The Search for “Prime Words”: Pound, Duchamp and the Nominalist Ethos

The Search for “Prime Words”:

Pound, Duchamp and the Nominalist Ethos

Marjorie Perloff

Paideuma, 32, 1-3 (2003), 205-28. Also in Ezra Pound and Referentiality (Paris; Presses de l’UniversitÈ de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003): 191-210.

but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin

or the man with an education

and whose mouth was removed by his father

because he made too many things

whereby cluttered the bushman’s baggage. . . .

Ouan Jim spoke and thereby created the named

thereby making clutter

–Ezra Pound, Canto LXXIV [1]

In a pioneer study of Ezra Pound’s translations of the Chinese poems found in Japanese transcription in Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks, Sanehide Kodama discusses the specific changes Pound made in the “Song of Ch’ang-kan” by Li Po (Rihaku in Japanese), translated as “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” [2] The original, writes Kodama, has the rigid form of gogon zekku: “eight lines, with five characters in each line in a strict structural and rhyming pattern” (220). And he goes on to describe the difference in tone as well as verse form between Li Po’s original and Pound’s dramatic monologue, commenting, as have Ronald Bush and others, on the greater subtlety and complexity of Pound’s portrait, the wife becoming, in his version, much less submissive, indeed somewhat rebellious.[3]

But the difficulty in assessing the speaker’s psychology –is she voicing her willingness to go to great lengths to meet her husband or threatening, as Ronald Bush believes, to come “as far as Cho-fu-Sa but no farther” ? (Bush 42)—is surely compounded by a facet of Pound’s poetry rarely discussed—namely his curious use of proper names. Consider the poem’s last four lines:

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

In the Fenollosa transcription, which gives the Japanese sound equivalent for each Chinese character, followed by their literal English translation and then a syntactically normalized version, we read:

So          ban                              ka                sam          pa
Sooner or later      descend            three whirls (name of spot on Yangtse

Kiang where waters whirl)

If you be coming down as far as the ThreeNarrows sooner or later

Yo            sho                    sho            ho                    ka
Beforehand with            letter            report             family-home
Please let me know by writing

Sho            gei            fu            do            yen

Mutually            meeting            not            say far
For I will go out to meet [you], not saying that the way be far

Choku            chi            cho            fu            sa
Directly            arrive            long            wind            sand

(a port on the Yangtse)

And will directly come to Chofusa. (Kodama 228-29)

The poet and Sinologist Wai-Lim Yip translates the lines:

When eventually you would come down from the Three Gorges,

Please let me know ahead of time,

I will meet you, no matter how far,

Even all the way to Long Wind Sand. (p. 194)

And another translator, Arthur Cooper:

Late or early coming from Sam-pa,

Before you come, write me a letter:

To welcome you, don’t talk of distance,

I’ll go as far as the Long Wind Sands! (Kern 199)

Both Cooper and Yip follow Fenollosa in rendering the Yangtse portChofusa as “Long Wind Sand[s[.” [4] But Pound, here and frequently in Cathay, insists on retaining the Chinese name, even if he often has to make it up, as is the case in the poem “Separation on the River Kiang,” where the phrase ko jin (“old acquaintance”) is turned into a proper name, “Ko-jin” (“Ko jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro”). [5] The “river Kiang” is a related example ofwhat we might call Pound’s hyper-naming project. In colloquial Chinese, as Yunte Huang observes, Kiang (“river”) usually refers to a particular Kiang–the Yangtse—just as suburbanites in the New York area will talk of going “into the City” when they mean “New York City.” [6] Thus, when Pound’s river-merchant’s wife suggests to her husband, “If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,” she is, so to speak, repeating herself.

Such overdetermination of nouns and noun phrases is typically Poundian. In Cathay, as in “Near Perigord,” “Provincia Deserta,” and especially in the Cantos, Pound’s is a poetry studded with proper names, whether of fictional or real persons and places: the names of Greek deities, Chinese Emperors, or Roman poets, or of actual persons and places from his own acquaintance, ranging from local restaurants in the Tyrol to London acquaintances– all these rendered by formal names, nicknames, pet names, and names in various American or foreign dialects. The later Cantos embed such proper names in a structure of Chinese ideograms (which themselves function as names) as well as passages of found text, so that citation, used sparingly by Pound’s fellow modernist poets, becomes the preferred poetic material. But the question is why. Why this longing to turn words that have specific meanings into proper names—names that designate a particular person or place and hence restrict the possibilities of reference? Why is “Cho-fu-sa” preferable to “Long Wind Sands”?

The usual answer is that the proper name is a form of concrete image, that the title “Separation on the River Kiang” has a specificity that would be missing if the title were merely “Separation on the River.” Proper names, by this account, are part and parcel of Pound’s Imagist, and later Vorticist doctrine, with its call for “direct treatment of the thing” and the “new method” of “luminous detail.” [7] The Image, we read in Gaudier-Brzeska, is “the point of maximum energy,” the “primary pigment”; it is “a radiant node or cluster . . . A VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing.” [8] If as Pound says in “A Retrospect,” “the natural object is always theadequate symbol” (LE 4), if, as he puts it later in the ABC of Reading, the Chinese ideogram is the touchstone for poets because, unlike the letter unit of the Western alphabet, the ideogram provides us with “the picture of a thing,” [9] then the proper name is essential to a poetics of “constatation of fact,” of “accuracy of sentiment.” [10] Indeed, so “accurate” and specific are Pound’s images and proper names that critics like Hugh Kenner and Richard Sieburth have remarked on their documentary realism: one can, it is often said, find a particular fresco in a given Romanesque church, by following the “directions” in the Cantos. Pound’s, says Kenner, is a “Michelin map [that] will guide you, perhaps two hours by car from Montségur. A system of words denotes that verifiable landscape. . . . The words point, and the arranger of the words works in trust that we shall find their connections validated outside the poem.” [11]

In Pound’s later work, Imagist “constatation of fact” is increasingly associated with Confucianism: specifically, the doctrine in the Analects cited by Pound at the opening of Guide to Kulchur:

Tseu-Lou asked: If the Prince of Mei appointed you head of the government, to what wd. you first set your mind?

