- Reviewed by
On September 30, 1938, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed the famous Munich Agreement, putting an end to the crisis over the Sudetenland and staving off another European [End Page 615] war—or so it seemed. Sometime in early October, or perhaps even a little beforehand, Ezra Pound finished drafting ten new cantos, not on the escalating tensions of contemporary Europe, but on the history of China from 2837 BC to AD 1736. At the end of that October, the Chinese finally surrendered Wuhan to the Japanese after the longest battle in the Second Sino-Japanese War, but Pound turned from China to America, beginning a new sequence of ten cantos on the second president of the United States, John Adams. The Chinese Cantos and the Adams Cantos appeared together in 1940 as Cantos LII–LXXI, and they can seem hopelessly removed from the most urgent concerns of the day. They have also seemed to many readers a hopeless failure: dull exercises in a documentary poetics, most of their lines being culled, respectively, from Joseph de Mailla’s eleven-volume Histoire Générale de la Chine and from Charles Francis Adams’s ten-volume edition of The Life and Works of John Adams.
One of the most impressive features of David Ten Eyck’s excellent book on the Adams Cantos is that it shows how these problems are inseparable and so encourages a re-evaluation of both the poetry’s aesthetic merit and its historical significance. As Ten Eyck demonstrates, the Adams Cantos extend the documentary method of the famous Malatesta Cantos (Cantos VIII–XI), so that rather than incorporating historical texts into a larger narrative or field of poetic materials, a single historical text itself provides the poem’s narrative or map. Figure becomes ground. But at the same time the Adams Cantos are not merely a digest of The Life and Works, and their object is not simply the historical truth of John Adams, the myriad complications of his life and contacts. Instead, their object is what Pound called the “Adams paideuma”: a nexus of ideas about the natural, ethical, legal, and economic foundations of a just state. The gamble of Pound’s ideogrammic method is that this universal will emerge from the particulars he selects from The Life and Works, reframing and in many instances reinterpreting those extracts in the process. And at this level, as poetry that seeks actively to present a notion of constructive effort towards the good society, the Adams Cantos are urgently concerned with the crises of their own time.
Ten Eyck’s study is grounded in meticulous attention to the historical record, detailing Pound’s long-standing interest in Adams, from classes he took at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902 to unpublished materials drafted for his last finished volume Thrones (1959). When Ten Eyck turns to the archive in order to trace the composition of the Adams Cantos—from Pound’s first markings in his copy of The Life and Works, through successive drafts, to the final poem—the results are consistently illuminating. We find not hasty and confused jottings that assume the reader will fill in the blanks (a customary view of these poems), but the deliberate removal of attributions, glosses, and other explanatory materials, and the construction of new formal and thematic relations. To an extent that previous criticism has rarely recognized, the poem becomes an object in its own right. Building on this archival material, Ten Eyck’s account of the development of Pound’s documentary poetics involves a lucid meditation on the interpretative dilemmas that the Adams Cantos pose. What sort of reading does this poetry invite? (Or, better, what contradictory readings?) How does it reconfigure accepted notions of historical truth, of material documents, and of didactic poetry? What does the journey from A Draft of XXX Cantos to the late cantos look like when the Adams Cantos are taken to be more than a regrettable anomaly?
In this way, the introduction and the first three chapters of Ezra Pound’s Adams Cantos...