By Alex Boyd
ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound is a dense and obnoxious, accessible and enjoyable book. Let me explain. Pound is extremely well read, and the reader has to stop to remember that his opinions and arguments are not necessarily law. He is aware that good writing exists “to teach, to move or to delight,” and bad writing “to obscure, to bamboozle or mislead and to bore.” Yet he wavers around in how he speaks to the reader, from the startlingly clear and insightful to… well, the nearly bamboozling. But finally, Pound does succeed in creating a book that says as much about teaching as it does learning, conveys the amount of work that should go into good writing, and even inspires active critical thinking.
His passion is clear from the beginning: literature is “language charged with meaning,” and “the most concentrated form of verbal expression.” Language itself is “the main means of human communication,” with artists acting as “the antennae of the race.” And the following lines, though somewhat calm and understated, give an idea of his passion for the craft:
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 quietly and contend while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.
It also happens to be a passion that threatens to exclude the reader through an occasionally harsh, pompous or dense tone. Casual references to the “Quattrocento Latinists,” or “the 1914 Vorticist manifesto” do serve to implicitly suggest to the reader that Pound’s book should be a beginning. But at the same time, for a writer who supposedly knows not to obscure and bore, he veers dangerously close to it. He’s remarkably clear and insightful at times and at other times the sort of writer who uses “impecunious” rather than “poor” (Orwell’s great essay Politics and the English Language warns against this). Referring to your readers as “my children” is a little puzzling, as is the reference to “rice powder poetry,” from China. Finally, the book occasionally introduces this kind of hard line approach: “anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.”
Easy, big fella. Having read many of the classics, I have to admit to preferring work from the nineteenth century onwards, mostly because I find it easier to relate. Pound was undoubtedly writing at a more literate time. Reading and literature are now facing a battle for survival, with readers almost feeling like some kind of bizarre fringe group. If you want to make a few recommendations in the hope that someone will start reading, anyone with common sense knows you don’t insist they start with Ulysses, or tell them they need to learn Chaucer or forget books forever. It would be like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end.
At times, I think our whole educational approach to literature is wrong. When teenagers are first growing into patterns they may keep as adults, we force Shakespeare (and, in Canada, Margaret Laurence novels about old women) down their throats. No disrespect to those authors, but how many teenagers adore them? They endure the experience and vow not to repeat it. Why not encourage them to love reading with material they crave, and let a lifetime of reading take care of the rest? Pound’s swaggering dismissal of anyone who doesn’t thrill to the idea of burying their head in Chaucer is out of place at a time when most people prefer Schwarzenegger to Swift, and a television glows like a mini-Chernobyl in every home. I’ve worked in a bookstore and handed a student an accessible, two hundred page Margaret Atwood novel, only to have her say “Oh, I don’t want to have to read all this.” Granted, she has certain constraints on her time, but the point is that writers and readers are in no position to exclude huge chunks of the population out of snobbishness.
At other times Pound reverts to a humble acknowledgement that these are indeed merely his opinions. The reader of this “booklet” is told that reading good books (of either poetry or fiction) is the best way to learn about them, and “the quicker you go to the texts the less need there will be for your listening to me or any other long-winded critic.” He makes statements as amusing and memorable as “The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.”
Possibly the works of some poets are immortalized, not because the poems themselves are remembered, but because each generation of poets influences the next. So while a name, and a lifetime of work may be forgotten, it lives on through the influence it had, subtly recorded in the bones of newer poems. It’s a nice idea, and a weirdly generous one. But the idea that poet A knows the classics and influences poet B, who in turn is possibly forgotten but influences poet C would be utterly rejected by Pound, who states “the general knowledge, especially among hacks, appears to have diminished to zero, and to have passed into infinite negative.” This is a little dramatic, but the point is taken that a foundation of classics and basic skills should be learned first hand, not through a vague chain of influence, because a broken link in the chain means the next generation is being influenced by the unskilled, the self-indulgent. Poets don’t necessarily have to read every book labelled a classic before starting, but they should read widely, and learn verse and form, even if just to discard it at times.
