Sortes Poundianae

The Cantos of Ezra Pound
by Ezra Pound
New Directions, 1996
896 pages / $25.95 buy from Amazon

1. In the Middle Ages, as a practice of divination, as a method of drawing lots and to soothsay, to learn what might be the wrath to come, to draw out a linear progression from a dark mass of chaos, those with access to Virgil’s Aeneid might practice Sortes Vergilianae. The instructions were simple: fetch a copy of the epic poem, let the weary spine fall where it may, and whatever passage the eye lighted on the reader interpreted as indicative of prophecy.

2. My copy of The Cantos of Ezra Pound is a fresh New Directions paperback with the spine still intact. Regardless, it looks ominous. The backdrop black with serifed white letters stamped down on the cover. At twelve years old and knowing nothing of Ezra Pound, I picked the book up because it looked Biblical and heavy, like  תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, the waters of Genesis 1:2.

3. The Cantos present chaos before the Spirit of God levitates over the deep. Although Pound principally brings forward “light” as his favorite element of spirituality and mysticism, darkness pervades the poem. It’s universally acknowledged that the work turns on an axis based more on Inferno than Paradiso.

4. Interviewed by Donald Hall in The Paris Review, who spent three days with Pound in Italy during the early 1960s, a restless and writer’s block-inflicted Pound comments, “It is difficult to write a paradiso when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse. It is obviously much easier to find inhabitants for an inferno.”

5. After publishing Thrones de los Cantares, the penultimate section of the Cantos, Pound admits, “Okay, I am stuck.” One imagines him gazing out the window, sunlight revealing a Roman street where, if you dig far enough, discoveries of pagan rites abound. He continues, pulling at his beard, “The question is, am I dead.”

6. The aforementioned Hebrew typically translates as “without form and void” (KJV). It can also mean “utter confusion,” a feeling most readers share when tackling the Cantos. Pound’s classic outline for his epic poem, from a letter to his father (who was appropriately, I kid you not, named Homer), begins, “Live man goes down into world of Dead.”

7. Pound, like his hero Odysseus, descended into Hell and still lived to see daylight. Kept outdoors for many weeks near Pisa, Pound was a caged panther, captive of the US military in 1943. During this time or immediately afterwards, he promptly went insane, dubbed mentally unfit to stand trial, housed in the “bughouse” of St. Elizabeths Hospital for thirteen years. As the story goes.

8. To draw lots, to soothsay out of an inferno, is simply not done. It reminds one of the Faust legend, or Robert Johnson’s railroad deal with the devil. Like a Oujia board for literary nerds (or, more properly, “bibliophiles”), a variety of sortes tempt many.

9. But The Cantos beckon. Suck a poor poet into their orbit. They are sirens. Robert Frost mentions, in a 1960 interview with the Paris Review, how Ezra Pound practiced jujitsu on him in a restaurant. “So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrist, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head.” Like its writer, the poem practices a similar sort of action on the reader.

10. At the breakfast table, copy of the Cantos in hand, my Sortes Poundium conjured:






11. Pound wanted to have his cake and eat it too. One of the many systems underlying the Cantos revolves around a balance between “Kung and Eleusis” (LIII, 272). His belief in the glory of a unified philosophical government/economy as defined by Confucius (Kung) going hand-in-hand with Eleusis, which refers to the Eleusinian mysteries, fertility rituals and rites, practiced only by a chosen few in ancient Greece. Pound desires the hard non-poetic stuff and the poetic mystery ritual. Or, the virtue/liberty and the “pompous ritual theatrical ceremony.”

12. There’s good mysticism and bad mysticism, but it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart. Pound quips, “’A true prince wants his news straight’” (LIV, 285). Prophecies and rites, ritual and magic are designed for winding roads, not straight paths. To confound, to elude, to ambiguously guide. Not unlike a poem.

