Monday, May 18, 2015

"It might be well to emphasize the difference between an expert and inexpert metaphysician" Reading Ezra Pound on reading

I stumbled across a copy of The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound's 1934 literature "textbook," while I was looking for something else at a local used book shop. I bought the book because when I opened it at random, I found this passage, which I will quote at length:
When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn't do the job quite as well.

4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is 'healthy.' For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante's time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare's time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.

5. Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn't really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn't be considered as 'great men' or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6. The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able 'to see the wood for the trees.' He may know what he 'likes.' He may be a 'compleat book-lover,' with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is 'breaking with convention' than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favorite bad writer.
It's that last sentence that sold the book, of course. I'd like to think that I'm a Number 3 writer, but I'm certain I'm a Number 4. No matter.

So The ABC of Reading is a primer about reading, mostly reading poetry, and Pound's primary objective is to get the reader to read a lot of poetry from many sources, and learn to compare the poems against one another, and to see how (European) poetry developed along several main branches. The first half of the book is made up of aphorisms and highly-personal opinion ("In Donne's best work we find again a real author saying something he means and not simply hunting for sentiments that will fit his vocabulary."); the second half of the book is a chronological exhibition of poetry excerpts, starting with Chaucer's translation of Virgil (in Middle English) and moving slowly through time to Robert Browning. Shakespeare and the big hitters are mostly ignored because Pound assumes you can find them easily anywhere you look.

After a brief discussion of Browning, Pound talks about more contemporary writers:
From an examination of Walt [Whitman] made twelve years ago the present writer carried away the impression that there are thirty well-written pages of Whitman; he is now unable to find them.
That's funny; I laughed out loud when I read that. It goes on in a kinder vein.

There is some good stuff, some practical and insightful advice to the reader of poetry, in Pound's book. He talks about poetry from the point of view of a man who knows how to write it as well as how to read it, and Pound's theories of historical development are not full of a lot of moonshine. He takes into account that poets are real people, not "poets," neither shining mythological figures nor subhuman spirits working in service of Poetry.
More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.

Technical solidity is not attained without at least some persistence.

The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.

The next cause is the desire men have to tell what they don't know, or to pass off an emptiness for a fullness. They are discontented with what they have to say and want to make a pint of compassion fill up a gallon of verbiage.
Anyway, highly recommended, even if at times clearly wrongheaded and crackpotted. Amusing and edifying; the best book about literature I've read in years.


  1. Funny, I pulled out The ABC of Reading just this past weekend and re-read it. It's a great and humbling (and at times very funny) reminder of one's own lack of erudition and of how much literature re-invents the wheel. I like that despite Pound's catholic and highly opinionated tastes, he constantly revisited his opinions. He also gives one courage to wander intrepidly into difficult texts, even those in a language one doesn't know. I don't expect that I'm going to learn Provençal so I can read the troubadours, but one never knows.

    1. What's Pound say? "For those who can only read English, I have done what I can." I'm not going to learn Provencal either, and my Latin after all these years is miniscule. But you're right that somehow Pound gives readers the courage to plow forward. I'm a shallow reader of poetry, and the works rebuff me like an old wading man is rebuffed by the sea, continually pushed back toward the shore. But I keep venturing out and stumbling around, getting cold and wet. And stuff.

    2. I also love how even though Pound seems to have read everything - and in the original Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Old English, Provençal, even Chinese - he makes it seem possible, and in any case demonstrates that it isn't impossible. I love his story about a colleague who could get some of the Chinese just from the visual representations in the ideograms (this is something of a persistent myth, but it does work for some ideograms). You somehow come away feeling not daunted, but eager. For fun, I looked up The Seafarer and tried to sound out the original. With the "new" English translation on a facing page, I think I did fairly well for myself. And what a tremendous poem!

  2. It has been a long time since I read that one--hate to think how long, as I was probably around 21... Like Lawrence's "Studies in Classic American Literature," it is rare, both amusing and full of worth.

    1. Full of worth is right. Where has this been all my life, I wonder. This is one of those books that really makes me want to revisit every good thing I've read, makes me excited to be a reader.

      I haven't got to the Lawrence yet, but it's on my list.

  3. I have not read this book, but in a sense it is what I am trying to write.

    1. And you are doing fine work, too.

      When I started this little blog, I was writing about writing and most of the readers/commenters were other writers. After a while I realized that my writing had become so idiosyncratic that I no longer really wanted to write about it. At the same time I realized that book blogs--blogs by smart readers, that is--were a lot more interesting, and I began to write about what I'd been reading. I still have no real agenda except to talk about books, and I still haven't the faintest idea how to write about books, or how to think about reading except as a writer (which comes down to two questions: Do I like how author X used technique A; and Can I steal this?). Pound's exuberant cheerleading would be nice to emulate, though for a lot of reasons it's beyond me. Anyway, I think you'd like his book. I'll bet it's in your university library system. New Directions might even still have it in their catalog.

    2. Fine work, yes it is.

      John Cowper Powys on literature is something like Pound and (looking at Marly Youmans' comment above) Lawrence, though more facile and not as negatively opinionated.

      (I want to point out, for the benefit of anyone who doesn't own a copy, that they can find a .pdf of the ABC at Type Pound's name into the site's search engine and voilà.)

    3. A valuable fingerpost to a good book.

      A lot of Pound's criticism seems to be proscriptive. In fact, the very first thing of his I ever read (back in 1986 or so) was "No art ever grew by looking into the eyes of the public," a clear warning. In ABC he says something like, "the primary job of the teacher is to point out the bad work so the student knows what to avoid." I'm sure he contradicts himself within a dozen pages.

      I've been meaning to read more Powys. Weymouth Sands has sure stuck with me.