Kung: To call people and things by their names, that is by the correct denominations, to see that the terminology was exact. . . .

If the terminology be not exact, if it fit not the thing, the governmental instructions will not be explicit, if the instructions aren’t clear and the names don’t fit, you can not conduct business properly. [12]

The chêng ming , as the “rectification of names” is called, is essential to a well-ordered society. Things in actual fact, Confucius believed, should be made to accord with the implication attached to them by names. Indeed, as Fung Yu-Lan puts it in his history of Chinese philosophy, “every name contains certain implications which constitute the essence of that class of things to which this name applies. Such things, therefore, should agree with this ideal essence. The essence of a ruler is what the ruler ideally ought to be. . . . There is an agreement between name and actuality.”[13]

No doubt Pound yearned for such a perfect fit, for the hierarchical order first celebrated in Canto XIII (“Kung walked in the temple. . .”) and amplified by Pound in his translation of Confucian writings called The Unwobbling Pivot & the Great Digest (1947). In theory, the Confucian Ch’I (“air” or “breath”), which Pound derived from Mencius, is regularly invoked in the Cantos, where it is regularly associated with the Neo-Platonic “great ball of crystal” (see esp. C. CXVI), the Plotinian nous celebrated by Pound’s favorite medieval philosophers and poets. Canto LI, for example, opens with a citation from Guido Guinicelli’s Al cor gentil : “Shines / in the mind of heaven God / who made it / more than the sun / in our eye” and in Canto LV, we read:

Honour to CHIN-TSONG the modest

Lux enim per se omnem in partem

Reason from heaven, saith Tcheou Ton-y

Enlighteneth all things

Seipsum seipsum diffundit, risplende (C 298)

Michael André Bernstein comments:

Chin-song (Shên-Tsung) was one of the Chinese Emperors . . . of whom Pound approved because of his able administration and adherence to the Confucian ideal of the just ruler.

The next line as well as part of the last one is a variation of Robert Grosseteste’s (c. 117-1253) statement in his treatise De Luce, “Lux enim per se in omnem partem se ipsum diffundit,” and means, “For light, of its nature shines (diffuses itself) in all directions.”. . . . Tcheou Ton-y (Chou Tun-I) was a noted Confucian scholar and philosopher (1017-1073) who wrote a commentary on the I Ching. The theory here attributed to [him] is one dear to Pound, neo-Platonism, and Confucianism: the natural relationship between heaven and earth is one of essential harmony; the cosmos is governed by a divine reason.. . . The repetition of “seipipsum, seipsum” (itself, itself) suggests a cry of joy. . . . [14]

The light shines forth. Risplende.

But the fact is, that even ardent expositors of Pound’s Confucianism and neo-Platonism have had to concede that the privileged moments in the Cantos when the poet is able to celebrate the chêng ming and invoke the “great acorn of light” (C 813) are largely offset—indeed, contradicted– by the actual verbal texture of Pound’s “epic including history.” For Bernstein, this contradiction suggests a “chronic limitation” of Pound’s ideogrammic technique. When, for example, in Canto LIV, the line “and HAN was after 43 years of TSIN dynasty,” is juxtaposed to the lines, “some cook, some do not cook, /some things can not be changed” (C 275), with their reference to the friction between Pound’s wife Dorothy and mistress Olga in their ménage-à trois days during the war, Bernstein complains that the personal reference trivializes rather than intensifies the Confucian historiography that precedes it (Bernstein 45-46).

But there is another way of regarding Pound’s seeming failure to sustain his vision. My own sense is that however much Pound yearned to believe in Confucian and neo-Platonic doctrine, his own bent was toward a nominalism that ironically nourished his long poem much more successfully than he himself might have imagined. Indeed, whereas the invocation of the resplendent light could yield brief epiphanic moments of lyric intensity, they could hardly sustain an encyclopedic poem, written over half a century, as could Pound’s particular brand of nominalism.

For the medieval Scholastics, nominalism was the doctrine that “denies the existence of abstract objects and universals, holding that these are not required to explain the significance of words apparently referring to them. Nominalism holds that all that really exists are particular, usually physical objects, and that properties, numbers, and sets (for instance) are not further things in the world, but merely features of our way of thinking or speaking about those things that do exist. [15] Thus defined, nominalism is not simply equivalent to empiricism, for it takes the particulars in question, not as so much material data, but as discrete and unique bearers of meaning. It is the relation of particular to the “essence” beyond it that is questioned. What makes Pound a nominalist is his peculiar fixation on the uniqueness of a given word or object, its haeccitas. its difference from all other words or objects. Such thisness, we should note, is not necessarily a matter of the concrete image. Indeed, the language of the Cantos is hardly “concrete” in the sense of “visual” or “descriptive.” There is, for example, nothing in Pound to match William Carlos Williams’s graphic tactility in “Queen Anne’s Lace” and “Young Sycamore,” or Wallace Stevens’s color imagery in “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” Indeed, in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s words, Pound’s “montage of quotations forces a whirl of details, particular objects, points of interest, clashes of utterances onto the reader,” so that direct reference is curiously undercut. “The real is not given ‘in’ the text—it remains outside. . . . it witholds itself as sign, the transparency looked for vanishes as soon as the operation of reading and of writing has begun.” [16]

