N.B.: I am grateful to Martina Kleinart (Arcadia Film) for securing and digitzing the operas included here and recording the readings of selected Cantos.

Over the years Ezra Pound made a number of statements defining what he meant by
writing poetry in the sequence of musical phrasing as opposed to the measured timing of a metronome.
| 1 | Whether or not such hints help us to understand Pound’s prosody is the question immediately to hand, and the need to erect a theoretical base from which to scan the poetry on its own terms and explain Pound’s prosody. Obviously, the old-fashioned and highly artificial system of notation (qualitative/quantitative feet; iambic pentameter, etc.) is of little use. After all, that is exactly what Pound set out to subvert. Patterns of long and short vowels in Latin have little in common with the more subtly varied sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables in English. Clearly, Pound had a close understanding of classical conventions and leaned much from them, yet wrote in his mother-tongue and accommodated quotations from foreign languages to its implicit rhythmic structures.


1 | Most of them are gathered together in Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism, ed. Murray Shafer (New York; New Directions, 1977). Another source is Pound’s Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (Paris; Three Mountains Press, 1924).

The prosody that characterizes The Cantos arises from his early study of Provençal, a language, as he believed, in which words and phrasing naturally allied themselves with music. Having experimented with a number of traditional (fixed) metrical forms, he turned to the musical phrase and developed a notion of ‘Absolute Rhythm’. Murray Schafer has collated enough of the poet’s illusive comments for us to conclude, among other things; both that rhythm should be understood as organizing the parts (words and meaning) into a whole and that there is an important distinction between timing (measure) and cadence (a movement which is the spirit or soul of self-expression) – cadence corresponds exactly to the shade of emotion expressed. Also, one need not understand verbal meaning; rhythm alone would suffice. A concept that was common currency at the time and persisted throughout the twentieth century. Pound’s notion was not altogether idiosyncratic.

William James, Théodore Flournoy, and Ferdinand de Saussure (not to mention Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner) also shared the belief that a psychological sound pattern corresponded to a spoken word or rhythm and functioned through its difference from other signifiers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it was also taken for granted that poetry aspired to the condition of music (Walter Pater). Such symbolist ideas resonate with the perceived nature of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity: images are not merely representational, but embody a very real presence. Such notions lived on, well into the New Criticism and even beyond. Pierre Baudrillard, for example, recently identified the ‘simulacrum’ as an aesthetic image powerful enough to appropriate or supplant reality. In Lyric Powers (2009) Robert von Hallberg cites Emerson who did not wonder at the miracles attributed to the music of Orpheus (“And the power over wild beasts.” [XLIX: 47]). Throughout, von Hallberg celebrates the magical power in the non semantic sounds that voices make – harmonies, resonances, and elongated vowels (melisma).
| 2 |
2 | (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

T.S. Eliot also subscribed to such ideas during his early career, and Pound continued to believe that cadence, on its own, was meaningful and that there was little need to understand each and every obscure reference or foreign language. All one had to do was simply read and re-read the text – preferably aloud, – and comprehension would ineluctably follow. Nonesense. Explication/underrstanding,  is indispensable, and fortunately, any number of guides, companions, and commentaries already exist. Others, and better ones, will inevitably follow. More important still is a descriptive analysis of those principles of formal structure as well as strategies of metrical experimentation which hold sense units together. The music of poetry is, of course, a key to its meaning, but without reassurance as to the poem’s intellectual coherence and relevance, few readers will persevere.

Rhythm, an essential aspect of music’s power, is etymologically related to river – rheo (Gr.) [rhein]/flow. For Pound meter is mathematical while rhythm is organic. More than anything else, he hoped to liberate modern poetry from metronomic imprisonment and re-establish expressive (psychic) cadences. Pound’s suggestive comments, as gathered by Shafer, include such views as: a general tempo should govern the whole, while variations in speed and temporal intervals distinguish individual passages. Everything depends on exact placement. True rhythm assimilates uneven bites of time and makes music live (both noun and verb) against the background of metrical expectation. He considered the imposition of rhythmic uniformity absurd. Constantly varying rhythmic and phrasal units constitutes freedom, while symmetry – fresh and vivid, conscious or sub-conscious – shapes the whole and informs meaning. There can be no rhythmic diversity, however, without stability – variables versus fixed elements. Longer and shorter, heaver and lighter syllables are inherent in words. Special effects are created by insinuating freedoms into strict conventions. Words have natural rhythm and their arrangement in an overriding pattern gives rise to poetry. In an unpublished letter to his daughter [27 December 1954], Pound mentions the usefulness of paying close attention to Greek accents: “as [in the] difference between apSIS and APsis, also continual grab and clutch at their accents to make REAL prosody, never the easy slide into common place rhythm.” | 3 |

3 | With consent to publish by Mary de Rachewiltz from an archive at the Beinecke Library not available to the general public.
In Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, the perfect song is said to occur when the poetic rhythm is in itself interesting, and “when the musician augments it, without breaking away from, or at least not going too far from the dominant cadences and accents of the words.” (109) “In the finest lyrics the music so comes from the words and enriches, reinforces, illuminates them. We will recapture this art of illuminating only when we have musicians capable of literary discrimination, capable of selecting cantabile words, and of feeling the fine shades of their timbre, of their minor hurries and delays.” (126) What Pound has to say about the art of writing music is equally applicable to The Cantos: “[It] consists in knowing what note you want; how long you want to hold it; and how long one is to wait for the next note.” (133)