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Poetic Excess.

On May 3, 1945, two years after a federal grand jury indicted him for treason, Ezra Pound was taken prisoner by Italian partisans and handed over to the United States Counter Intelligence Corps in Genoa. Several weeks later, he was transferred to the U.S. Army's Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa, where he was held first in a steel cage and later in a tent in the medical compound. Here, on a yellow pad turned sideways, Pound began writing The Pisan Cantos, the first and longest of which leaps between descriptions of the DTC, remarks about contemporary politics, observations of the natural world, and memories of Pound's youth. The poem feels driven, unrelentingly purposeful, but at the same time chaotic, driven by forces beyond or beside the will. Any immediate evidence of structure, any sense of direction on which readers might model their own, is buried under the sheer accumulation of material.

"I live under an everlasting restraint," said Keats, "never relieved except when I am composing." This remark suggests that the act of writing is by nature an excess, a refusal of finitude, the transgression of a boundary that exists because the future does not yet exist. Admirers of compressed lyrics like "The Sick Rose" or "In a Station of the Metro" are not at liberty to imagine that genre-defying epics like Jerusalem and The Pisan Cantos are simply in need of a strict editor. These poems transform what might otherwise be egregious excess into a necessity, but especially in Pound's case, it is a baffling necessity, one that challenges us to confront the ways in which excess is central to the making of any work of art, not just works of art whose proportions are unwieldy and whose politics are reprehensible. One day the "Ode to a Nightingale" did not exist, and then it did. One day its author existed, and then he did not. How do we explain that?

Throughout Canto 74, the first of The Pisan Cantos, Pound offers a variety of metaphors for the poem's wayward accumulation of detail. He dismisses general concepts that "cannot be born from a sufficient phalanx of particulars," suggesting that the task of his poem is to provide such a phalanx. "By no means an orderly Dantescan rising / but as the winds veer," he admonishes, suggesting that the phalanx of particulars cannot be organized by the hierarchies familiar to us from centuries of Western thought. "As the winds veer in periplum," he elaborates, associating our readerly voyage not with the bird's eye perspective of a conventional map but with the periplum, the shipboard view of how the shoreline appears as it is encountered incrementally in time. Neither should we mourn the loss of any centralized perspective. "Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel," he intones, recalling Baudelaire: whatever we know of paradise we know from the disjointed world of particularity itself--"it exists only in fragments unexpected excellent sausage, / the smell of mint, for example."

All these metaphors are reassuring, since they suggest that we're supposed to feel disoriented as we move forward through the poem, overwhelmed by the unruly accumulation of particulars. They suggest that the poem's waywardness is not simply a reflection of the chaotic conditions under which it was written but the embodiment of a concertedly anti-hierarchical worldview. But the longer we read, the more dissatisfying these metaphors become. They justify the poem's highly disjunctive texture, but they don't help us actually to negotiate that texture. Many other poems are far longer than Canto 74 (Whitman's "Song of Myself" is almost twice as long), but the length of Canto 74 feels dauntingly excessive because the poem's material exceeds the grasp of its gathering metaphors. The metaphors urge us to enjoy the fragmented multiplicity of human experience, but instead we feel uneasy, disoriented.

Pound suspects we'll feel this way.
    I don't know how humanity stands it
           with a painted paradise at the end of it
           without a painted paradise at the end of it
   the dwarf morning-glory twines round the grass blade 


Faced with an indigestible glut of information, a reader may find the lack of any organizing teleology ("without a painted paradise at the end") as oppressive as the overbearing force of teleology ("with a painted paradise at the end"), and he's left only with one of the poem's nearly infinite array of meticulously rendered particulars: "the dwarf morning-glory twines round the grass blade."

Pound never relaxed in his devotion to poetic compression, and The Pisan Cantos is everywhere distinguished by an unrelenting density of language; it's hard not to hear the majority of the eleven syllables in this line as stressed syllables: "the dwarf morning-glory twines roundthe grass blade." Subsequent lines add an even greater semantic charge to this sonic density by juxtaposing a phrase in Latin ("great night of the soul") with references to the Crucifixion, the middle passage, and a litany of the names of fellow prisoners in the DTC. The phalanx of particulars accumulates with a disorienting swiftness.
    The dwarf morning-glory twines round the grass blade
   magna NOX animae   with Barabbas and 2 thieves beside me,
               the wards like a slave ship,
                      Mr Edwards, Hudson, Henry 


Any reader might be forgiven for giving up at this point, since almost every line of Canto 74 demands a meticulous attention, diverting its readers from the increasingly unmanageable task of seeing the poem whole.

