There is a curious line in Ezra Pound's "Canto IX":

grnnh! rrnnh, pthg.

The typical dictionary is not terribly helpful at elucidating this line, so we must consult a more specialized work. Craig Conley's All-Consonant Words Dictionary offers a more likely source for discovering the meanings of such obscure and vowelless words.

And yet, none of those three words appear. At first, it seems that yet another dictionary has failed us. But this is where we can use skills picked up by working with medieval texts: Perhaps these are scribal errors, mistakes in the transmission, or else they might be variants of already familiar words. Can we, then, find similar words in this dictionary?

interj. a groan of pain.
<“Gnnnh!” he said, and drew himself up into a ball to escape the pain of his emergent teeth. —Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross.

It is easy to misread a hastily written "n" for an "r", and we can posit with great confidence that "grnnh", especially with its exclamation point, is actually "gnnnh", this pain cry.

n. the ring of a telephone.
<When he woke up, the killer headache hadn’t gone away and the phone was ringing. A fourth ring. A fifth. He still made no move to pick it up. Rnnnnnnnnng again. —Morrie Ruvinsky, Dream Keeper: Myth and Destiny in the Pacific Northwest.>

At first this seems an unlikely reading of "rrnnh", what with Pound's word having so fewer Rs, and an H instead of a G. But then we recall that this Canto would have been written in the late 1910s or early 1920s, when telephony was in its early stages, and ringer boxes -- which at that point weren't even in the telephones proper -- had not been perfected. There were, we can see, too few Rs. The final "ng", which we pronounce as a satisfying /ŋ/, was then the softer /ɲ/, which Pound spelt the Portuguese way, "nh".

n. the title of a work of art by Michael Paulus based upon illuminated eye charts of the 1800s but modified so that “clinical function is surpassed by style and frivolity” (

This one is the most problematic. We can write off the capital P being in minuscule as Modernist poetic license. The "r" becoming a "g" -- it seems unlikely to be a scribal error, and you'd have to be Russian to hear those sounds as related. And, worst of all, this art work did not exist yet, and Ezra Pound's ability to foresee the future was demonstrably not that great. We must reject the dictionary's offering as untenable.

Instead I'd like to suggest that it is a transliteration, done to obscure its origins, as a kind of code. You can map "p" onto "π", "th" onto "θ", and "g" onto "γ". "πθγ", of course, isn't a word in Greek -- would that there were some Greek All-Consonant Words Dictionary that I could consult to confirm this! -- but capitalize those letters, "ΠΘΓ", and you get Pi Theta Gamma, perhaps nothing more than the name of some obscure fraternity.

Now, I am no Pound scholar, nor a member of any such fraternity, so the possible connections or the exactly meaning of this reference is still unclear. But the scenario being described in the Canto is now reasonably clear: Pound is in pain because the phone is ringing and he is sure it is just the boys down at the frat calling him again, perhaps hoping to get him to come by the house, have a few beers, whereas all he wants to do is work on his epic poem, the one that would change history, the one that would explain history, and yet he knows they will keep calling to try to get him to go, and so he cries out in pain. The birthing of an epic poem is like getting one's baby teeth in, a painful process that will change everything about how you interact with the world. But for Pound there was no one who cared enough to apply Anbesol on his tender gums -- certainly his fraternity brothers wouldn't! And so this deftly coded message was inserted into The Cantos and resisted interpretation for ninety years.



Template based on one by GeckoandFly which was modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.