After the Second World War, Modernist poet Ezra Pound’s Fascist sympathies led to his imprisonment in an American detention centre on the outskirts of Pisa. Sleeping outside in a wire cage exposed to the elements, Pound suffered a physical and mental breakdown. Out of these extreme circumstances came The Pisan Cantos. In response to incarceration Pound’s concerns turned inward and backward, leading Marjorie Perloff to call the sixth instalment of Pound’s Modernist epic ‘the great memory poem.’ He recalls friendships of the pre-war years, with Joyce and Yeats, both of whom were dead by the time of the poem’s composition in 1945. Elegiac in tone and more personal in theme than the other books of The Cantos, The Pisan Cantos are among the most attractive sections of Pound’s wilfully difficult project. Even the image of Mussolini and his mistress Clara, strung up ‘by the heels’, is given, in the book’s opening lines, a regretful turn, representing ‘the enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders’.
David Trotter writes:
The inspiration for the Pisan Cantos was a visionary encounter on a hillside near Sant’ Ambrogio with a barefoot girl and a group of ghostly companions including the troubadour Sordello’s lover, Cunizza da Romano, who in Pound’s view had transmitted the atmosphere of Provençal lyric, with its basis in Hellenic mysteries and a pagan ‘cult of Amor’, to Cavalcanti and Dante. The gods and goddesses are back in the Pisan Cantos, as both stimulus to and evidence of poetic renewal; along with various Amor-related elements from the early lyrics. It is not surprising that the Pisan Cantos should now be the first part of Pound’s epic poem to receive the benefit of a proper scholarly edition. Dense with allusion not only to literature in several languages but to historical event, and to Pound’s own life story, the text needs to be glossed in order to be read. The annotation Richard Sieburth has provided is ample without being fussy, and his introductory essay offers an informative account of the sequence’s genesis, themes, methods and critical reception (not least from the judges who awarded it the prestigious Bollingen Prize, in 1949).