Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1049
Ezra Pound opens ABC of Reading with three very short prefatory statements. A brief section, “ABC,” identifies the audience for whom the volume is intended as “those who might like to learn.” The second introductory section, “How to Study Poetry,” explains Pound’s intention that ABC of Reading both expand and simplify his discussion in an earlier work, How to Read (1931). He expresses the belief that the book is “impersonal enough to serve as a text-book” and the hope that it can enliven classes in which it is used. In the third section, “Warning,” Pound makes something of an apologia. He admits to there being a rather lengthy, dull section early in the book and to some harsh treatment of several writers generally considered to be noteworthy. These explanations are followed by several sentence-long statements on miscellaneous topics—notably, that a classic is classic because of its eternal freshness, and that both poetry and music begin to “atrophy” when one is very far from the other.
The remainder of the book is divided into two main sections. Section 1 has eight chapters varying in length from seven lines to twenty-five pages, followed by two brief unnumbered chapters, “Dissociate” and “Dichten = Condensare.” Section 2 contains nine titled but loosely connected subsections interspersed with “exhibits” of representative poems or excerpts of literary works and various miscellaneous outlines, chronologies, and the like, ending with a loosely organized essay, “Treatise on Metre.”
Chapter 1 is divided into two sections. The first asserts that those who study poetry or other literature should use a scientific method which involves “careful first-hand examination of the matter” and which constantly compares one work with another. Referring often to the work of Ernest Fenollosa in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1936), Pound explains his concept of the ideogram. (The publication date of Fenollosa’s essay is misleading, for Pound had edited Fenollosa’s work and prepared it for publication in the winter of 1914 and 1915.) The second section uses an analogy to develop the idea that a statement has value only in relation, or reference, to known objects or facts surrounding it.
Chapter 2 attempts to answer several questions: What is literature? What is language? Why study literature? Pound defines literature as “language charged with meaning”; a few lines later, he adds that literature is “news that STAYS news.” Spoken language, he says, is basically “noise divided up into a system of grunts, hisses, etc.,” whereas written language consists of signs which a given language group has agreed to have represent the various noises of the spoken language. Actually, in this chapter Pound does not get around to answering his question about why one studies literature. He continues with some comments, most of which have to do with seeking out the real thing when wanting to find a model or look for a reliable source. He recommends any approach to the study of a subject that will result in looking at that subject from all sides.
Chapter 3 contains two brief sections. The first makes a number of statements of principle about literature and language. The second is a continuation of the first, focusing on the capabilities of language and the matter of the degree of ambition that a reader possesses.
Chapter 4 opens with Pound’s definition of great literature as “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” and proceeds to identify three main ways in which language can be “charged”: through phanopoeia, through melopoeia, and through logopoeia. No concrete definition of these terms is provided in this chapter, although they are explained later. A second section identifies six categories of persons who have created literature: inventors, masters, diluters, good writers without salient qualities, writers of belles lettres, and the starters of crazes. The third section of the chapter, which Pound titles “Compass, Sextant, or Land Marks,” offers what he proposes as the minimum list of writers one would need to read to be able to judge the merits of other books properly. The list names Homer, Aeschylus, Sappho, Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid.
Following a brief section on Greek and Latin word order, Pound proposes a list (very loosely speaking) of medieval poems with which one should be familiar.
Chapter 6 offers some suggestions to readers who read only in the English language regarding a few translations that Pound considers adequate. He mentions his own translations of the Ta Hio and “The Seafarer,” but does not consider any English translations of Greek works to be satisfactory. He seems to approve of Chaucer, Gavin Douglas, Golding, Christopher Marlowe, John Florio, and Thomas Urquhart.
The seven-line chapter 7 makes two main points: Only if a poem is well crafted will it stand up over the years, and mediocre poetry “is in the long run the same in all countries.”
Chapter 8 opens with an attempt to provide what Pound promised at the outset when he proposed to write a “text-book.” He includes miscellaneous notes, and tests and ideas for composition exercises. After a few pages, he begins a section titled “Exhibits,” which provides samples of poetry or translations of poetry of a number of poets, arranged chronologically. Following each sample, he makes comments and sometimes suggests collateral reading. He begins with Chaucer in the fourteenth century and continues with Gavin Douglas (fifteenth century); Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sixteenth century); Mark Alexander Boyd’s sonnets; Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Robert Herrick, Lord Rochester, Samuel Butler, and several anonymous pastorals (seventeenth century); and Alexander Pope, George Crabbe, and Walter Savage Landor (eighteenth century). There follows a discussion of Walt Whitman’s works, some comments on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and some miscellaneous remarks.
The book ends with a three-section essay (loosely defined), “Treatise on Metre,” in which Pound touches on a variety of definitions: rhythm and melody; opinions, mostly negative, of writers of music and poetry; and miscellaneous comments, mostly having to do with teachers, pupils, and poets.
The second section is directed to those readers who have not understood section 1. Pound continues to comment, with little expansion or development, on a number of topics related to versification and music. The final section makes the point that trying to follow a written “recipe” for prosody and melody is futile; the understanding of these things, ultimately, comes by listening, not by reading “treatises.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ezra Pound, 1987.
Goodwin, K. L. “Ezra Pound’s Influence on Literary Criticism,” in Modern Language Quarterly. XXIX (December, 1968), pp. 423-438.
Harris, Natalie. “A Map of Ezra Pound’s Literary Criticism,” in The Southern Review. XIX (Summer, 1983), pp. 548-572.
Lindberg, Kathryne V. Reading Pound Reading, 1987.
Quinn, Mary Bernetta. Ezra Pound: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1972.
Raffel, Burton. Ezra Pound: The Prime Minister of Poetry, 1984.
Scholes, Robert. “Is There a Fish in This Text?” in On Signs, 1985. Edited by Marshall Blonsky.
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