The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Canto 81 is a free-verse poem of 173 lines in Ezra Pound’s long epic poem entitled the Cantos. “Canto” is an Italian word for song, poem, or chant. Pound worked on the Cantos for more than fifty years, from about 1915 until his death. Canto 81 is part of The Pisan Cantos (cantos 74-84), which Pound wrote in 1945 while a prisoner of war in the United States Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) near Pisa, Italy. With a naïve and misplaced faith in the economic reforms of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Pound had delivered broadcasts over Rome Radio criticizing the United States’ actions in World War II. Without visits from family or friends and without his books, Pound wrote the eleven Pisan cantos mostly from memory as he struggled for survival during seven months of solitary confinement before being formally accused of treason.

This poem has two sections. The first ninety-two lines offer a meditation on attempts to find worth in life. Through short narratives and direct quotations, often in colloquial diction, the speaker presents ways of worship as well as rituals of everyday life from ancient to contemporary cultures. The first line grounds the poem in Greek antiquity: “Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom.” Zeus is a newer male god resting like a baby or lover on the breast of Ceres, the older female god of corn and nature. The section ends with a journalistic account which states that “my ole man went...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem, like many by Pound and other modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, accumulates images and documents that leap across time and place without explanatory connective material. Pound used an ordering device that he called the ideogramic method. Taking his cue from some Chinese characters called ideograms, he assembles images that present aspects of an idea. For example, he follows an image of nature comforting Zeus with a Spanish priest who helped Pound with research on the troubadour poet Guido Cavalcanti and a Spanish peasant woman who gave Pound bread. Together, these images convey the idea of kindness.

Pound led a transatlantic poetic movement called Imagism, which opposed nineteenth century Romanticism and sentimentality by favoring sharp, clear images, freedom in choice of subject matter, and common speech. Yet Canto 81 and other cantos have images that are not always clear and often seem to dissolve into other images. In this canto images include Greek and Chinese deities, a Portuguese folk dance, a French economic council, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the philosopher George Santayana arriving in Boston, and a reporter getting his story. Pound, along with the painter Wyndham Lewis and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, extended Imagism to Vorticism, which declared itself free from the need to imitate nature and celebrated energy changed by the artist into form.

Many fragments in the first section are reportorial or documentary in...

(The entire section is 499 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

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