There are some things that you can’t learn about a poem just by reading it.
For sure, I knew that, for Ezra Pound, the Cantos marked a shift in his poetic style/intentions that would govern the rest of his life’s work. But reading the Biography of Pound on Wikipedia this morning I came across this description:
On May 24 he was transferred from Genoa to a United States Army detention camp north of Pisa. He spent 25 days in an open cage before being given a tent, and appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound’s work, being a meditation on his own and Europe’s ruin and on his place in the natural world. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1949.
The Pisan Cantos were not the first, but they are considered amongst the most read and influential of the greater body of the Cantos. This was perhaps because, imprisoned in Genoa without his usual library of resources, Pound was less able to cram the page with allusion. Less able, perhaps, but certainly not prohibited. The man was a master of reference and deliberately so. As Marjorie Perloff reminds us in her review of ‘Ezra Pound, poems and translations’ by Richard Sieburth:
…when, on May 3, 1945, Pound was arrested at his home in the hills above Rapallo, he immediately put a small Chinese dictionary and a copy of the Confucian classics in his pocket. Working as he then was on his Confucian translations, he knew that, wherever the military police were taking him, he would need these books.
And so, coming to the end point of my quote mining operation, it is not clear how we should then approach the Pisan Cantos. I’m of the opinion that if a poem has established itself as important, without reference to its personal context, we then are entitled to gain more insight by looking at the experiences that surrounded its creation. How do we read it though? Was the writing process an emotional response to having been imprisoned in an open cage for nearly a month by the occupying American forces, or was he coldly going about his work despite his situation? Maybe both.
It certainly seems unlikely that the themes of the Pisan Cantos can be separated from the situation Pound was in at the time. The question becomes, then, how much do we learn by knowing what we know about the situation around these Cantos? Certainly the knowledge makes them seem more sympathetic in hind-sight, perhaps also more humane. For a poet who was widely criticised for his inaccessibility, perhaps the knowledge also makes them just that little bit more accessible as well. But, hypothetically, if we can’t learn about the context of the poem just by reading it, how much should we allow context to alter how we read and understand it.
This much, I suppose, is a matter of choice. A post-modernist or post-structuralist would probably tell you that understanding a poem’s context is not just valuable, but essential to understanding of the work, and I tend to have sympathy for this point of view. It may, ultimately, come down to just that, to point of view. A creator of concrete-poetry, for example, my say that context for creation is unimportant in poetry, as the effect of a poem comes from the direct experience of the reading/viewing. A devotee of the Beat poets, especially of Allan Ginsberg, might say that understanding the context of the poem is half the battle in understanding the poem itself. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer in this.
I do know that the American Library of Congress was able to look beyond Pound’s Fascist sympathies, his trial as a traitor, and his anti-Semitism when they granted him the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. Perhaps the lesson is that context doesn’t make or unmake the greatness of a piece of literature, but if it makes our reading more complete, then we can say it has its value.