Teaching literature, and not just studying it, resurfaces throughout the book. I’ve always felt the best way to encourage interest in a subculture like poetry is to teach it in schools in a way that encourages students to enjoy it as a special form of expression without turning it into a chore. It’s rare that an appreciation for the sound of language is taught. Students simply dig up what the poet is “trying to say,” translating it line by line as though performing an archeological dig. But a poet isn’t “trying” to say anything – they’re saying it. When poetry is translated and explained as though an explanation is always necessary, the poem becomes banal. A friend of mine compares it to a joke: you only need to explain it if some part of it has flopped, and a joke explained is not a funny one. Teaching poetry requires a certain amount of energy and passion, which I think Pound wants to encourage with this book.
Pound understands that some reading is, for students, “a specialized form of archaeology,” and that “nothing could dry up the interest of a young student more quickly.” But one of the flaws in the book is that he says this in nearly the same breath as he unequivocally states people should be exiled from literature for refusing to read Chaucer. And without pausing to reinforce his statements, they become scattered and inconsistent sounding opinions. Better to stay a little more general and say that whatever teachers and school boards choose, they should begin by looking for something they believe can be taught with an infectious enthusiasm.
Pound stops to note, “there are certain divisions and dissociations that I refrain from making because I do not think that, at my age, I should try to force the taste of a middle-aged man on the younger reader.” Amen, brother. If students were given Slaughterhouse Five more often, they’d understand that a book with a message can be enjoyable. Pound notes that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in a vacuum, with no understanding of the era. Or as he puts it “you can’t judge any chemical’s action merely by putting it with more of itself. To know it, you have got to know its limits, both what it is and what it is not.”
He reiterates through the book “If you want to study the novel, go, READ the best you can find,” and where poetry is concerned, one can “learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many.” It’s reassuringly not so pompous to hear him say that melody is “attained by the listening ear, not by an index of nomenclatures, or by learning that such and such a foot is called spondee.” And “the way to learn the music of verse is to listen to it.” And it is implied that patience is essential when technical “solidity is not attained without at least some persistence.” And so even as he complains about the lack of “general knowledge,” he suggests a poet doesn’t necessarily need to know what a spondee is, which some might argue is a little like a carpenter only having an instinctive understanding of one of his tools. Maybe it isn’t necessary to be articulate about a skill in order to have it, but I’ve met completely unskilled poets who cover it up by simply claiming it’s all become “automatic” somehow. So are teachers necessary or not? Near the end of the book, Pound comments “In the main I don’t see that teaching can do much more than expose counterfeit work, thus gradually leading the student to the valid. The hoax, the sham, the falsification become so habitual that they pass unnoticed; all this is fit matter for education.” And while it makes the statement with no great enthusiasm for teaching or apparent love of teachers, it does make it clear that someone with more experience needs to point the way. Whether Pound was aware of it or not, his book is for teachers at least as much as for students.
Despite his ornery and conclusive sounding statements, the book is meant as a beginning, an opening volley designed to convey a passion for the craft and a desire to discard irrelevancies in favour of the hard work. The fact that Pound has allowed opinions and distracting irrelevancies of his own into the book is unfortunate but doesn’t sink his effort. In fact, there’s probably something valuable about the reminder that he’s human and it’s always an imperfect struggle. The book is like a long disassembled poem, in that different readers will probably have different favourite moments from the haystack of ideas. Read it twice: once to get some of the overbearing statements out of the way and again to glean more from it. Pound has created a book that demonstrates the hard work of literature by being hard work itself, and makes the passion of literature contagious for readers who will very probably want to both throw the book across the room even as they treasure it. If writing and teaching involve anything, it’s frustration to get to the good moments, and this book provides both. It’s a crash course in putting enough effort into something that you eventually get something real out of it.