Musical Phrase = Musical Cadence

Ezra Pound wrote to musical cadence, that’s what his famous quote “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” implies. What is cadence? This quote from Wikipedia is a clear explanation of it: “a cadence ((Latin cadentia, "a falling") is the end of a phrase in which the melody or harmony creates a sense of resolution.” No musical phrase ends without resolution.

So cadence is the end of a phrase. Now you need a definition of what a phase is, and when you turn to Pound’s poetry it is clear to see that for Pound a phrase is a single line of verse. Most every line in his poetry was consciously written so that it would come to an end stop, make a breath pause, or have your mind pause while reading it. Pound wrote single line verse cadence.
 
There are sections near the end of Canto LIV that show how Pound both doctored language and played with form to make his lines come to cadence. Here’s one of them:


And there came a taozer babbling of the elixir
                     that wd/ make men live without end
and the taozer died very soon after that.                        433


It seems that the indention of the second line makes my mind go blank after reading “elixir” so let’s see what happens when this line gets pulled backed into an expected spacing:


And there came a taozer babbling of the elixir
that wd/ make men live without end
and the taozer died very soon after that.


Ah, now the first line is connected to the second line in a way that I don’t pause in any fashion until I run out of breath at the end of the second line.

The second line also has a unique way way of writing the word “would”, why is that? Let’s see what happens when we normalize the word:


And there came a taozer babbling of the elixir
                     that would make men live without end
and the taozer died very soon after that.


Ok, there is no pausing now at the end of the second line and we smoothly run onto line three without any pauses. So “wd/“ guts our breathing rhythm to where we run out of breath at the end of this line and must pause there to get more air, probably because of the internal rhyme it makes.

This passage also is purposely manipulating the normals of language and form:


Tchang-siun fighting for SOU TSONG had need of arrows
And made then 1200 straw men which he set in dark
                      under wall at Yong-kieu 
and the tartars shot these full of arrows. And next night
Colonel Tchang set out real men, and the tartars withheld 
                                                                                                               their arrows
                    till Tchang’s men were upon them.                        441


It’s obvious that Pound reversed the natural word order of “then made” to keep line one and line two separate from each other by having our minds go blank to process that unnatural syntax, making us have to pause at the end of the first line to understand what the meaning of the inverted syntax is. This stopping, combined with finding no article on the noun of “dark”, makes us pause at the end of line two.

Let’s leave that magic trick in but move the indentations:


Tchang-siun fighting for SOU TSONG had need of arrows
And made then 1200 straw men which he set in dark
under wall at Yong-kieu 
and the tartars shot these full of arrows. And next night
Colonel Tchang set out real men, and the tartars withheld 
                                      their arrows
                 till Tchang’s men were upon them.


Now lines two and three are read through with no pausing as well as the last four lines which run together with no hitch between them.

Pound really played with grammar in this passage, so let’s put in the noun articles which he excluded, take out the mid-line period and use normal syntax:


Tchang-siun fighting for SOU TSONG had need of arrows
And then made 1200 straw men which he set in the dark
                     under a wall at Yong-kieu 
and the tartars shot these full of arrows and the next night
Colonel Tchang set out real men and the tartars withheld 
                                                                                                                their arrows
                   till Tchang’s men were upon them.


Ah-ha, it reads as smooth as silk.

This next passage is using sleight of hand as well. Why put a colon after the word “said”? And why capitalize the word “and” before it?


And TÉ-SONG rode apart from his huntsmen in the hunting 
                                                                                                                  by Sintien
and went into a peasant’s house incognito
And said:
we had good crops for two years or three years 
and no war.                                                                                               465


First, let’s rub out the capital letter:


And TÉ-SONG rode apart from his huntsmen in the hunting 
                                                                                                                  by Sintien
and went into a peasant’s house incognito
and said:
we had good crops for two years or three years 
and no war.


Hmm, now line two and three now no pause between them. Let’s eliminate the colon:


And TÉ-SONG rode apart from his huntsmen in the hunting 
                                                                                                                   by Sintien
and went into a peasant’s house incognito
And said
we had good crops for two years or three years 
and no war.


Those last four lines now just swim in tandem.


It’s conclusive that here Pound was writing so the reader would always have to pause at the end of every single line. This Canto aside, I find this to be true in what I’ve read of Pound, that seemingly 95% of his lines make or trick me into pausing at the end of them, all be it on a much subtler scale than the above. It’s because he wanted most lines to be defined by musical cadence. Single line verse cadence. That’s what he argued for and produced. 

Here is a discussion about how Wallace Stevens also uses single line verse cadence.

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