," the children and the cataclysm. These contradictions simply continue, unresolved… In Oppen, the movement from word to word, the question where a sentence ends or whether it ends, the hovering created by removing a question mark from a syntactically created question, the multiple readings possible with intonation shifts -- these are some of the syntactic ways that contradiction is organized and sustained. (141-146)