But if we turn to Canto 75, the second and shortest of The Pisan Cantos, we find something different. Following the 842 lines of Canto 74, this canto contains just seven lines of verse followed by 124 measures of a musical score, written out by hand. The score is a twentieth-century transcription for violin of Francesco da Milano's sixteenth-century transcription for lute of Clement Jannequin's "Song of the Birds," a polyphonic motet for four voices. The score reduces the multiple voices of polyphony to a single voice, replacing sung syllables with pure sound, while simultaneously offering a visual equivalent of an experience that (as we find out later in The Pisan Cantos) Pound had every day he was incarcerated in the DTC.
    8th day of September
           f   f
                 d
                     g
                       write the birds on their treble scale 


Magpies, their downy white chests rimmed in black, continually repositioned themselves on the wires surrounding the DTC, as if to create the musical score of their own singing. This image is seductive: following the cacophonous multiplicity of Canto 74, it answers our desire for lyric singularity--the song is what it means. But to say that Pound aspired to the immediacy of birdsong in The Pisan Cantos does not do our experience of the poem justice, since Pound is not suggesting that he would compose a well-made lyric if only he could. His poem is a record of how, over time, we might condense a cacophony of multiple voices into a single voice. It is also a record of how we might come to find that single voice inadequate, however much we have longed for it.

This discomfort with the parameters of the lyric is essential to the lyric, and Pound is by no means the only poet to feel it.
    The vastest earthly Day
   Is shrunken small
   By one Defaulting Face
   Behind a Pall-- 


This poem by Emily Dickinson sets life against death, vastness against smallness, infinitude against finitude: the death of even one person reduces the earth. But Dickinson was not content with such piety, even though most reading editions of her poems might suggest that she was. As was often her practice, Dickinson offered several choices for certain words in this poem, leaving little indication of which word was to be preferred. The "vastest earthly Day" might be "shrunken" small, but it might also be "shriveled" or "dwindled." More provocatively, it might be "chastened." To imagine that the earth is "chastened small" by "one defaulting face" is to grant that small face an astonishing agency, and Dickinson recognizes the astonishment by wondering if the face should not be "defaulting" but "heroic," larger than life or death.
    The vastest earthly Day
   Is chastened small
   By one heroic Face
   that owned it all-- 


This version of the poem is no more authoritative than the one I quoted earlier. Like Pound, Dickinson is of two minds about a singular poetic voice, and the versions of her poem that I've constructed from her variants make choices that Dickinson herself declined to make: the first version laments the finitude of every human being, however insignificant, and the second version insists that an extraordinary human being may exceed her finitude, chastening the earth. But while the poem is anxious not to choose between these alternatives, preferring to equivocate, this anxiety itself suggests a preference for an imagination that wants to own it all. The poem is discontent with its own parameters, and Dickinson's refusal of the limitations of conventional publication allowed her to preserve this desire to exceed herself.

Because all poems are formal mechanisms, forged from the limited resources of the language, all poems are bound up in this dilemma: like the mortal beings who make them, poems want to exceed the restraints without which they could never have existed in the first place. But not all poems embody this dilemma as aggressively as The Pisan Cantos does. Years before he knew he was sick, Keats expressed "fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain," and throughout The Pisan Cantos the space of the teeming brain is figured as a six-foot-by-six-foot steel cage. Pound had nothing from which to make his poem except the contents of his own mind--memories, opinions, regrets, dreams--and he feared he was losing his mind. In a sense, this is all the material any poet ever has, and if Pound's situation feels poignant, it is because the situation so viciously literalizes the precariousness of any act of imaginative creation. The poem's excess, like any poem's excess, is driven by the wish not to die; but because the wish is experienced in such a primal form, the poem dramatizes its romance with excess excessively. Like any human being, but unlike most poems, The Pisan Cantos asks for more than it deserves.

This is why a satisfying reading of Canto 74 may neither turn away from the poem's unmanageable excess nor pretend to have encompassed it. We may neither ignore Pound's gathering metaphors nor pretend that they account fully for his need to set down everything he sees, thinks, and remembers on the page. Canto 74 lurches wildly among a variety of radically different tones, from harangues about contemporary politics and economics on the one hand--
       and in India the rate down to 18 per hundred
      but the local loan lice provided from imported bankers
      so the total interest sweated out of the Indian farmers
              rose in Churchillian grandeur 


--to reverent observations of the natural world on the other:
       and there was a smell of mint under the tent flaps
      especially after the rain
                     and a white ox on the road toward Pisa
                            as if facing the tower,
      dark sheep in the drill field and on wet days were clouds
      in the mountain as if under the guard roosts.
                A lizard upheld me
                the wild birds wd not eat the white bread
                from Mt Taishan to the sunset
      From Carrara stone to the tower
            and this day the air was made open
                for Kuanon of all delights
                    Linus, Cletus, Clement 


Some of these passages are immediately explicable and some are not, and even the most transparently lyrical passages are larger, more far-reaching than they seem. Our sense of Pound's heterogeneous spiritualism, rising from his reverence for the natural world, is sharpened once we know that Taishan is a sacred mountain in China, that Kuanon is the Japanese name for the Chinese goddess of mercy, and that Linus, Cletus, and Clement are Roman church fathers. But is our reading of the poem at large assisted by the knowledge that in 1925 Winston Churchill, acting as chancellor of the exchequer, returned British currency to the gold standard, reducing the value of one hundred Indian rupees to eighteen pence? The life of The Pisan Cantos inheres not in any of these discrete moments as such but in the way in which the poem twists and turns from one moment to another, fastening to the page the work of a mind desperate to compose itself out of nothing. "Enough is so vast a sweetness," said Dickinson, "I suppose it never occurs." And when a poem is driven by the desperate wish to exceed the boundaries of human mortality, then too much can never be enough.

