ABC of Reading Critical Essays

Ezra Pound


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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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