ABC of Reading

by Ezra Pound

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 rust,” and “flamingo” to express the idea of redness avoids the method of abstraction which defines things in increasingly general terms.

In making his point about extracting the best poetry to serve as a model, Pound uses the analogy of a man wanting to know something about an automobile. He rejects the idea that anyone would consult, as the ultimate authority, a person who had not made a good car or at least had driven a car himself. A major portion of the book, in fact, is aimed at identifying who or what the best poets or poems are, thus “weeding out” the rest and leaving a list of the minimum...

(This entire section contains 1227 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

number of works with which a reader who is seeking the best should study. Pound relies on the reader to recognize why he chose the authors he did: “YOU WILL NEVER KNOW either why I chose them, or why they were worth choosing, or why you approve or disapprove my choice, until you go to the TEXTS, the originals.” As in the case of the Japanese saying, “You can’t say kekko (good) until you have been to Nikko”— that is, you cannot fully understand what “good” means until you have seen this best of places for yourself—Pound gives the reader credit for being able to appreciate the superiority in these model poems once he has seen them. Regardless of whether this confidence is justified, the idea that seeing the “real thing” will make recognition of a lesser work evident is an optimistic one.

For Pound, these models include Homer; Sappho, Ovid, and Chaucer; the French poets Theophile Gautier, Tristan Corbiere, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue; and selected works from Gavin Douglas, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Donne.

“Keeping language efficient” and thus keeping a nation’s literature alive is essential to keeping the nation itself from atrophy and decay, in Pound’s view. While he does not go into detail in explaining this efficiency, it seems that keeping the language accurate and clear is also best achieved by using the ideogrammic method, which aims at specificity over generality.

Pound’s considerable ability in languages surely qualifies him to make a strong point of the fact that, while people in all cultures can find a way to communicate everything they need to communicate, no language is endowed with the capacity to communicate certain nuances or concepts outside those of its own linguistic community. Thus, as Thomas Pyles (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 1964) notes, “the Eskimo feels no need to discuss Zen Buddhism. . . . But he can talk about what is important to his own culture,” such as snow, with greater efficiency, having many words for different kinds of snow, than the English speaker who has only one general word for it. This fact lies at the heart of Pound’s negative criticism of many English translations of poetry. Some apparent shortcomings of a given language in expressing ideas written in another language should not be surprising, given the fact that the literature of any culture reflects its specific customs, values, and ways of thinking.

Pound’s “recipe” for achieving language charged with meaning, if one is aiming for truly great literature, consists of applying three techniques: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia. Using phanopoeia involves using a word “to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination”; melopoeia charges words with meaning by sound; logopoeia uses groups of words to charge a passage with meaning. Certainly the idea of a poem’s appealing to the senses is not an original one, nor is it likely to meet with disapproval. In the context of Pound’s mention of the three techniques cited, it is not surprising that he believes that the Chinese poets, with their use of the ideographs, probably reach the maximum degree of phanopoeia for the reasons discussed above.

In one of the clearer sections of the book, Pound also explains his notion of “cut-off meaning” versus “associations” in discussing what qualities great literature must have to be called great. He uses the example of bicycle as a “cut-off meaning” in contrast to “tandem,” which he believes “will probably throw the image of a past decade upon the reader’s mental screen” as the reader recalls both a “bicycle built for two” and all the other associations that he makes with the era when the tandem was popular.


Critical Context