A brief introduction to a modernist epic
Ezra Pound’s colossal work of modernist poetry, The Cantos, runs to nearly 800 pages and took him over half his life to write – and even then, he never finished it. Is The Cantos a masterpiece of twentieth-century poetry or an artistic failure? Is it sheer self-indulgent verbiage or an under-read and underappreciated epic for the modern world? We can hardly scratch the surface in this short introduction to Pound’s Cantos, but we’re going to address some of the key aspects of the poem and offer an analysis of its overall aims and features.
Ezra Pound referred to The Cantos as, variously, ‘an epic including history’ and, with more muted self-praise, a ‘ragbag’. Yet although it is undeniably a ragbag, there are a number of key themes running through The Cantos. Pound has started out with Imagism, in 1912, and the idea of ‘superposition’: placing, as it were, one image on top of another, so that in his most famous early poem, the two-line ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the faces of the commuters in the Metro station are placed next to the image of petals on the wet, black bough of a tree.