When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons: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.
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.
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.Anyway, highly recommended, even if at times clearly wrongheaded and crackpotted. Amusing and edifying; the best book about literature I've read in years.
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.