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.

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  1. jeremy

      Awesome review, congrats on even finishing the thing. I got about 60 pages in once and…just couldn’t go any more.

  2. deadgod

      3. “turns on an axis based […] on” – The image of the Cantos‘ elements whirling around the example of the Inferno would be useful to the extent that the clarity and firm unity of part and whole in Dante were opposed to Pound. I think Pound might’ve been increasingly afflicted, after removal from Italy, to a sense of failure to match his Florentine inspiration (despite the many and great felicities in the Cantos).

      4. (17.) Pound would’ve been a crackerbarrel philosopher ushering in a golden age by way of correction-of-course… but his course eventually was not just the fuck-up of Mussolini’s fascist ‘total society’ (which would ironically have murdered Pound as soon as his idiosyncrasies and compulsive contrariety were recognized), but also of extreme ethnic violence. He can’t’ve failed to see, by the early ’60s!, that the course he chose – il Duce and violent anti-Semitism – was infernal.

      5. & 16. Where Pound “stuck” himself: unifying νέκυια (‘summoning ghosts’), Confucius and the Chinese written language and Chinese history, the American democracy of the Adams/Jefferson conversation, the abortive Occitan flourish and later renaissance of European antiquity as ‘modern’, Douglas’s economic socialism, Mussolini’s political fascism… making all that (and more stray tendrils) cohere…

      You see the problem with inductively discovering – or deductively imposing – a guiding light.

      [6. Excursus: if it’s “without form[,] and void”, if it’s ‘utter confusion”, how do you know anything is there?]

      7. The “panther” was Gaudier-Brzeska‘s image for Pound. A deliberate companion to Rilke?? Anyway, a rich coincidence, and nicely tied to the cage/s in Pisa.

      In my view, coalescing from reading (some of) Pound’s letters from the ’20s through the war, Pound gradually went ‘crazy’ in isolation and little-paid work in Rapallo. (Kenner explains this well, though perhaps too leniently with particular respect to the “cheap suburban prejudice”–Pound’s too-late words–of anti-Semitism.) His wartime broadcasts, for which he was tried for treason, are themselves models of lunacy. After he gave himself up to the American army; the (first) cage in Pisa maybe broke him, but verdict at St. Elizabeths (of exculpatory madness) was legit.

      9. I agree with Kenner: though sometimes enchanting, the poem is much less vatic than it is a well-reasoned–though rapidly associative–machine.

      11., 12., 21., et passim Look again at the poem of the “stock” of Confucius of LIII. By tracing the history of ‘China’ from the third millennium BC to Confucius, Pound seeks carefully (though sometimes in a gratingly jokey style) to disclose political-economic “justice” as grounded in proper agriculture:

      Yeou taught men to break branches
      Seu Gin set up the stage and taught barter

      “Kung and Eleusis”: right ethics are the accord between human life and ‘nature’, for which training (“catechumen”) is necessary.

      I think mystery and mysticism here are a misdirection.

      (See, for another example, LXXXI:

      Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom
      Taishan is attended of loves
      ………………….under Cythera, before sunrise

      Ceres = Demeter (Eleusis); Taishan = holy mountain in China; Cythera = Aphrodite.)

      13. (6.) Odysseus talks to Tiresias in the underworld: I is Pound’s version from the Latin translation (by Divus, printed 1538) of the beginning of Homer’s νἐκυια (‘ghost summoning’). Both the beginning of Od xi. and Pound’s Englished Latined Greek are examples of periplum, ‘narrative of a journey around a coastline, so the next sailor will recognize it; verbal map’. (Odysseus also talks to, for example, Agamemnon: “And as I lay dying…”)

      There is the periplum of “ritual”, and maybe a kind of magic, but it’s magical in the sense of ‘dimly understood technology’, not of magical thinking. I think that for Pound, poetry is not mystical.

      18. & 19. How humanity stands it – “heaven”, even in the Pisan cage/s (from LXXXI):

      But to have done instead of not doing
      …………………..this is not vanity
      To have, with decency, knocked
      That a Blunt should open
      …………….To have gathered from the air a live tradition
      or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
      This is not vanity.

      20. This is the ‘Pound era’ genealogical argument. I think it false. Joyce and Eliot, for example, were on their roads (and Joyce especially stayed independent from Pound’s attempted influence). There are too many of ‘our’ ancestors “without Pound” to mention them all: Whitman and Dickinson, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Hölderlin and Rilke, Muybridge, Picasso, Stein, Proust…

      22. & 23. A ‘framework slowly self-dismantling’ is an image fairer to Eliot than Pound’s caricatures of “natural language” and “through hell in a hurry”.

  3. Jeremy Hopkins

      Yeah, I only read whichever they put in the ‘Selected’ Pound.

  4. deadgod

      From the Cantos, I’d include, in a Selected, the wholes of Cantos I, XIII, XVII, XXXVI, XLV, XLVII, and LXXXI (that is, 1, 13, 17, 36, 45, 47, and 81).

      But then, I’d be excluding

      War, one war after another,
      Men start ’em who couldn’t put up a good hen-roost.