It is this subtle oscillation between “reference and reverence” (Rabaté’s phrase) that gives the Cantos their distinctive cast. The drive to turn the signifier–the found object, citation, or proper name–into that which it signifies relates Pound’s work to that of a fellow artist who, on the face of it, would seem to have precious little in common with him except that he was Pound’s exact contemporary [17]— namely, Marcel Duchamp. The two were casual acquaintances—first through their mutual friendship with François Picabia and his circle, later perhaps through the artist Mary Reynolds, who was Pound’s friend and Duchamp’s longtime mistress —but Pound’s aestheticism was a far cry from Duchamp’s cultivated indifference, his persistent question whether, as he put it in a youthful notebook entry, one couldn’t perhaps “make works that are not works of ‘art’” which stands behind his “readymades” and boxes. [18] In Duchamp’s lexicon, each word, number, or material object bears a distinct name—a name not to be confused with any other and pointing to no universal concept outside itself. The term nominalism itself comes up in a number of notebook entries. Here is one from 1914:

Nominalism [literal] = No more generic, specific numeric distinction between words (tables is not the plural of table, ate has nothing in common with eat). No more physical adaptation of concrete words; no more conceptual value of abstract words. The word also loses its musical value. It is only readable (due to being made up of consonants and vowels), it is readable by eye and little by little takes on a form of plastic significance. . . .

This plastic being of the word (by literal nominalism) differs from the plastic being of any form whatever . . . in that the grouping of several words without significance, reduced to literal nominalism, isindependent of the interpretation. [19]

“This nominalism,” says Thierry de Duve, in his important study of Duchamp (called, after a related note, Pictorial Nominalism ), “is literal: it turns back on metaphor and takes things literally. Duchamp ‘intends to specify those conditions that in his eyes allow the word to remain in is zero degree, force it into the realm of nonlanguage.” [20]

Duchamp understood, of course, that such “zero degree” nominalism could not exist, that the plural form cannot “forget” that it derives from the singular, the feminine from the masculine, and so on. In wanting to endow the word with “a form of plastic significance” that would be “independent of interpretation,” he hoped to heighten the reader/viewer’s sensitivity to difference , to what Duchamp called, in his posthumously published notes, the inframince. This word—in English, infrathin— defies definition. “One can only give examples of it,” Duchamp declared (Matisse #5). Here are a few:

The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infra-thin (#4)

In time the same object is not the / same after a 1 second interval–what / relations with the identity principle? (#7)

Subway gates—The people / who go through at the very last moment / Infra thin—(#9 recto)

Velvet trousers- / their whistling sound (in walking) by/ brushing of the 2 legs is an / infra thin separation signaled /by sound. (it is not? An infra thin sound) (#9)

When the tobacco smoke smells also of the /mouth which exhales it, the 2 odors / marry by infra thin (olfactory / in thin). (#11)

Infra thin separation between / the detonation noise of a gun / (very close) and the apparition of the bullet/ hole in the target. . . . (#12)

Difference between the contact / of water and that of/ molten lead for ex,/or of cream./ with the walls of its / own container . . . . this difference between two contacts is infra thin. (#14)

2 Forms cast in / the same mold (?) differ / from each other/ by an infra thin separative /difference. ‘Two men are not / an example of identicality / and to the contrary / move away / from a determinable / infra thin difference—but (#35)

just touching. While trying to place 1 plane surface/ precisely on another plane surface/ you pass through some infra thin moments— (#46)

The role of the artist, Duchamp implies with these witty examples, is to be attentive precisely to such all but imperceptible difference. As he put it in another 1914 note, this one later placed in the Green Box of 1934:

Conditions of a language:

The search for “prime words” (“divisible” only by themselves and by unity).

Take a Larousse dict. and copy all the so-called “abstract” words. I.e., those which have no concrete reference.

Compose a schematic sign designating each of these words. (this sign can be composed with the standard stops)

These signs must be thought of as the letters of the new alphabet. . . .

Necessity for ideal continuity, i.e.: each grouping will be connected with the other grouping by a strict meaning (a sort of grammar, no longer requiring a pedagogical sentence construction. (SS 31-32)

But why are prime words— words divisible only by themselves–so desirable? Here we might come back, for a moment to the lines from Pound’s “River-Merchant’s Wife, “And I shall come out to meet you / As far as Cho-fu-sa.” Why, to repeat my earlier question, is this designation preferable to the “Warm Wind Sands” of Yip and Cooper? Perhaps because the signifier Cho-fu-sa , real place though it is, gives us so little information to go on. For the Anglophone reader—and that, of course, is the reader for whom Pound is writing, Cho-fu-sa is suggestively exotic but withholds any further meaning. How far is Cho-fu-sa? How long would it take to get there? We cannot tell any more than we can recognize, earlier in this same poem, the location of Ku-to-yen, a Poundian neologism based on the amalgam of two words: Kuto (the locality) and Enyotai, designated by Fenollosa as the huge rock in the river at the entrance of the narrows at Kuto (see Kodama 223).

Names like Cho-fu-sa and the fictional Ku-to-yen draw the reader into the poet’s confidence: of course you know, the poet seems to be telling us, what it is I’m talking about. You too have been there. The specific name, in other words, takes on an aura despite the emptiness of the signifiers in question, their lack of semantic density. In the Cantos, such naming becomes much more elaborate: names are often piled on unrelated names in various metonymic configurations. Given that Pound was, after all, wedded to the notion that “Dichten = condensare” (ABC 36), that “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works” (LE 4), why the Gargantuan excess, the immoderate roll call of names?