13. In Canto I, when Pound leads Odysseus “to the Kimmerian lands” for a pseudo-consultation with the prophet Tiresias, he seems to give the news straight. Surrounded by “souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of bridges / Of youths and of the old who had borne much,” Odysseus slaughters cattle and seeks an answer by a practice of ἡ νέκυια. “And [Tiresias] strong with the blood, said then: ‘Odysseus, / ‘Shalt return through spiteful Neptune over dark seas, / ‘Lose all companions’” (I, 4-5). It’s a dark statement, but also not too surprising – which one of us will not also “lose all companions” in our life’s journey? And do we let this prophecy terrify us? Delude us out of virtue and liberty?

14. As I mentioned before, the Cantos have an orbit. They operate as the poetic equivalent to Charybdis, the monstrous whirlpool that eats sailors and ships for breakfast. It’s no wonder that, in Book XII of the Odyssey, Odysseus opts to face Charybdis’s cousin instead, the six-headed water-beast Scylla. The gaping tide-mouth of Charybdis draws too many men to their doom. Yet Odysseus, like Pound, still wants to hear the song of the sirens. The enigmatic riptide holds fast.

15. Temptations and rituals, despite our best logic, still extend their jujitsu-trained hands, waiting to flip us through the air in a London restaurant.

16. We grope for the truth in darkness because we believe that a shroud of darkness imparts seriousness or truth-value. That we might lose ourselves in darkness, in ritual and rite, isn’t a consideration until we’ve already ventured there. Until we’re already lost, the guiding light banished.

17. Notes for one of the final cantos, CXVII:











18. Light and dark become easily mistaken for one another. Through use of the Medieval “light philosophers,” Pound intended to “write Paradise,” attempting to create, as presented in Canto CXVI, “a little light, like a rushlight / to lead back to splendour” (817). Yet the poem does not resemble this paradise, especially with all the hell and darkness rushing through it. Pound seems to ask, by the turn of the Pisan Cantos: What use is a heaven if hell exists?

19. “I don’t know how humanity stands it,” he writes, weary from his work. “With a painted paradise at the end of it / without a painted paradise at the end of it” (LXXIV, 456)

20. Poetry draws life-blood from the dangerous mystery, from the sojourn through hell in hopes of a paradise. And without Pound, no Ginsberg. Without Pound, no Olson. Without Pound, no Joyce. No Eliot. No William Carlos Williams. No H.D. No Tagore. No Hollis Frampton. No Carl Andre. No Stan Brakhage. No Arthur Russell. And on and on. Generations of poetic history and influence transformed the Cantos into an infuriating holy book from which we are descended.

21. A good deal of this mysticism doesn’t make sense, and neither does Pound’s infatuation with the mystery. He wants his historical epic poem to serve as a “school-book for princes” (LIV, 280). Why then make an instructive piece so obscure and arcane? So difficult to slog through?

22. An earlier canto, perhaps, provides the answer:









23. Getting through hell in a hurry (if one can get through it at all) is never a guarantee. Neither should one expect that this poem teaches a lesson, or displays a “natural language” like “the Reverend” T.S. Eliot’s poetry. One begins with chance. Rolling the dice. Allowing all manmade plans to go awry. Letting the pages fall where they may. For the framework we establish to slowly dismantle itself.

24. At random, I pulled another book off my shelf and flipped to its middle. “The system was breaking down,” begins John Ashbery’s Three Poems. I backtracked a few pages. It’s Ashbery’s poem, “Sortes Vergilianae,” which concludes his book The Double Dream of Spring. The final line: “Only long patience, as the star climbs and sinks, leaving illumination to the setting sun.”

25. As Pound writes in Guide to Kulchur, “without gods, something is lacking.”


References and sources cited:


John Ashbery, Selected Poems. Penguin. 1986. Pp. 118-123.
Hall, Donald. “Paris Review, “The Art of Poetry no. 5” with Ezra Pound. The Paris Review.
Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. University of California Press.1973.
Loane, Helen A. “The Sortes Vergilianae.” The Classical Association of Atlantic Studies.
Poirier, Richard. “The Art of Poetry no. 2 with Robert Frost.” The Paris Review.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New Directions. 1993.
Pound, Ezra. The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New Directions. 1968.



John Rufo reads and writes poetry at Hamilton College. He is currently working on an Emerson research project involving a creative investigation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos with Professor Steven G. Yao. He will attend the Ashbery Home School in August.