The Greek-loving students in Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” must have run into Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” at some point, and rejoiced at Pound’s appreciation for Homer’s melodious inventiveness, (or been upset by Pound’s dismissal of Greek drama as Homer-influenced stage business.) But “ABC of Reading” (1934) has dripped its wisdom upon far less sophisticated heads, and many (too many?) of its axioms are collegiate gospel, (“Literature is News that Stays News” may have won the popularity contest, and for a prize has been pinned to card-boards at English departments galore.)
Beyond the axioms lies an idiosyncratic, sometimes downright unhelpful textbook on how to read and write poetry. At its most academic, it defines the three effects poetry aims for:
- phanopoeia – to throw the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination.
- melopoeia – to induce emotional correlations by sound and rhythm of the speech.
- logopoeia -to induce 1 & 2 by stimulating associations with other word/word groups.
But then he’s much better when sneering at dissection (“observe a fish too academically and you’re bound to end up knowing a lot about a dead fish.”) Pound demurs at discussing novels, saying he’s not qualified since he hasn’t written a dozen great novels, (the humble implication being that he HAS written a dozen great poems, but, hey, when he’s right, he’s right.)
It’s probably for the best, since Pound reduces the whole of novelistic history to the five or six novels he likes. Basically, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne … then maybe Jane Austen … then nothing good ’til Flaubert. (Stendhal did manage to write some 80 good pages in “The Red and the Black,” by Pound’s estimation.) It IS refreshing to know that one can plow through ALL the worthwhile novels in a month of heavy reading.
Poetry is Pound’s metier, and what he likes, (Chaucer, Chinese poetry, Ovid through Golding’s translation, Provencal folk songs), is not as revealing as what he DOESN’T like. Shakespeare was just ripping off Italian folk-songs (and is simultanenously too merely English.). Milton is grossly and utterly stupid and obtuse. Wordsworth is full of dead moments. Here’s his homework exercise, one that the law courts would call “leading” : “Find a poem by Byron or Poe that doesn’t have seven major defects.”
“ABC of Reading” is elegant, curmudgeonly, and quite bitter about British and American decline. By 1934, Pound had shifted alliances (he’d already met gushingly with Mussolini, against the recommendation of quasi-pupil Ernest Hemingway) and saw in fascism possibilities for a cultural renaissance. Clearly he thought the declining Anglo-speaking empire needed SOMETHING (elsewhere he’d praised Lenin):
“The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.”
But it’s an over-reader who looks for Heil Hitlers in “ABC of Reading.” It’s not half as didactic as Pound intended: as a teaching tool, its worth is questionable. The poet was ambivalent about lecturing anyway. According to him, lecturing consists of endless obfuscating for financial purposes. Teaching must be stretched to the hour’s length, (and his book to the 50,000 word mark), simply because the truth is brief, and brevity is distrusted and unrewarded. A man who can talk for an hour without interruption is impressive and on the way to tenure. A teacher who came in to deliver the book’s simple writing instruction ( “LISTEN to what you write”) and then walked out the classroom should not count on a paycheck at the end of the week. Pound believes France improved its culture drastically when French classes got shortened by 20 minutes. That kind of rumination isn’t going to help much with your poetic process, but it’s what makes “ABC of Reading” preferable to textbook dissections.