The Pisan Cantos, the poetic sequence that Pound wrote while incarcerated at an open-air military detention center near Pisa in 1945, has long been recognized as a landmark of modern poetry. Since its publication, though, the sequence has provoked two very different readings, apparently opposed and yet united in their willingness to read Pound’s work as ideologically consistent. The Pisan Cantos were awarded the first Library of Congress Bollingen Award by a panel of internationally famous poets in 1949, and have since been surrounded by furor. An admitted fascist under indictment for treason because of wartime radio broadcasts made in support of the Axis cause, Pound was being honored for poems that lamented the passing of fascist and Nazi collaborators, and the general public rose up en masse. In constructing a defense of Pound, the Bollingen judges and an international array of prominent writers fell back on formalist criteria of poetic value and helped to forge a mandarin, politically conservative “New Criticism” that would dominate the next two decades of literary discourse and ultimately become the primary target of poststructuralist theory.
Other readers defended the Pisan Cantos by fashioning a more palatable reading of what the poems said; they pointed to currents in the text they associated with the lines “‘Master thyself, then others shall thee beare’ / Pull down thy vanity,” and suggested that the Pisan Cantos dramatized a moving, albeit reluctant, recantation of fascism. In this view, the poems were defensible not only because of their technical brilliance, but also because they established a new confessional mode associated with a revolutionary technical openness and a hypersensitive [End Page 69] awareness of the natural world. One contemporary reviewer, Robert Fitzgerald, wrote that Pound had sounded “a personal desolation” and had achieved “a kind of repentance that is enormously moving.” 1 In the wake of this and similar responses, The Pisan Cantos cast a long shadow over the poetry of the next twenty years, whether it was the confessional verse of Robert Lowell or the less intimate meditations of Charles Olson. Anchoring Pound’s influence was a perception that The Pisan Cantos were confessions wrung out of a repentant fascist by a dark night of the soul and the healing force of nature: spontaneous utterance and an apparent return to natural simplicity had given Pound’s words a special authenticity, an immediacy that was hailed as the ne plus ultra of poetic modernism.
Critics have since questioned the sincerity of Pound’s “repentance” as they have recognized obvious strains of undiminished fascist loyalty in the poem. And recently they have begun to question more than that. For the issue of Pound’s contrition has been seen by poststructuralists as related to the way modernist poetry’s “immediacy” authorizes factitious mystifications of language and nature. The strong version of this position argues for a necessary connection between the modernist manner of The Pisan Cantos, its naturalization of experience, and the fascist politics of its author.
With so much at stake, questions about how The Pisan Cantos were written take on a special interest. Do, for example, the facts of the work’s composition match the account of spontaneous utterance that Pound had advanced and that even his critics have assumed? A decade after their publication Ezra Pound wrote to a friend that all the “Pisans” were done at Pisa, that “not more than three lines” changed afterwards. 2 That is not, however, the story his manuscripts tell. Writing the Pisan Cantos was a protracted, complex, and fractured process. The actual composition took place in three distinct stages, each corresponding with changes in Pound’s circumstances, his self-assessment, and his political outlook. First, while still residing in Sant’Ambrogio and months before his imprisonment, Pound began a series of lyrical fragments that were overtly symbolist in style and avowedly fascist in viewpoint. Then, after circumstances had wrenched him out of his wartime retreat and into the prison camp in Pisa, his manner and subject changed. The literary model for his writing became a realistic poetic diary in the manner of Villon, and (though he incorporated from memory swatches of material from the earlier drafts) the center of...