Before we turn to the Cantos themselves, it is interesting to note that even in his brief Paris phase (1920-23), when he flirted with Dada, Pound produced texts quite unlike, say, Tristan Tzara’s in their inclusion of documentation. Consider, in this regard, his little known poem called Kongo Roux, written for Picabia’s special issue of 391 called by the nonsense name Le Pilhaou thibaou (10 July 1921). Kongo Roux, printed on the verso of Picabia’s letter to “Mon cher Confucious” [sic] is reproduced by Andrew Clearfield in an essay for Paideuma, [21] which describes the piece as a “typical Dada jeu d’esprit (120, see figure 1).

fig1fig. 1

Richard Sieburth, who discusses it more fully in his essay “Dada Pound,” calls it “as close to the real Dada thing as [Pound] would ever get,” observing:

[T]he piece is a deliberately incoherent farrago of slogans and ramblings whose zany truculence and typographical hijinks combine Vorticist polemic with Picabian put-on. The title pun (Kangaroo / Red Congo) refers to the name of a Utopian ‘denationalist’ city which Pound suggests should be founded on the demilitarized banks of the Rhine”—a city “sans armée, sans aucune importance militaire, sans aucune gouvernement sauf pour balayer les rues. [22]

A note in Pound’s margin, Sieburth points out, relates Kongo Roux to “la nouvelle Athènes” and thus indirectly to Pound’s ideal city Dioce. Such idealization, we might note, is hardly Dadaesque; neither, as Sieburth himself notes, is the poem’s explicitly political tone and Blast-like diatribe against the conspiracy of financiers and usurers. But more important: here, quite atypically for Picabia or Tristan Tzara or Hugo Ball, is a panoply of historical references: for example, “Souvenir / Dernier auto-da-fé, / Espagne a.d. 1759,” “Inquisition retablie Portugal a.d. 1824,” and “Piazza dei Signori”; or again, the iniquities of “des contrats / Injuste d’usure 1320-1921,” “Jules unanime et Laforgue,” to “Goncourt (qui n’aimait pas Mme Récamier),” and even the note “’Jesus-Christ était nègre’ (Voir les écrits / de Marcus Garvey, / un noir” (Clearfield 135).

fig2fig. 2

From Marinetti to Tzara’s M. Antipyrine, avant-gardists scorned such musty dates and references to historical persons and places as hopelessly retro. But Duchamp, who remained aloof from Paris Dada as from all the contemporary movements that tried to absorb him (his readymades, for that matter, well preceded Dada), [23] would have understood, although his own names like the Tzanck Check, drawn on “The Teeth’s Loan & Trust Company Consolidated” and made out to Duchamp’s dentist Dr. Daniel Tzanck [see figure 2], are, of course, more fanciful, punning, and less directly referential than Pound’s. But such punning names as “Jules unanime” which substitutes the movement Jules Romains founded for his last name and then lines him up, inappropriately, with the poet Jules Laforgue, could be understood as infrathin variations on such titles as L. H. O. O. Q for the moustached Mona Lisa. “Ate” is not “eat,” “tables” not “table.”

The Kongo Roux technique, in any case, is perfected in the Cantos, especially in the Pisan sequence, in which Pound relies so heavily on memory to provide him with narrative and image. Here is a typical passage from Canto LXXVIII:

Be welcome, O cricket my grillo, but you must not

sing after taps.

Guard’s cap quattrocento

o-hon dit que’ke fois au vi’age

qu’une casque ne sert pour rien                              5

‘hien de tout

Cela ne sert que pour donner courage

A ceux qui n’en ont pas de tout

So Salzburg reopens

Qui suona Wolfgang grillo                                                        10

P° viola da gamba

one might do worse than open a pub on Lake Garda

so one thinks of

Tailhade and “Willy” (Gauthier-Villars)

and of Mockel and La Wallonie. . . en casque                        15

de crystal rose les baladines

with the cakeshops in the Nevsky

and Sirdar, Armenonville or the Kashmiri house-boats

en casque de crystal rose les baladines

messed up Monsieur Mozart’s house                                               20

but left the door of the new concert hall

So he said, looking at the signed columns in San Zeno

“how the hell can we get any architecture

when we order our columns by the gross?”

red marble with a stone loop cast round it, four shafts,                 25

and Farinata, kneeling in the cortile,

built like Ubaldo, that’s race,

Can Grande’s grin like Tommy Cochran’s

“E fa di clarità l’aer tremare”

thus writ, and conserved (or was) in Verona          30

So we sat there by the arena,

outside, Thiy and il Decaduto

The lace cuff fallen over his knuckles

Considering Rochefoucauld

but the program (Café Dante) a literary program 1920 or           35

thereabouts was neither published nor followed. . . . [24]

Perhaps the first thing to observe is that although thepoint de repère for this passage, as is the case for the Pisan Cantos in general, is the poet’s actual situation at war’s end in the prison camp in the hills above Pisa–its location, situation, inmates and guards– direct treatment of the thing never occurs. The first line, with its gently comic prosopoeia, chiding the cricket, as the guards have presumably chided the poet, not to “sing after taps,” is complicated by the introduction of the Italian word for cricket, grillo. The words have the same referent but their meaning is not simply identical because the sounds of grillo have different connotations. The use of the foreign tag is, as usual in Pound, both an authenticating and a distancing device. Grillo: the Italian sets the Pisan stage even as it undercuts the mimesis of the address to the cricket, reminding us that what we have before us is not the real thing but, after all, a form ofwriting. The next line, “Guard’s cap quattrocento” works the same way. Pound could have written “Guard’s cap was a plain round one, the kind that Italians have been wearing for centuries, as you can see in their early Renaissance painting.” The Italian tag quattrocento is not only a form of shorthand, making the point in highly condensed form; it functions here as a kind of cheering-up device. How bad, after all, can prison be if its guards look so quattrocento?

