What is a Canto?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Canto; a principle form of division in long poetry with a musical past.

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A Canto is a subdivision of a longer poem, standing as a solo work or serving the whole.

History

The term Canto comes to English usage through Italian, from cantus, meaning song.

When the Canto first began usage, minstrels would be expected to recite lengthy poems with accompaniment. For convenience, these poems were broken down into Cantos, akin to verses in modern music. This aided the bard in memorising the work, as well as creating natural stopping points to let the audience rest and absorb what had been sung.

In modern times, the Canto is used as a way of extracting poetry. There are few epics written in the modern age but those tend to be broken down into these Cantos.

Form

The Canto is not strictly a form of poetry, but rather an element of poetry. Rather than treating an epic poem as a single, unbroken poem, the Canto serves to break the poem up for better thematic understanding. Often, these can be considered similar to the function of stanzas, which can be Cantos in their own right; however, it is common for a Canto to stand by itself as a singular poem extracted from the body of the larger text.

These extracts usually have five or more lines, with no strict upper limit on their length.

Ezra Pound used this to build his iconic work, The Cantos, which he wrote between 1915 and 1962. It is built of 116 individual Cantos, creating a single body of work and remained ultimately unfinished.

Use

The purpose of the Canto is to create points of thematic unity, allowing the reader to analyse a section by itself, rather than with the context of the longer work.

If we look at Dante’s Divine Comedy as a single poem, it becomes an unyielding, dense text. Breaking it further down into the three chapters—Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise—the work reveals itself more readily. The journey of Dante becomes easier to digest as he traverses the underworld, though the easiest consumption of the work is by breaking it down into its Cantos. Each Chapter contains thirty-three Cantos, plus an initial introductory Canto to the epic, bringing the total to one hundred.

This type of construction requires the poet to balance each section perfectly, making sure that each Canto says exactly what it needs to and never more, and that each section must be understandable by itself. It becomes imperative that the longer poem features no weak points, as any Canto may become extracted.

The Canto serves not just the reader but the poet as a writer. Instead of lengthy stream-of-consciousness, the poet is instead able to focus on the points needed at each part of the story.

The Canto allows the poet to play with construction, to incorporate numerical themes and to ensure the legacy of work by dividing it into smaller, focused works.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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