While Pound hoped that ABC of Reading would be suitable and useful as a textbook that could be read “for pleasure as well as profit” and make the teacher’s lot more interesting, readers will find that the volume does not have the form of a textbook as conventionally understood. Rather, in view of its conversational tone and its loosely organized format, it might more accurately be described as a notebook, or even a reflective diary which Pound is sharing with the world. Nevertheless, Pound seems to be concerned with several specific kinds of ideas or principles in particular regarding any study of poetry: using scientific method in studying poetry, especially by “getting to the root of the matter” as he believed Ernest Fenollosa did when he proposed using the ideogrammic method in writing; extracting only the best writing even from among works that may have been considered good for a long time; keeping language “efficient” (the only way to keep a nation’s literature from decaying, according to Pound); recognizing that it is impossible for all human wisdom to be contained in any one language; and realizing that great literature is “language charged with meaning to the utmost degree.”
Pound was greatly influenced by Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, and it is an oft-noted fact that Fenollosa’s essay influenced Pound’s concept of applying scientific method to the study of poetry. At least two aspects of writing (and reading) Chinese characters are applicable to Pound’s idea of the ideogrammic method. One involves the idea that, originally, an ideogram looked like what it represents. In this regard, for example, Pound quoted Henri Gaudier-Brzeska as saying, “Of course, you can see it’s a horse. . . .” Thus, it is easy to see how this explanation speaks to the idea that scientific methodology involves specificity rather than abstraction. The other has to do with the juxtaposition of two or more components, each retaining its specific meaning, but both of which, when combined, result in a new meaning, a new creation. For example, the character for man, or male, is formed by placing the character for rice paddy, land, over the character for strength or power. What one sees, then, is the idea of man as one who controls the land. While each character, used separately, keeps its own meaning, the combination yields a new meaning apart from each of the two components alone. Again, one can perceive why Pound saw the Chinese character as “the picture of a thing” and not as an abstraction, just as scientific method involves “careful first-hand examination of the matter.” While some of Pound’s explanations of the Chinese ideogram were flawed (in general, he overemphasized the pictorial element), it is possible to appreciate the validity and the applicability of the principle involved in the ideogrammic method to the study of poetry. His own example of the combination of “rose,” “cherry,” “iron...
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By the time Pound’s ABC of Reading was published, the Victorian mode in poetry had clearly been superseded by the innovations of the moderns. Those experiments most notably included the development of the Imagist movement with T. E. Hulme as its first theorist. Ezra Pound had become associated with Hulme’s Poets’ Club, and concurrently with Imagism, in 1909. By 1914, he had moved into a post-Imagist phase with his concept of vorticism, with its inherent focus on action and movement, a reaction to the static nature of Imagism. At about the same time, Pound was being profoundly influenced by Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, resulting in the use of the ideogrammic method in poetry.
Apart from the literary scene, Ezra Pound had lived through the World War I years utterly convinced that war is a consequence of the deterioration of humanistic values and, as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “for him, authentic art has a direct relation to human society: it is the symptom of a healthy society.” Thus, whether in poetry or in his critical statements, Pound doggedly sought to do his part in “putting things right,” albeit unaware that his readers had not necessarily shared his experiences and did not possess his vast store of knowledge, especially of languages and literature.
When ABC of Reading appeared, it was received by an audience already familiar with Ezra Pound and much of his work. Indeed, having published much of his poetry, other than the Cantos, as well as a majority of his critical works, his reputation as a poet, critic, and translator had been established. Actually, ABC of Reading is, according to Pound himself, an attempt to “meet the need for fuller and simpler explanation of the method outlined in How to Read.” Both of these books, which focus on how one should study poetry, foreshadow a third volume, Guide to Kulchur, published in 1938. In terms of chronology, ABC of Reading falls almost in the middle of Pound’s literary career, although in terms of quantity, it is well past the halfway mark.
Not alone among Pound’s works in receiving mixed reviews, ABC of Reading may not have achieved all that Pound wished it to achieve, but its often perceptive statements make it worthy of perhaps more attention than it has sometimes received.