The words “Guard’s cap quattrocento” are now punctuated by a little stanza, rendered in a simulation of colloquial French ( “o-hon dit que’ke fois au vi’age,” which means “On dit quelquefois au village), about the uselessness of helmets, designed as they evidently were, less for actual than for psychological protection.[25] Again, the quotation is a way of undermining lyric norms whereby the poet might express, at this juncture in the poem, his fears for the future, his need for courage to bear his situation. As it stands, we cannot be certain whether the little adage refers to the poet himself or, on the contrary, is designed as an ironic contrast to his own will to go on, given that he has no helmet, not even a “casque de crystal rose,” as in Stuart Merrill poem (cited in l. 16), to protect him.

Found text in a foreign language thus plays the same role as the proper names that follow: its hyperspecificity leaves its meaning open. In the passage that follows, every proper name seems to be autobiographical, and yet there are curious conundrums. Why, for example, “So Salzburg reopens / Qui suona Wolfgang grillo / P° viola da gamba” (l. 9)? Salzburg is hardly one of Pound’s sacred places—it is not even in his beloved Tyrol– and yet he remarks on the reopening after the war of the Salzburg Festival perhaps because Mozart’s chamber music and the “viola da gamba” played “piano” (softly) allow him to invoke the presence of Olga Rudge without so much as mentioning her name. To be aware of the reopening of the Salzburg Festival, moreover, may well give the poet the sense of being up on things, part of the world, as does his conversational remark that “one might do worse than open a pub on Lake Garda,” as if anyone in his immediate circle were contemplating such a thing. As for the French Symboliste poets whose names follow—“[Laurent] Tailhade,” “[Henri] Gauthier-Villars,” the Belgian “[Albert Henri ]Mockel,” and the French-American Stuart Merrill, whose line “en casque de crystal rose les baladines” is quoted twice in the passage—these poets, like Salzburg, are hardly in Pound’s poetic pantheon, Symbolisme being regularly associated, in his essays and manifestos, with romantic “slush.”

Why then invoke these particular names? Before we can answer this question, we must deal with the even trickier case of the lines:

with the cakeshops in the Nevsky,

And Sirdar, Armenonville or the Kashmiri house-boats

The “cakeshops in the Nevsky”—that is, along the main boulevard of Petersburg, with its architectural splendors–have already appeared in earlier Pisan Cantos. The first citation of the Nevsky Prospect itself is in Canto XVI, written some twenty years prior to Pound’s incarceration at Pisa. XVI is the third of the Hell Cantos; it juxtaposes World War I scenes with a dialogue in imitation-Russian and German accents based on the account of the Russian Revolution in Lincoln Steffens’s Autobiography, arranged by Pound in paratactic sentence units:

And then a lieutenant of infantry

Ordered ‘em to fire into the crowd,

In the square at the end of the Nevsky

In front of the Moscow station,

And they wouldn’t. . . (C 75)

The next appearance of the Nevsky, this time the site, not of Revolution but of cake shops, is in Canto XIX, occurs in the pre-World War I conversation of the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to London, who is reminiscing about the Good Old Days:

That was in the old days, all sitting
around in arm-chairs,

And that’s gone, like the cake shops in
the Nevsky (C 86)

The reference reappears, some twenty years later, in the first Pisan Canto:

Sirdar, Bouiller and Les Lilas

Or Dieudonné London, or Voisin’s

Uncle George stood like a statesman ‘REI ANTA

Fills up every hollow

The cake shops in the Nevsky, and Schöners

Not to mention der Greif at Bolsano la patronne getting older

(LXXIV, C 453)

Both Sirdar on the Champs Elysées and Voisin’s on the rue St. Honoré, were, according to the Companion to the Cantos (II, 372), fashionable Paris restaurants. Bouiller refers to the dance hall ( Le Bal Bouillier) on the boulevard Saint-Michel, which we might recognize from its appearance in a number of Impressionist paintings. And Les Lilas is the Closerie des Lilas, a large brasserie at the intersection of the Boulevards Montparnasse and St. Michel, which makes frequent appearances in Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As for Dieudonné, the Companion tells us (II, 372) that it was a London restaurant at 11 Ryder Street , St. James, where the first number of Blast was celebrated on 15 July 1914 and where later Amy Lowell gave an Imagiste dinner which Richard Aldington called her Boston Tea Party for Ezra. The next line juxtaposes these restaurants with “Uncle George”—a reference to the isolationist Congressman from Massachusetts, George Holden Tinkham, whom Pound had met in Venice. The allusions in line 181 to Mencius’s Confucian commentary (“[water] fills up every hole, and then advances, flowing up to the four seas”) and to Heracleitus (REI PANTA, “all things flow”) suggest that unlike those senators who caved in, Tinkham, like the water ‘advancing,” behaved like a true statesman (COM II 373). And now come more fine restaurants: Schöners in Vienna (where Pound may have encountered George Antheil) and Der Greif at Bolzano in the Tyrol.

