Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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,...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)