Ezra Pound, Italy, and “The Cantos”
by Massimo Bacigalupo
(Clemson University Press, 2020, 346 pp., $120)
Ezra Pound was born and educated in the United States, achieved fame and notoriety in England, but spent most of his life living and writing in Italy, developing what Massimo Bacigalupo in his illuminating book calls an “Italocentric worldview” (29). No one is better qualified to examine that worldview: not only has Bacigalupo been a leading authority on Pound for the last forty years, but he has family connections to the poet: both his grandmother and father were Pound’s physicians in Italy, and as a teenager Bacigalupo began visiting him in Rapallo shortly after Pound returned to Italy in 1958, following his thirteen-year incarceration for insanity in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. Wittily evoking Alexander Pope in reference to an early book on The Cantos that was deficient when it came to his home country, Bacigalupo cautions “a little knowledge of Italian matters is a dangerous thing to would-be explicators of Pound” (104), but that isn’t a problem for this emeritus professor at the University of Genoa. One couldn’t ask for a better tour guide of Pound’s Italy.
His new book is divided into four parts. In the first, the most touristy, Bacigalupo tells us of Pound’s connection with three cities—Rapallo (a coastal village in northwest Italy), Venice, Rome—and the “green world” of Italy’s landscape and peasant culture. Continuously citing The Cantos as he shows us the sights, Bacigalupo demonstrates Pound’s key eye for luminous detail, for local color, and for the vibrant role folklore and even mythology still played in everyday life. For example, he quotes some mysterious lines from Canto 47: “From the long boats they have set lights in the water, / The sea’s claw gathers them outward. // But in the pale night the small lamps float seaward,” then provides context: “The evocation of night rites becomes more accessible when we remember that the custom of floating lamps in the bay at twilight is repeated in Rapallo, under what was Pound’s balcony, every summer on July 1–3, in honor of the Madonna of Montallegro. Montallegro is a hill over the bay where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to a peasant on July 2, 1557” (6–7). Ah, the tourist appreciatively murmurs; now that mysterious passage makes sense, or at least has a historical context. Numerous vague, inexplicable images sharpen into focus as Bacigalupo provides similar explications, demonstrating the extent to which The Cantos was as much a diary for Pound, an aide-mémoire of sights and sounds, as an epic “tale of the tribe,” as he called it.
Rapallo is a small country town. The next two chapters are on the big cities of Venice and Rome. Although Pound visited twentieth-century Venice numerous times, he was enthralled by Renaissance Venice—its churches, its architecture, its admirable leaders like Sigismondo Malatesta (1417–68)—as well as its connection to later figures like Mozart and the Scots financier John Law, who died in poverty in Venice. (Bacigalupo’s careful unraveling of the abbreviated references to him in The Cantos is a marvel of explication.) Rome is likewise cherished for its medieval history, architecture, and especially its mythology. And of course Rome is where Pound made his notorious World War II broadcasts, which led to his arrest and thirteen-year incarceration.
Bacigalupo comments, “Considering Pound’s frequent visits to Rome, especially at the time of his broadcasts, the city plays a small role in his personal myth (which is after all what The Cantos really are)” (33). One of the many attractions of this book is Bacigalupo’s frequent, similarly almost-offhand descriptions of Pound’s vast poem. Here are some others:
Ezra Pound thought of The Cantos as a container, an encyclopedia, a way of storing information in relatively small compass. (3)
. . . The Cantos can be approached as a journal, in nine or ten parts, of residence, travel, and reading. (5)
. . . The Cantos are largely about his energy and his attempt to make the good life available to his readers while remembering his own moments of vision and well-being. (33)
The Cantos are among other things a new Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, mostly through Italy. (35)
. . . The Cantos by and large can be understood as an autobiographical myth, which is also true of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” though the result is extremely different. (46)
. . . The Cantos, often portentous in tone, are addressed to readers who are ready to take them as a kind of sacred text, and not to look too closely at their inconsistencies and half-truths. (139)
. . . the Cantos [sic] are Pound’s conversation, “the theatre, the record of flux of consciousness.” (218, per Allen Ginsberg)
The Cantos are a moral tale from which Americans are to learn that a better life is possible for them. . . . The Cantos purport to be America’s new Bible, since the old one has done so much damage. (277)
. . . The Cantos are at least as unified as Yeats’s Collected Poems, as a portrait of an artist in his times, complete with loves, hates, wonders, and trivia. (314n18)
The concluding chapter of Part 1 focuses on the “numerous and recurrent moments of communion with the natural world” (47) in The Cantos, one of the most attractive features of the epic poem and one that any reader can appreciate without resorting to glosses and annotations. Nevertheless, Bacigalupo supplies the Italian particulars for these moments, especially the more hermetic ones.
