The Cantos  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Cantos by Ezra Pound is a long, incomplete poem in 120 sections, each of which is a canto. Most of it was written between 1915 and 1962, although much of the early work was abandoned and the early cantos, as finally published, date from 1922 onwards. It is a book-length work, widely considered to present formidable difficulties to the reader. Strong claims have been made for it as the most significant work of modernist poetry of the twentieth century. As in Pound's prose writing, the themes of economics, governance, and culture are integral to its content.

The most striking feature of the text, to a casual browser, is the inclusion of Chinese characters as well as quotations in European languages other than English. Recourse to scholarly commentaries is almost inevitable for a close reader. The range of allusion to historical events is very broad, and abrupt changes occur with little transition.

There is also wide geographical reference: Pound added to his earlier interests in the classical Mediterranean culture and East Asia selective topics from medieval and early modern Italy and Provence, the beginnings of the United States, England of the seventeenth century, and details from Africa he had obtained from Leo Frobenius. References without explanation abound.

The section he wrote at the end of World War II, a composition started while he was interned by American occupying forces in Italy, has become known as The Pisan Cantos, and is the part of the work most often considered to be self-sufficient. It was awarded the first Bollingen Prize in 1948. There were many repercussions, since this in effect honoured a poet who had been condemned as a traitor of his native country, and was also diagnosed with a serious and disabling mental illness.


The Cantos has always been a controversial work, initially so because of the experimental nature of the writing. The controversy has intensified since 1940 when Pound's public approval for Mussolini's fascism became widely known. Much critical discussion of the poem has focused on the economic thesis on usura, Pound's anti-Semitism, his adulation of Confucian ideals of government and his attitude towards fascism, and the relationship of these to the passages of lyrical poetry and historical description that he performed with his 'ideographic' technique. At one extreme, George P. Elliot has drawn a parallel between Pound and Adolph Eichmann based on their anti-Semitism (in an essay called Poet of Many Voices reprinted in Sullivan) while at the other Marjorie Perloff places Pound's anti-Semitism in a wider context by relating it to the political attitudes of many of his contemporaries, and says "We have to try to understand why and not say let's get rid of Ezra Pound, who also happens to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th C." In another exercise in contextualisation, Wendy Stallard Flory made a close study of the poem and concluded that it contains, in all, seven passages of anti-Semitic sentiment in the 803 pages of the edition she used (Flory (1999)).

Pound has always had serious if select defenders and disciples. Louis Zukofsky was both, and also Jewish; according to William Cookson he defended Pound on the basis of personal knowledge from anti-Semitism on the level of human exchange, even though, as reported by Basil Bunting, their correspondence contained some of Pound's offensive views. What is more, Zukofsky's similarly formidable but distinctive long poem "A" follows in its ambitious scope the model of The Cantos.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Cantos" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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