But why the “cakeshops in the Nevsky,” which reappear in LXXVIII, again together with Sirdar and, this time, with Armenonville, the elegant pavilion restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, with which it has already been coupled in LXXIV (See C 456)? And what about those “Kashmiri house-boats”—an echo, like the cakeshops, of Canto XIX, although Kashmir is not juxtaposed to the Nevsky but appears at the end of the Canto, where an elderly Englishman, reminiscing about his “ten years in the Indian army,” recalls with pleasure those “healthy but verminous” girls to be had “at a bargain / For ten bobs’ worth of turquoise” in Kashmir “in the houseboats” (C 87-88).

Canto LXXVI opens famously with the lines:

And the sun high over horizon hidden in cloud bank

Lit saffron the cloud ridge

Dove sta memoria (C 472)

the Italian words repeated some five pages later in another famous passage:

nothing matters but the quality

of the affection—

in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind

dove sta memoria (C 477)

These lines, unusually straightforward for the Cantos, suggest that throughout the sequence Pound is recalling his past, both of childhood and youth as well as the more recent and immediate past. But the clinamen represented by the Nevsky passages I have been citing is that the names invoked do not recall the poet’s own past, but, by a curious sleight of hand, a past he himself never had. For Pound never saw those cakeshops in the Nevsky; he never visited Russia and indeed, never expressed any real interest in things Russian, neither in Russian literature from Pushkin and Tolstoy to Chekhov and Mayakovsky, nor in Russian history or religion or art. The cakeshops in the Nevsky are here, as are the houseboats of Kashmir as ciphers, of someone else’s Good Old Days. The Austrian Ambassador to London of XVI, the English ex-army officer of XIX: these were hardly members of Pound’s London social circle. And further: it is doubtful that the impecunious poet living as he was in very modest lodgings during his Paris years, frequented Sirdar or Dieudonné or the elegant Armenonville pavilion in the Bois. Perhaps a rich friend like Nancy Cunard brought him to one of these places on rare occasions, but these restaurants were no more Pound’s habitat than was Schöners in Vienna or Bolzano’s elegant Der Greif.

How, then, does Pound relate these names to his sacred places: the Church of San Zeno in Verona (a frequent point de repère in the Cantos and here visited with William Carlos Williams’ brother Edgar), to the sacred poetic characters like Dante’s Farinata and Can Grande, or to the revered poetry (“E fa di clarità l’aer tremare”) of Guido Cavalcanti?[26] In the lines in question (26-28), it makes sense to link Farinata to “Ubaldo,” that is, Pound’s good friend Ubaldo degli Uberti, an admiral in the Italian Navy, who was ostensibly a descendant of Farinata’s (see COM II, 419), but the reference to “Tommy Cochran,” the name of a Wyncote boy, with whom the young Ezra attended the Cheltenham Military Academy, is largely deflationary: no heroics for young Tommy, and not even the smile of the statue, at least not in the school pictures that depict the young cadets, of whom Ezra was one.[27] Indeed, it is only after this playful conjunction that we come to a more serious and coherent autobiographical passage—the memory of conversations with his dear old friend Bride Scratton (“Thiy”) and T. S. Eliot (“il decaduto”), first in the Roman Arena in Verona and then nearby at the Café Dante in 1920, where the two poets were evidently drawing up “a literary program” that “was neither [to be] published nor followed.”

Throughout the passage, the names invoked point to a more innocent time, a pre-War time when the poet’s life was still in the future, when Italy stood for the pleasures of tourism: great Romanesque and Renaissance art to be contemplated with one’s closest friends strolling through the ruins and chatting about Dante or Cavalcanti or the French Symbolist poets in the local cafes and restaurants. “War,” Pound was to remark many years later in Canto CX, where Dieudonné and Voisin are again cited, “is the destruction of restaurants” (C 800). That golden past would seem still to be alive—after all, Salzburg is reopening, Mozart being played, and the cricket song at Pisa can trigger positive and happy thoughts. But—and this is the curious modernity of the Cantos— the names invoked fail to cohere into a larger image-complex. The cakeshops in the Nevsky, the legendary sexploits of Indian army officers in Kashmir—these are embedded into the texture of the Cantos precisely so as to “thicken the plot,” to use John Cage’s Zen term. Their “irrelevant” introjection in what is already an excess of proper names– is analogous to the Duchampian demand for “prime words,” for the infrathin.

And here Pound and Duchamp’s reaction to Impressionism is important. Both came of age at the height of Impressionist pictorialism: the line from Monet to Cezanne to the Cubists and Abstractionists was a perfectly logical one, so Duchamp maintained, since painting remained, in all these cases, retinal , its colors, even in the case of abstraction, endowed with expressive value.[28] Wanting an art that might be cerebral rather than sensuous, conceptual rather imagistic, Duchamp was assembling his readymades, boxes, and especially the Large Glass ( The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), whose individual parts are identified less by their visual appearance, which is less than striking, than by their wholly distinct names:Nine Malic Molds, Milky Way, Oculist Witnesses, Capillary Tubes , and so on.