Part 2 focuses on four individuals—three Italians and an American in Italy. The first is on Dante, whose Divine Comedy of course provided the ground plan for The Cantos, even though Pound was not able to complete his Paradiso, which crumbles into sublime “Drafts and Fragments” (as the last section is called). The second is on Nobel Prize-winner Eugenio Montale (1896–1981); like Pound both a critic and a poet, Bacigalupo discusses his essays on Pound and the influence he later had on Montale’s own poetry. “Montale remained essentially a puzzled spectator of the Pound phenomenon, viewing him at a safe and somewhat uncomprehending distance;” viewing Pound closer and with more enthusiasm was Carlo Izzo (1901–80), “one of Italy’s pioneers in the study of American literature” (87). He met Pound in Venice in 1935 and thereafter began translating many of his works, poetry as well as some nonfiction tracts like Social Credit and Jefferson and/or Mussolini. Bacigalupo mines the surviving letters between the two for many clarifications of the texts, and notes that he retained a recommendable attitude toward il miglior fabbro: “The fact that Izzo, a humane and sincere man, continued to admire and to some extent revere Pound despite their ideological disagreements, can be a lesson to us who after so many years could easily err on the side of severity as well as on the side of leniency” (88). Izzo later wrote that he knew “how remote at that time the poet was from reality,” how easily Pound committed “distressing errors in fields remote from literature” (89). Like many intellectuals who get so caught up in abstract theories they can’t see the damage done by less idealistic operators in the real world, Pound was a wrongheaded naïf in some matters, and later admitted as much, but he was also a superb poet, and that’s where our attention should be focused, not on his political incorrectness.
Part 2 concludes with an essay on the time spent in Rapallo by Pound’s principal publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions. Laughlin later wrote a memoir of a local woman named “Ma” Riess, and Bacigalupo discusses the various revisions the piece underwent, concluding with a newly edited text (and some photographs).
The first essay in Part 3 is likewise a discussion and annotated text of an essay Pound wrote in 1939 entitled “European Paideuma,” on belief and religion. It was written for German publication, which failed to appear, and Bacigalupo states (and shows) that “Pound’s notes and his additional explanations . . . are a godsend for all readers of The Cantos” (140), which are so hermetic at times that help is welcome from any quarter.
Pound’s interest in Italian literature was mostly limited to the medieval period—Dante, Cavalcanti, troubadours—but one modern writer who caught his eye was Enrico Pea (1881–1958, “pronounced peh-ah” he tells us). In 1941 Pound wrote him for permission to translate his 1922 novella Moscardino, resulting in an English edition published in 1955 (and reprinted in 2005 by Archipelago Books). But as Bacigalupo mentions on several occasions, Pound had trouble reading and writing Italian at a professional level, and the result is a mangled translation, as he shows in pitiless detail. He finds merit in the translation nonetheless as “an impression, an artist’s copy, of Pea’s novella” (165).
The highlight of Part 3 is Bacigalupo’s annotated translation of Cantos 72 and 73, which were written near the end of World War II and published in an Italian newspaper, but which Pound excluded from the book version because of their damaging political content. They were eventually added to the tenth edition of The Cantos (1986), and Pound’s rough translation of 72 in the thirteenth (1995). In 1991 Bacigalupo published a much better translation of it as well as 73 in the Pound journal Paideuma, and here offers a revised translation with commentary. Opinion is divided on the merits of these cantos, but Bacigalupo argues “they are central to Ezra Pound’s poem” (195) and provides everything needed for readers to make their own assessment. Part 3 concludes with a textual history of The Pisan Cantos—Laughlin’s choice of title, not Pound’s—and addresses what Bacigalupo regards as various misreadings of this superb sequence.
The Pisan Cantos were written in a U.S. army prison in Italy—within sight of the Leaning Tower—after which Pound was transferred to the States. Bacigalupo follows him there for two chapters on Pound’s years of incarceration at St. Elizabeths, where he wrote Cantos 85–95 (Section: Rock-Drill) and most of 96–109 (Thrones). I found these particularly interesting because both chapters feature Sheri Martinelli, whom I knew and have written about. She was Pound’s girlfriend between 1953 and 1957 and a major inspiration for the second half of Rock-Drill, and Bacigalupo draws upon her papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library to detail her presence in those cantos. Her annotations to Rock-Drill are all the more illuminating because, unlike Wallace Stevens, whom Bacigalupo discusses at the beginning of this chapter, Pound was not very helpful to those asking for explications of his often-cryptic poetry. His old flame H.D. took an interest in Martinelli after reading about her in 1957, by which time she had been cast aside by Pound for a new girlfriend (Marcella Spann), and the older female poet wrote about Martinelli in her memoir End of Torment—the subject of the next chapter in Bacigalupo’s book. H.D. and Martinelli became correspondents, but the latter wouldn’t allow her name to be used in H.D.’s memoir, so when it was posthumously published in 1979 she was renamed “Undine.” (Bacigalupo published an uncensored Italian translation of the book in 1994, but New Directions expressed no interest in publishing an English version.) All of this is told with great sensitivity and with much previously unpublished material.
Pound returned to Italy, specifically Rapallo, in 1958, where eleven-year-old Massimo Bacigalupo was living with his family, and the next chapter is an engaging account of his dealings with Pound (and his longtime companion Olga Rudge) during his final years. The concluding chapter is on Posthumous Cantos (bilingual Italian edition 2002, English edition 2015), his edition of various drafts and early versions of The Cantos, a crucial addition to the Pound corpus. Supplementing the fine introduction to that book, Bacigalupo discusses the highlights of the collection in a way that underscores its usefulness in understanding the published Cantos.
At the beginning of this book, Bacigalupo wondered about the fate of The Cantos in the twenty-first century: “as time goes on, their idiosyncratic mix of languages will discourage all but the most determined readers” (4). Those readers will certainly want to pick up this book, which not only clarifies hundreds of details in The Cantos, bringing us that much closer to the ideal of a completely annotated text, but is filled with fascinating anecdotes and revealing trivia, such as: “We know from Olga Rudge’s journals that she and Pound celebrated the happy completion of a Canto by making love” (200). Ezra Pound, Italy, and “The Cantos” is a major contribution to Pound studies and amply fulfils the promise made on page 6: “We will get to know him and his poem better, and we will also have a good time.”