The open cage of poetry

4 or 5 kilometres north of Pisa, surrounded by dry fields and olive groves, sits the unremarkable commuter town of Metato. Unlike the nearby cities, there has been little attempt made here to cater for tourism. Rather than the dusty reds and dark greens that characterise the Tuscan cliche, here all is functional suburbia: detached housing, saloon cars, swimming pools and empty streets - nothing to attract a curious traveller. And yet a 10 minute walk south, with the mid-morning sun as your remote, notional destination, brings you to something quite different. The town quickly disperses behind you, the clean pavements become grass verges on roads that cross and re-cross with scant thought to route, and abandoned farm buildings replace the municipal services. Here, in this desolate, flat landscape, there is a view which to a few means something more than the distant haze would seem to warrant. In a few places, easily missed if not watched for, a gap opens between the telegraph poles and cypress trees and the unmistakable shape of the leaning tower appears, and next to it the Duomo and Basilica, less familiar but no less impressive.

This is by no means the best view of Pisa's Romanesque architecture, it certainly wouldn't warrant a mention in any conventional guidebook, but it was the view that for six months, from May to November 1945, the American-born poet Ezra Pound faced from his imprisonment, first in an open steel cage, then in a medical tent. He had been arrested for treasonable offences, by Italian partisans, following his broadcasts in support of Mussolini on Radio Rome. It seemed likely that he would face the death penalty.

The inventory of Pound's possessions during his time at the Disciplinary Training Centre has passed into legend: A
Chinese text of Confucius, James Legge's translation of the same, a Chinese dictionary, and a eucalyptus pip. These, at least, were his material possessions. What proved of incalcuable importance to Pound during this period, exposed to the brutal elements of cold nights and baking days, were his memories. 'What thou lovest well, remains' as he wrote in the seventh of ten Cantos produced during his time at the DTC. Entitled The Pisan Cantos they are the high-point of the incomplete epic which occupied Pound for more than 40 years, beginning in 1915. 

This section of the Cantos is a unique collage of Pound's immense learning, his life in London and Paris, and the fragmented images and voices that broke in from the present. The architecture of Pisa appears in several of the ten Cantos, most explicitly in the opening of the sixth:
'Moon, cloud, tower, a patch of the battistero / all of a whiteness, dirt pile as per the Del Cossa inset'. The mountains to the north-east also occur, the most prominent of them becoming for Pound ÔTaishan', a sacred Chinese peak: 'Zeus lies in Ceres' bosom / Taishan is attended of loves / under Cythera, before sunrise'.

Ezra Pound was a writer of immense energy and imaginative sensitivity; his writing, particularly his early writing, suggests someone who lived without skin, his nerves sparking poetry at the slightest impact. The nature of his imprisonment seems to offer a fitting metaphor for this poet: an open cage in which he was exposed to the world 24 hours a day, total vision in contrast to the small, high window we normally associate with incarceration. To stand in this place and try to reconcile the reality of the scenery with those moments of beautiful calm that punctuate the sprawling and often impenetrable Cantos, one comes face to face with the fact of creative genius: there is nothing here to warrant the work that it produced. As with all sources of inspiration there is nothing intrinsic in the material which leads to art; it is not the ingredients that are important, but the crucible in which they are mixed. One is reminded of the line by a quite different poet, Simon Armitage, 'it ain't what you do, it's what it does to you.'

    © Ben Parker 2011