Sunday, August 7, 2011

ABC of Reading

Over the last month or so I've been digesting Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading. I see no reason why such a thin book should have reasonably taken so long to get through -- perhaps I am of late stretching myself thinner than I've thought.

Odds are that you've either never heard of Ezra Pound or only recognize his name through a tenuous association with a university English curriculum. In both cases, you might be surprised to learn that he's one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, and still one of the most controversial.

Perhaps one reason his name and work don't register in the reading public's recognition to the same extent as Whitman's, Poe's, or Dickinson's is because he played largely a background role in the Euro-American literary world of the early 20th century: his contributions of original verse, while widely-praised, are outweighed by his work as a translator, critic, and tastemaker. Another might be his setting up a residence in Italy during the 1920s, where he became an outspoken supporter of Benito Mussolini. Obviously, essays and poetry written by an antisemitic fascist aren't much in vogue these days.

ABC of Reading, first published in 1934, was Pound's attempt to improve university literature and poetry courses by offering an alternative textbook outlining parts of his aesthetic and critical theories, presenting metrics by which poetry might be judged, and suggesting in-class reading and writing assignments. (I would be very interested in knowing how many creative writing instructors have included ABC on their class syllabi.) It reads nothing like a typical college text of the 21st century -- it comes across more like a collection of topically-related blog posts compiled and printed as a single volume.

As you might expect from a man with fascist sympathies, Pound is a huge elitist and hard ass. An early section of ABC of Reading might be paraphrased as follows:

• In order to really understand literature, you should be able to read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Chinese.

• If you are unwilling to put forth this kind of effort, you will never know enough about poetry to truly appreciate it, and this will be your own fault. Asshole.

• My boner for Geoffrey Chaucer is longer than your arm.

Despite the odious conclusions to which certain convictions take him, Pound possesses a brilliant and unusual mind that is well worth engaging with, though you may certainly find yourself disagreeing with several points. (Fortunately, you don't have to fear coming across any beyond-the-pale political discourse in his poetry or lit crit work.) ABC of Reading, because of its highly distilled style, frequently scans like a linear series of poetry-related aphorisms. I've marked some of my favorites and offer them here for your reading pleasure:

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took great pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed it the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

* * *

Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn't matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm.

* * *

Language is the main means of human communication. If an animal's nervous system does not transmit sensations and stimuli, the animal atrophies.

If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.

* * *

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.

Dichten = condensare.

I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is as old almost as the German language. 'Dichten' is the German verb corresponding to the noun 'Dichtung' meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian word meaning 'to condense.'

* * *

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 who 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 any 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 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.

Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection you might at least beware and avoid accepting opinions:

1 From men who haven't themselves produced notable work.

2 From men who have not themselves taken the risk of printing the results of their own personal inspection and survey, even if if they are seriously making one.

* * *

Rodolfo Agricola in an edition dating from fifteen hundred and something says one writes: ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet, to teach, to move, or to delight.

* * *

The first phase of anyone's writing always shows them doing something 'like' something they have heard or read.

The majority of writers never pass that stage.

* * *

Our definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.

* * *


'Artists are the antennae of the race.'

Can you be interested in the writings of men whose general perceptions are below the average?

I am afraid that even here the answer is not a straight 'No.'

There is a much more delicate question:

Can you be interested in the work of a man who is blind to 80 per cent of the spectrum? to 30 per cent of the spectrum?

Here the answer is, curiously enough, yes IF . . . if his perceptions are hypernormal in any part of the spectrum he can be of very great use as a writer————
though perhaps not of very great 'weight'. This is where the so-called crack-brained genius comes in. The concept of genius as akin to madness has been carefully fostered by the inferiority complex of the public.

A graver issue needs biological analogy: artists are the antennae; an animal that neglects the warnings of its perceptions needs very great powers of resistance if it is to survive.

Your finer senses are protected, the eye by bone socket, etc.

A nation which neglects the perceptions of its artists declines. After a while it ceases to act, and merely survives.

There is probably no use in telling people who can't see it without being told.

Artists and poets undoubtedly get excited and 'over-excited' about things long before the general public.

Before deciding whether a man is a fool or a good artist, it would be well to ask, not only: 'is he exited unduly', but: 'does he see something we don't?'

Is his curious behavior due to his feeling an oncoming earthquake, or smelling a forest fire which we do not yet feel or smell?

Barometers, wind-gauges, cannot be used as engines.

* * *

No teacher has ever failed from ignorance.

That is empiric professional knowledge.

Teachers fail because they cannot 'handle the class'.

Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

* * *

The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain WHATSOEVER on his habitually slack attention.

* * *

There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and thirty-eight.

* * *

Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.

* * *

A great deal of critical rancour has been wasted through a failure to distinguish between two totally different kinds of writing.

A Books a man reads to develop his capacities: in order to know more and perceive more, and more quickly, than he did before he read them.


B Books that are intended and that serve as REPOSE, dope, opiates, mental beds.

You don't sleep on a hammer or a lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn-mower and a sofa cushion?

* * *

Jealousy of vigorous living men has perhaps led in all times to a deformation of criticism and a distorted glorification of the past. Motive does not concern us, but error does. Glorifiers of the past most commonly err in their computations because they measure the work of a present DECADE against the best work of a past century or even a group of centuries.

Obviously one man or six men can't produce as many metrical triumphs in five years or in twenty, as five hundred troubadours, with no cinema, no novels, no radio to distract 'em, produced between 1050 and 1300. And the same applies to all departments.

* * *

No good purpose is served merely by falling into an ecstasy over archaic forms of the language.

* * *

[I]n the long run human intelligence is more interesting, and more mysterious than human stupidity, and stays new for longer.


  1. According to Ezra Pound, if I apply myself I may be able to prepare a tolerable cup of coffee for Ezra Pound.