      A fat moon rises lop-sided over the mountain
      The eyes, this time my world,
      ………But pass and look from mine
      ………….between my lids
      ……………..sea, sky, and pool
      ……………..pool, sky, and sea,

      morning moon against sunrise

      and much very good else.

  5. Jeremy Hopkins

      I can read most Roman num’s, but not Chinese.
      I liked the NewDir ‘Selected’. I enjoyed Eliot, David Jones; I’m utterly certain I didn’t get every allusion, but I feel they are rich enough one can afford to let a few go by. And I’d guess the same is true for this bad boy.

  6. Jeremy Hopkins

      “…looking to read the poem…” Did Pound claim it really was a single poem/work? I don’t recall either way. Do you believe it is?

  7. John Rufo

      Pound viewed the poem as a single work, though it was in-progress throughout his entire life and remained incomplete by the time of his death. It was published in sections and only compiled as a single book later on.

      There’s a great deal you get from reading the whole poem in sequence that’s definitely missing from excerpts, but it’s also very easy to cherry-pick.

  8. deadgod

      He was, and it is, indeed: the Cantos aren’t impossibly erudite, nor are they a chaos (though, in my view, they don’t cohere… enough), and Pound is not mystical.

      To enter the poem – as much a single poem as the Iliad, Aeneid, and Comedy – without special training-wheels (not to be sneered at, but time might be little?), you could do worse than read the 13 pages of Canto LIII (which Rufo quotes above in 11.).

      It’s a digest of Chinese history from the third millennium to the life of Confucius (last English line: “Of such stock was Kungfutseu.”), told from the point of view of the political economy of an agrarian society. It also has about two pages of Chinese characters, which will go right past anyone who doesn’t know that language.

      Here’s another sample, and you get the idea of Pound’s exhortative poetry:

      Honour to Chao-Kong the surveyor.
      …………..Let his name last 3000 years
      Gave each man land for his labour
      ……………………not by plough-land alone
      But for keeping of silk-worms
      …………..Reforested the mulberry groves
      …………..Set periodical markets
      Exchange brought abundance, the prisons were empty.

  9. John Rufo

      The Cantos are definitely not chaos — my intention was to reassure readers who initially feel very overwhelmed by the poem (as I was during my first attempts at reading through the Cantos). The movement within the overall framework of the poem is chaotic, especially in the quick transitions between histories, subjects, and personalities. This does not mean that the poem does not make sense, but the immediate effect is (at least for me) of incoherence, particularly in the later Babel-towers of multiple languages firing at once. This is why many readers give up so early and also why well-trained, experienced readers of Pound can still feel confused when dipping into various sections of the poem.

      Pound, I think, retains the impact of unrecognizable new material while maintaining a framework that actually makes the poem, in most sections, cohere. This, of course, goes along nicely with his “make it new” dictum. It reminds me somewhat of abstract expressionist painting (which, of course, develops after Pound begins the Cantos) or avant-garde cinema (like Hollis Frampton, as mentioned in the review). These pieces can appear totally mad when you first see them, like Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, but after some thinking or deep observation, they begin to work and make a certain degree of sense. This doesn’t mean they’re not still slippery and elusive, though.

      As far as mysticism goes, Pound always insisted on concreteness; however, he is continually fascinated with the image of “Gods float[ing] on azure air” in his paradise. Even in “Drafts & fragments,” when Pound says “the Gods have not returned,” he still acknowledges some mysterious or mystical abstract force, although he may believe that it has abandoned us.

      There are many different readings regarding what Pound means by rites and gods — again, the last line I quote from Pound finds him insisting in Guide to Kulchur that “without gods, no culture. Without gods, something is lacking.”

      I think he provides a few different answers here. Obviously, his god is not T.S. Eliot’s Judeo-Christian God, and Pound gets closer to his own personal philosophy when he discovers the Confucius who “says nothing of the life after death.” There is no doubt that Pound gets increasingly more abstract in “Drafts & fragments” and that his dedication to the earthly system trotted out in the many histories of the China Cantos is weakened by his Pisan experience. He does not completely forfeit any of these old philosophies, but there is a noticeable pivot, a turn toward the belief of “those who no longer make gods out of beauty” (Canto CXIII), and a maintained fascination with Eleusinian mysteries.

      Hope this clears up some of my points — really happy to see some fine engagement with my piece!

  10. deadgod

      That’s kind of you to say.

      The “parched chaos of the Cantos” is a phrase that’s stuck with me; it’s from a George Steiner essay (about Leavis). You say it well: the poem doesn’t not make sense, but can have an immediate sensation of incoherence in its quick transitions.

      About mysticism and other themes, that Hall interview is worth linking to:

      Against the propaganda of terror and the propaganda of luxury, have you a nice simple answer?

      It’s true that Pound talks – in what figurative way? – of gods. Worth going pretty far to resist the idea that Pound would ever proselytize for magical stuff, but sure, there emerges in and from his poetry the, what… numinous.

      Always fun to go on about this desperately flawed genius.

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