Pound’s proper names are of course much more literal, more referential than Duchamp’s punning titles, [29] but like Duchamp’s, theirs is a reaction to Impressionism as a “soft” form of mimetic art. In his essay on Joyce, for example, Pound differentiates between the “clear hard prose” of Flaubert and Joyce and an impressionism that smacks of “mushy technique” (GB 85):

These “impressionists” who write in imitation of Monet’s softness instead of writing in imitation of Flaubert’s definiteness, are a bore, a grimy, or perhaps I should say, a rosy, floribund bore. (LE 400)

And again, this time in his essay on the musician Arnold Dolmetsch:

What I call emotional, or impressionist music, starts with being emotion or impression and then becomes only approximately music. It is, that is to say, something in terms of something else. (LE 434)

Something in terms of something else : impressionism, Pound suggests, is a mode still wedded to metaphor; the artists and poets in question failed to realize that the natural object is always the adequate symbol, that, for example, “a hawk is a hawk” (LE 9). Just as Duchamp wanted to escape from the discourse of painting, where color always “stood for” something else, so Pound came to rely on the juxtaposition of proper names—names that were almost but never quite the same. “The infra-thin separation,” writes Thierry de Duve apropos of Duchamp, “is working at its maximum when it distinguishes the same from the same, when it is an indifferent difference, or a differential identity.” (De Duve 160). And he cites Duchamp’s note “The difference (dimensional) between 2 mass-produced objects [from the same mold] is an infra thin when the maximum (?) precision is obtained” (Matisse #18).

This “maximum precision” is what Pound has in mind in the Cantos when he specifies those Paris restaurants, Verona churches, and characters from Dante’s Purgatorio, placing these names and those of old friends in juxtaposition with the “cakeshops on the Nevsky,” Indeed, it is the “infra-thin difference between . . . objects from the same mold” that gives Pound’s properties their curious authenticity, their sense of being there. Like the citizens of the Large Glass, they take on a life of their own—“ prime words divisible only by themselves.”

Such nominalism, we should note, creates its own distortions. Pound may well have believed that his naming was in accord with the Chêng Ming , the “rectification of names” advocated by Confucius, but the fact is that he nominalizes concepts and categories when it suits his design. Take the opening of Canto LXXIV, which serves as my epigraph:

but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin

or the man with an education

Wanjina, we know, is a proper name but Ouan Jin ( wen ren in contemporary Chinese) is, as Yunte Huang has pointed out to me, nobody’s name, only a category. The two-character phrase means “literatus” (or “literata,” depending on the context). So Pound’s lines actually say, “but Wanjina is, shall we say, a literatus / or the man with an education.” But in calling Wanjina “Ouan Jin” and then adding “the man with an education” (where we would expect “a man”), Pound, as Huang observes, “makes Ouan Jin sound like someone’s name, a character in Chinese history, a counterpart of Australia’s Wanjina. . . . What is originally a category is now made a proper name. The verbal trick is actually quite astounding.” [30]

Perhaps this is why Pound, again like Duchamp, whose readymades have remained sui generis, has proved to be so difficult to imitate. Pound’s heirs from Louis Zukofsky to BlackMountain and beyond have not quite been able to reproduce his modes of naming. I have sometimes tried, as a classroom experiment, to allow students to substitute, for the requisite term paper, a sample Canto. It is invariably the popular choice because it seems so easy. Take X number of Greek and Latin names and phrases, interlard the “right” Chinese ideograms, references to Italian Renaissance history and art, Provençal poetry, Jefferson and Adams in correspondence, contemporary references, jokes, dialogue in different accents, and anti-Semitic slurs, and presto—a Canto!

But what such exercises cannot reproduce, so subtle is Pound’s nominalist technique, is the infrathin distinction that separates the singing grillo of the Pisa DTC from all other insects, beginning with its English counterpart, the cricket. Such discrimination underscores the intense mobility of the poetic construct and calls for intense reader participation: in Canto LXXX, for example, still more restaurants are introduced—the WIENER CAFÉ (C 526), “which died into banking” (i.e., a bank was built on its site), Florian’s on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Claridge’s in London, the “bar of the Follies / as Manet saw it (the reference is to Manet’s famous mirror portrait of a young woman called Bar at the Follies Bergère). Each of these adds yet another dimension or differential to Pound’s memorial: the Wiener Café, for example, was not far from Dieudonné’s but their respective clientele (the former pro-German, the latter pro-French) is not to be confused. The Wiener Café belongs with Wörgl (the village that tried the stamp-scripp experiment), whereas Dieudonné , although in London, brings to mind Pound’s Paris years.

“But isn’t the same at least the same?” asks Wittgenstein in the Investigations. On the same page as the “WIENER CAFÉ,” we find the line “(o-hon dit queque fois au vi’age)” that we met in Canto LXXVIII (C 500) as a reference to the war and the fear of violence. But here the song line functions parenthetically and ironically in a very different context, the reference being to the succession of Salon painters from Puvis de Chavannes to Eugene Carrière in a time “before the world was given over to wars” (C 526), when “near the museum [the BritishMuseum] “they served it mit Schlag” (C 526). The WIENER CAFÉ is not to be confused with any other.

The seeming excess of Poundian names—the multiplication of restaurants, cafés, and those that people them—is thus offset by the recycling of a given unit in a context that changes its thrust in what is in fact a dense economy of meanings. The acute awareness of difference is accompanied by the concomitant play of likeness—a linking of items that seem quite unrelated. In this sense, nominalism Pound-style can be understood as an instance of what Gertrude Stein called using everything. But then what are the Cantos but—to take another Stein adage– a mode of beginning again and again? Of citing more and more names that spill out of the Duchampian boîte en valise for the reader to organize, not because Pound couldn’t “make it cohere,” as he was wont to declare in moments of depression, but because, in the poet’s scheme of things, as in the case of Duchamp’s readymades, art had become the process of discriminating the infrathin.. Is the natural object always the adequate symbol? Yes, and so is the unnatural object, provided of course, that it is given its “right” name—a name that belongs to it alone.


Ezra Pound, ‘Canto LXXIV,” The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1993), pp. 446-47. Subsequently cited in the text as C.

