“I cannot make it cohere.” – Ezra Pound and Dakota

During the modernist era, Ezra Pound (who Dr. Scanlon affectionately refers to as “the Evil Godfather of Modernism”) called for the modern poets to “MAKE IT NEW,” a phrase that became a sort of slogan for what the modernists attempted to accomplish. A term widely associated with modernism is “the crisis of language,” a belief by writers at the time that words had failed them, and that something innovative and new must be done in order to preserve our ability to express ourselves with accuracy and intelligence. The work of Pound in particular exhibits this crisis of language and the dramatic transitions that literature went through as a result of it. The Cantos is famously long and difficult to read, but it is also famously brilliant. Pound spent most of his life completing it, but perhaps the most famous line in the work comes toward the end in Canto CXVI, when Pound states, “I cannot make it cohere.” This line expresses not only Pound’s inability to make words work the way he wanted them to, but also the feeling that most of us had upon finishing Dakota.

We talked briefly in class about how Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries have said that Dakota is based on The Cantos and how Jessica Pressman wrote an article about this connection. I, like most people, have not read The Cantos. It is a notoriously long, difficult, and brilliant work, the lifelong efforts of an extremely dislikable and arguably crazy man (he spent time in an asylum after being charged with treason for his support of fascism). I have read excerpts, though, I read Pressman’s article, titled “The Strategy of Digital Modernism: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Dakota.”

Here are some of the main reasons she provides for believing that Dakota is based on The Cantos:

1)    YHCHI tell us it is. Pressman offers a substantial investigation of the conclusions one can come to if one chooses to ignore what YHCHI tell us. Specifically, she addresses the glaring connection to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The ties between Dakota and the themes of sexual incompetence, homosociality, and the beaten down nature of the Beat Generation are undeniable. However, she argues that we should read through the lens of Pound because that’s what YHCHI invite us to do. (Her argument is actually much more sophisticated than this, but for the sake of space, I’m not dwelling on it).

2)    They follow the same storylines. Most of us felt the same sense of “What just happened?” when we finished Dakota, and it’s because the story comes from Pound, who took it from Homer’s The Odyssey. I have not read all of the first and second parts of  The Cantos, but Pressman tells us that “Dakota’s plot carefully overlays book 11 of the Odyssey and Pound’s revision of it, and the comparisons are extensive and ripe” (309). To name a few, Elvis is Tiresius, Marilyn is Aphrodite, and Art Blakey is Robert Downing.

3)    YHCHI use Pound’s name toward the end of the work, in the series of fragments that reads, “Fuck you Ellmann, that’s right, Richard Ellmann Norton, New York, 1973, on Pound” (319).

Reasons why this is really cool and significant:

1)    Pressman argues that by claiming that Dakota is based The Cantos Parts 1 and 2, YHCHI invite us to read the work through the lens of modernism. She says that in doing so, they “defy categorization as high or low, modern or postmodern” (303), and instead adopt a strategy of digital modernism. Digital modernism is, in a sense, a means of rebelling against mainstream electronic literature. By aligning themselves with THE high modern poet, YHCHI “use central aspects of modernism to highlight their literariness” (302) and to draw the attention back to the words and the literature they present. In other words, YHCHI fight back against the interactivity of most e-lit by connecting their work with one of the most incredible poets ever.

2)    By aligning themselves with Pound, YHCHI also defy categorization, since he “viewed genre distinctions as ‘rubber-bag categories’ that academics use to ‘limit their reference and interest’” (310). This really speaks to the difficulties we had in class with defining Dakota.

3)    Dakota is meant to be difficult to follow and understand. Pressman argues throughout her article about how YHCHI both invite and deny a close reading. They say that a close reading will reveal a relationship to The Cantos, but they also say that the aesthetic of the work is purposeful and that transcription waters down its effect. Both works want to be inaccessible and extremely difficult to understand. Pressman explains that “[t]he use of difficulty as an aesthetic strategy bonds Dakota to modernism and the kind of reading practices its literature fostered” (317). In other words, the high modernists were kind of stuck up about literature. They were devastated by the increased production of the novel and the fact that all of a sudden, anyone who was literate could claim to understand literariness. YHCHI do the same thing by making their work hard to understand and therefore calling for a more advanced audience and for more literary work in the world of electronic literature.


Jessica Pressman, and Jessica Pressman. “The Strategy of Digital Modernism: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Dakota.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 54.2 (2008) : 302-326. 9 Feb. 2012.

  1 comment for ““I cannot make it cohere.” – Ezra Pound and Dakota

  1. Jessica Pressman
    July 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I really like how you summarized my article. Glad to see you found it useful!
    -jessica pressman

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