louisville university



The 45th Annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900

February 23-25, 2017

Conference Program




The Cantos of Ezra Pound: Epic, Philosophy, Spirituality

Chair: Prof. Robert E. Kibler

Section G6: Saturday, February 25: 10.15-11.45

Room: Humanities 122


The papers reunited in this panel propose to focus on Ezra Pound’s monumental poem The Cantos showing how in several instances the poet departs from the established ways of understanding the genre, philosophy, and spirituality of his poetic enterprise. The first paper sets the theoretical parameters by discussing how Pound’s poem deviates from the traditional varieties of the epic by proposing an anti-imperialist narrative. The second paper focuses on Pound’s use of the key philosophical term dao (way) in the Pisan Cantos as a “layered gesture,” suggesting alternatives from the Confucian credo he had adopted as his own life wisdom. The third paper concludes by reviewing key images of spirituality in the poem, showing the syncretism of Pound’s religious experience and its reliance on Asian sources.

Presumed Dimensions and Their Contribution to the Spiritual Character of Ezra Pound’s Asian Sources, Early Theories, and Later Cantos

Robert E. Kibler, Minot State University, North Dakota

There are a variety of images in Ezra Pound’s body of work that presume an unseen spiritual space or dimension of the sort to which Pound always inclined, and of which he found ready example in Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks, particularly those concerning Chinese landscape painting and the Japanese Noh Theatre. These images suggest a spiritual dimension because they conform to both Pound and his Asian source’s understanding of how such a dimension behaves. In this presentation I will outline how they contextualize a spiritual act, where they appear in Fenollosa and Pound’s bodies of work, and the means by which they offer us a fresh approach to interpreting the Cantos.


“As the fish-tails said to Odysseus”: Ezra Pound and the Counter-Imperial Epic

Claudio Sansone, University of Chicago

Scholarship on the epic tends to implicitly assume that the epic canon is justified on aesthetic grounds. Challenging this problematic assumption permits a reading of the epic tradition that does not quietly condone the imperialist (if not outright imperial) agendas that have stood behind the redactions of Gilgamesh, the consolidated texts of Homer, and the assumption into the epic canon of Virgil, Dante, Camões and Milton. Acknowledging that the works enshrined in such a canon owe their popularity primarily to extra-literary ideological pressures, this paper poses the question of how Pound’s epic project might be read in relation to certain Fascist public aesthetics that might have retrospectively co-opted his work into their ideological programme. Although we must accept the moralizing force of his work, Pound’s views on the epic tradition (and on traditionality more broadly) do not in fact align with definitions of the epic useful to ideological appropriation. By looking at the formal scaffolding of Canto I, I will show how the Cantos cannot easily be co-opted into right-wing ideological systems, and that carefully making use of its notorious elitist ‘obscurity,’ Pound’s text opens up the possibility of defining the genre much more democratically. To examine this seeming contradiction in an author that we are correct to presume would have wanted to be enshrined in the canon or ‘culture’ that includes Homer and Dante, I will review the argument from the perspective of Pound’s violent critique of Odysseus, the canonical epic hero par excellence, and show that he proposes a radically different system of heroism later in the Cantos that helps us define, retrospectively and for the future, a sub-genre of counter-imperial epic writing.

Dao as the Process and the Way: Ezra Pound's Translation of 道 in the Pisan Cantos.

Annelise Wasmoen, Washington University at St. Louis

As Ronald Bush has shown, Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos originally opened not with the screed Pound later composed on the execution of Mussolini, but rather with the lines "The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful, / rain is also of the process. / What you depart from is not the way." The projects with which Pound occupied himself during his internment at the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa in 1945—retranslations of Neo-Confucian classics interleaved with drafts of Cantos 74 to 84—all feature this interchange between two alternative translations of the Chinese term dao as either "the process" or "the way." I argue that this double translation of dao within the Pisan Cantos signals a vacillation between Confucian and Daoist perspectives, as Pound interpreted them, on the questions of engagement versus evasion, political investment versus self-preservation, and contemptuous denouncement versus contemplative withdrawal. Pound's study of foundational Confucian texts began in the early 1900s, followed by his exploration in the 1910s and 1920s of the Daoist and Buddhist writings contained in the Fenollosa papers. Later he would promote Confucian thought as a remedy to the political and economic diseases he diagnosed in the Western world ("Kung as medicine?"), coming to associate his "Confucian" credo with totalitarianism. Critical readings of the Pisan Cantos tend to absorb Pound's insistence on his "Confucianism" in a way that obscures the syncretic return of Pound's earlier fascination with the Daoist "way" in a counter-theme of ambivalence, negation, and disavowal.  The return to Daoist frames of mind emerges in a triple self-denial across as many languages:  ΟΥΤΙΣ, 莫, no man. In Cantos 74 and 83, this strain of self-abnegation functions as a counterpoint to the dominant Confucian theme. While Pound's Confucian engagements provide a central context for the Pisan Cantos, my detailed examination of the translations Pound actually used, as well as those he produced, sheds light on the poet's layered gestures toward both schools of Chinese thought to suggest an alternate way not taken, but from which he also does not ultimately depart. 



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