Sanehide Kodama, “Cathay and Fenollosa’s Notebooks,” Paideuma 11 (Fall 1982): 207-40. The Fenollosa manuscript in question is File #20 in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, YaleUniversity.

The poem itself may be found in Ezra Pound, Personae: The Shorter Poems. A Revised Edition prepared by Lea Baechler & A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), p. 134. The collection is subsequently cited as P.

See Ronald Bush, “Pound and Li Po: What Becomes a Man,” in Ezra Pound among the Poets, ed. George Bornstein (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985): 35-62; Wai-Lim Yip, Ezra Pound’s Cathay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 88-92; Robert Kern, Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 197-201.

See K. K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 206: “Japanese Cho-fu-sa from Chinese Ch’ang-feng-sha . . . ‘the long WindBeach . . . in An-hwei, several hundred miles up the river from Nanking.”

P 140. Hugh Kenner, who cites this example in The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), p. 204, also notes that in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu,” the reference to the “flying general” “Ri” (he was the famous Ri Shogun during the Kan Dynasty) becomes “Rishogu” (see 221).

Yunte Huang, email letter to the author, 17 April 2002. I am indebted to Huang’s suggestions about Chinese names, idioms, and references throughout this essay; his own forthcoming studies of Pound will be invaluable.

[7] See “A Retrospect” (1918), The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p. 3; “I gather the Limbs of Osiris” (1911-12), Selected Prose 1909-65 (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 21-25. ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 36. These texts are subsequently cited as LE and SP respectively.

Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska (1916; New York: New Directions, 1970), pp. 81-92. Subsequently cited as GB.

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 21. Subsequently cited as ABC.

Ezra Pound, “The Approach to Paris,” New Age, XIII (1913): 662; SP 23.

Hugh Kenner, “The Possum in the Cave,” in Allegory and Representation, ed. Stephen J. Greenblatt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 140, and see Kenner, “The Invention of China,” The Pound Era, pp. 192-222. The poem, says Kenner, “may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them” (p.199). Cf. Richard Sieburth (ed.), A Walking Tour in Southern France: Ezra Pound among the Troubadours (New York: New Directions, 1992), “Introduction,” pp. vii-xxi.

[12] Ezra Pound, “Digest of the Analects,” Guide to Kulchur (New York: New Directions, 1952), p. 16 The reference is to Analects, XIII, 3.

Fung Yu-Lan , A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, ed. Derk Bodde (1948; New York: Free Press, 1976), pp. 41-42.

Michael André Bernstein, The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 45-46.

See Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), online.

Jean-Michel Rabaté, Language, Sexuality and Ideology in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986), p. 175. Daniel Tiffany, in Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 20-36 and passim, carries this even further, arguing that for “Pound, “Image is equivocally, but intentionally, nonvisual, insofar as it resists, contests, and mediates the experience of visuality, but also in its preoccupation with the invisible” (p. 21); as such, the Image is part of a larger “submerged economy of loss and mourning” (27).

Pound’s dates are 1885-1973; Duchamp’s 1887-1968.

Marcel Duchamp, A L’Infinitif, in Marchand du Sel / Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp , ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), p. 74. Subsequently cited in the text as SS. See “The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp,” Twenty-first Century Modernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp.

See Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980; rpt. Boston: G. K. Hall. 1983), #185. Figure 3 reproduces the orthography of the actual note as it appears in French. The numbered notes are reproduced as facsimile scraps, with the French and English print versions at the bottom of the page. Slash marks indicate the end of the line in the handwritten version. The book is unpaginated.

Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade , trans. Dana Polan with the author (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 126-27.

See Andrew Clearfield, “Pound, Paris, and Dada,” Paideuma 7, no. 1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 1978): 113-40.

Richard Sieburth, “Dada Pound,” South Atlantic Quarterly 83: 1 (Winter 1984): 44-68; see p. 60.

See my “Dada without Duchamp; Duchamp without Dada: Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Stanford Humanities Review, 7, 1 (1999): 48-78.

C LXXVIII, pp. 500-501, lines 62-88. For convenience, I have numbered the lines here starting with 1.

“It is sometimes said in the village / that a helmet has no use / none at all / It is only good to give courage / to those who don’t have any at all.” See Carroll F. Terrell (ed.), A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, 2 vols. (Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 1980-1984), II, 418. Subsequently cited in the text as COM. The Companion does not tell us whether this stanza is meant to be spoken or sung.

The line, E fa di clarità l’aer tremare” has its particular resonances for Pound. In his 1910 Introduction to his early Cavalcanti translations, Pound takes on the poet’s early editors, complaining that they transcribed Cavalcanti’s manuscript incorrectly: e fa di clarità tremar l’are, perhaps this version is more “musical.” But in Sonneto VII, as Pound prints it, the line Sonneto 7 itself, the line in question is “Che fa di clarità l’aer tremare,” which Pound, ignoring the relative pronoun, translates in his best “archaic” style as “And making the air to tremble with a bright cleareness” (see Pound, TranslationsI (New York: New Directions, 1967), pp. 24, 38-39). As Wallace Martin has pointed out to me (email 25 March 2002), “Pound’s fanaticism about the shades of difference between manuscripts and between reciting and singing a poem” aligns his nominalism with Duchamp’s infrathin.”

See Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), p. 30.

Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking, 1971), pp. 41-43.

In French, the title of the Large Glass (Verre Grand) — La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même – contains a host of puns: e.g. Mariée / m’art y est/ Mar(cel) y est; celibataires/ sel y va taire , même/ m’aime ..

Yunte Huang, email to author, 17 April 2002.

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