Mind, Mouth and Page – (Pound’s Cantos)

Allen Ginsberg on Mind, Mouth and Page continues 

AG: (So) where were we? Where were we?

Student: The Greeks, The Greeks.

AG: The Greeks, The Greeks.

Student: But I want to know (more about Ezra Pound).. see, what Dante did, and what the Provencal people did.. I mean, Dante didn’t say.. well, I mean, just as you changed the time-sense around a little bit, you know, say, you took a look at the Provencal (poems).. He didn’t go right in(to) Provencal.. because..they had done a transition (didn’t you say? He wrote in Latin…

AG: Right,

Student; And what Pound didn’t seem to do, from my very very superficial, limited understanding..

AG: Uh-huh

Student: …is extrapolate.

AG: Oh, he extrapolated (alright). He (certainly) did that.

Student: But I mean, what I mean is…

AG: It took him a long time to get it really down

Student: Well I’ve been looking at something like the Cantos, from, I think, XCVI, somewhere in there, right, and he writes in Greek.

AG: Oh no no, wait a minute, these are..

Student: I mean, literally, Greek!

AG: One moment, one moment. You can’t be mad at a guy because he includes a little bit of Greek or Latin or various other languages in his poems. You can’t really. That would be like.. (literally) uncultured. But one thing you have to understand is that when you read the Cantos through, everything that’s in a foreign language is repeated over and over in an English equivalent in one place or another nearby. But he’s making a collage, and he includes the original Greek for those who know it, and for those who don’t know it, he’s got the American-ese, real American-ese translations that are real clear and interesting, and which all the classical scholars hate because they’re too American-ese. But, everything Pound has in funny languages, it’s in English, built into the Cantos. So there’s nothing missing there that way. He’s not trying to mystify you. It’s just the opposite. He’s just trying to even teach you a little bit of the Greek!. So it’s all there, but it’s built, like a Burroughs cut-up, in a sense. One idea placed next to another, or one image placed next to another, or one quotation or one fact placed next to another fact, and then repeated, like musical phrases, throughout the Cantos, over and over again, so that if you read it beginning to end, it takes a long time (but it’s a nice book to have by the bedside and read it that way). If you read it all the way through, what is it? – it’s the history of all his perceptions, his reading and his mind-thoughts, intellect, from when he began, around 1919, to when he near-died, around whenever, (19)71 or so – ’71. It’s the only example we have of a man keeping a poetry-diary of just perfect fragments and images – the best of the mind-flashes – for something like sixty years. His best, aptest, pithiest thoughts, the flashiest images that he saw – like trying to describe the light on the Mediterranean and with the waves and sun – “tin flash of sun dazzle” (which he came to in 1909) -“Tin flash of sun dazzle” – just the best, exact images he could (conceive), assembled, more or less in the order that they arrived in his mind. So it’s like a mind-history, that goes on from the beginning for 60 years, and it’s, like, a mad thing. It’s a very beautiful thing.

The problem is that he himself, at the end, sort of would agree with you, oddly, saying “the trouble with my Cantos is too much reference and not enough presentation – reference to the Greek, reference to various banking practices (that) he was hung up on, in that way he’d agree with you, but I think the data is all there.

One good thing is that there is one very slim, great, interesting book, which explains everything in 120 pages, called Ideas Into Action, which is a complete explanation of all of Pound’s preoccupations, all of his references, why he went to the Provencal, why he went to Chinese (history), why he was interested in specific areas of Chinese – Clark Emery, and University of Florida Press, Coral Gables. There is only one copy left at the Back Country bookstore, but I think it’s in the library. It was a revelation for me to read because I had read the Cantos for years but hadn’t gotten all the details straight, and the relationships between the details, and then, once I read that, it really clarified it.

Student: I realize now that what my question was, originally, was how he.. I lost the word.. “reconciled”, I guess..

AG: Yeah, right.

Student: … the idea of “American verse” with what he wrote.

AG: Okay. He was experimenting around. He thought he had to try to do it by going to equivalent transitional periods, researching them, figuring out what the basic principles of the transition were, and then applying it to American (verse)

Student: That I can dig, but then he dragged in this stuff too!

AG: Which stuff?

Student: The Greek, and the Chinese, and all the other languages

AG: Yeah, but it’s sort of like a very intelligent American

Student: Cultured

AG: Okay. American speech, yes, but there’s another principle involved here, that is, that it’s not only American speech but your own speech . Now, that’s the way he talked. Like (the poet) W.S.Merwin talks a very elevated, very straight, almost-Shakespearean, American-English, and that, really, apparently, is close to his natural voice. (William Carlos) Williams’ natural voice is this stammering, hesitant, Rutherford guy. Certainly what I write is not “American speech”, it’s my speech, (Jack) Kerouac wrote his speech, (William) Burroughs wrote his speech). The basic principle is, really, write your own speech. Writing your own speech, you’ll get, of course, some form of American speech. Williams was nearest to the common speech, I guess – street-speech (not street-speech) – but, of course, Williams sounds very arty, if you compare it to street people talking, Williams sounds very arty occasionally – “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens” – What farmer would ever say that? – “So much depends on that red wheelbarrow over there”!

Student: It’s not in his speech, it’s in what he saw, actually

AG: Pardon me?

Student: It’s not in his speech, because his speech is very plain

AG: Yeah, it’s in what he saw. Well, Pound was living in Europe most of the time, so he was an American-in-Europe writing about what he saw, (as Henry James, whom he admired, was an American, with an American mind, sort of, but exercising it on Europe). To carry it to a reductio ad absurdum, a suggestion implicit in your question is (that) it would mean that no American writer could go abroad and write a novel about Paris (I’m just carrying it (here) to an absurd level)

Student: Well, I’m sort of trying to understand from what you say, you know, and what comes out of it.. I’m just trying to get…

AG: Also, there are long passages in the Cantos that are very American-sounding too.

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