Which is to say that in one important sense The Pisan Cantos is not unusual: at least since Shakespeare we have recognized how such twistings and turnings create the beautiful illusion of human interiority. What distinguishes Pound's poem is not even the violence of its disjunctions but the extravagant length over which they are sustained--or perhaps not sustained. The dizzying excess of Canto 74 threatens to undermine the illusion that the poem also creates, since the mind working to compose itself seems immediately to stagger under the weight of what it has composed. Because it honors the stagger, refusing to idealize the stagger as an antidote to Western thought, the best gathering metaphor that Pound offers for his poem is the Australian myth of the god Wondjina, who created the things of the world by speaking their names, only to find that the world quickly became filled with more things than anyone could use: Wondjina's "mouth was removed by his father / because he made too many things / whereby cluttered the bushman's baggage." The knowledge that he ought to be silent does not close Pound's mouth, for he knows that to have said too much is never to have said enough.

Every poet knows this.
    This living hand, now warm and capable
   Of earnest grasping would, ff it were cold
   And in the icy silence of the tomb,
   So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
   That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood,
   So in my veins red life might stream again,
   And thou be conscience-calm'd. See here it is--
   I hold it towards you. 


This poem, the last that Keats wrote, asks us to entertain a falsehood--that we see before us not a poem but a hand, a part of a body that stands for the being of the poet. Then, asking us to imagine that this imagined hand is not living but dead, the poet insists that we would gladly sacrifice our own lives to resurrect the poet's being so that he might continue to speak after death. And the poet is right. Far from recoiling from the poem's final line, we thrill to it, eager to participate in the primal wish that fuels the poem--the wish to exceed the boundaries of human finitude.

The Pisan Cantos is fueled by the same wish, but the poem's excess is more appalling. It's one thing to find ourselves sympathizing with a brilliant young poet on his death-bed and another thing to find ourselves sympathizing with a fascist anti-Semite in a cage. This is why The Pisan Cantos must also work to resist our sympathy, registering its excessiveness not only emotionally but formally, its language churning up a seemingly endless clutter. The poem does rise to moments of great lyric clarity, its multiplicity of tones annealed into what sounds like a single voice. But it is crucial that we feel not simply the isolated power of such moments but also the way in which the poem's roiling texture gives way to them--and then subsumes them.

This happens most obviously when we turn the page from the last of the 842 lines of Canto 74 to discover that Canto 75 contains almost no words: we are delivered to the space of pure lyricism, a condensation of the multiple voices of polyphony. It happens most memorably when Canto 81 erupts in the great lyric chant with which it ends:
    Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
   Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
         Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
   Learn of the green world what can be thy place
   In scaled invention or true artistry,
   Pull down thy vanity,
                        Paquin pull down!
   The green casque has outdone your elegance. 


Whether this passage expresses Pound's indictment of himself or his captors, it casts a cold eye on the excessive verbiage from which the passage is itself extruded. But once the chant concludes, subsequent cantos grow again as verbose as Canto 74, shifting recklessly between multiple tones. What could The Pisan Cantos lack more egregiously than "scaled invention"? Which is more excessive, more arrogant, the prophetic urgency of the chant or the chaotic effusion of language that overwhelms it? Poems as unmanageable as The Pisan Cantos ask us to ponder such questions, but so do poems as composed as "The vastest earthly Day"--not because these poems are in different ways about the wish to transcend the limitations of human finitude but because they are made of language, of patterns of repetition: rhythmic patterns, syntactical patterns, rhetorical patterns.

In a short lyric poem by Keats, Dickinson, or Pound, we tend to hear those patterns immediately, and part of Pound's mission in The Pisan Cantos is to deny us immediate recourse to such patterns, asking us to live in the long and often frustrating task of discovering them--and then rediscovering them after they've been swept away. But in any case the act of discovering patterns in art never happens instantaneously; it happens over time, even if the time-lapse is very small. In that lapse, we feel excess consorting strenuously with restraint. And ff the lapse is very large, we tend to call the poem excessive, and if it is small, we tend to call the poem restrained.

Keats once remarked that poems should surprise us with a "fine excess," a formulation that juxtaposes two Latinate words: "fine" (from finis, the end or limit) and "excess" (from excedere, to go beyond the limit). The formulation is boldly paradoxical--a limited limitlessness, a finite infinitude, a mortal immortality--but it is also accurate. For whatever else it is, the poem is the words on the page, and its drama of excessiveness is played out within the circumscribed arena of the linguistic medium, over which the poet has complete control. Chaos, like order, is in art a concertedly crafted illusion. So if, like the human beings who make them, poems want to exceed the restraints without which they could never have existed in the first place, then actually to exceed those limitations is to cease to exist. A poem cannot be excessive if is it not also fine.
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Author:Longenbach, James
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
Words:3451
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