Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078

From 1934 to 1935, James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions Press and Ezra Pound’s publisher in the United States, lived in Rapallo, Italy, where he studied at Pound’s informal “Ezuversity” for several months. In his affectionate and perceptive memoir, Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound (1987), Laughlin recalls a man who was moving toward the manic intensity that blinded him to the horrors of the Fascist regimes he admired but who still retained the singular humor, style, and vision that makes so much of his opinionated literary criticism so compelling. As Laughlin reflects on Pound’s routine in those days, he describes “classes” beginning “with Ezra going through the day’s mail, commenting on the subjects that it raised.” Laughlin notes that economic theory had become Pound’s central concern, but that letters from “writers and translators, professors and scholars” covering an astonishing range of books—from ancient Greece to modern times—poured in, “a huge correspondence from all over the world.”

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Pound was past fifty, and he was in the process of preparing his most authoritative version of his revisionist interpretations of history and literature as a kind of commentary and supplement to his imaginative literary expressions of similar material in The Cantos (1925-1969). As he gathered material and refined his ideas, the keenness of his mind already blunted by his obsession with financial affairs, so many things caught Pound’s attention that he found it hard to develop a concept without shifting focus whenever something related came up. In addition, he was so preoccupied with economics that he was now convinced that they represented the key to understanding civilization, and he began to sift everything through the filter of economic theory, most of it unconventional and eccentric. The result of this situation is a book, Guide to Kulchur (which Pound always called Kulch), that John Tytell, one of Pound’s best biographers, calls “more digressively impulsive, more disorganized than anything Pound had done previously,” but it is also a book, as Laughlin claims, that is “the richest of Pound’s prose texts.”

The “barrage of ideas” Pound throws from the pages is not entirely the product of a harried and confused mind. Pound’s avowed intention was to provide a guide for the education of a young man or woman who could not afford to attend a university, but who, Pound believed, might be better off anyway since the “beaneries” (his term for colleges) were “stuffed to the gills with parasites and bloated dullards.” Pound’s contempt for most British and American academics leads to the caustic, mocking tone he often adopts and to his presentation of many ideas in various dialects ranging from stage Irish to American backwoods cracker-barrel, complete with appropriate spelling. This adversarial stance was designed to undercut sham professorial authority, and it led to his method of organization as well. To counter the “logic-chopping” approach of the universities, he refused to use the normal manner of developing and supporting an argument or thesis. In a conscious defiance of the approved modes of pedagogy of his time, he wanted to force the reader to stop reading with the mind on a kind of automatic pilot and to create a rupture in concretized patterns of consciousness.

While the title of the book suggests that the “subject” is culture, its real subject is Pound’s mind or the process of the mind’s development and its current style of operation. Consequently, the organization of the book, its shape, is an approximation of the morphology of the mind that is examining “culture,” which for Pound is the intellectual history of human civilization. The actual arrangement of material is an early demonstration that “Form is a revelation of Content” (as Denise Levertov put it), indicating the necessity for finding or creating the specific structure required for the material under discussion. Yet Pound’s ideas concerning the crucial coordinates of an estimable cultural condition were not entirely worked out; thus, the form of his guide remained idiosyncratic—almost more of a groping toward form than a realized construction—and the matrix he envisioned to hold together disparate ideas and observations remained essentially nascent and theoretical. One aspect of structure which does become operative is Pound’s application of the patterns of a musical composition—one of his paradigms for order—in which a theme is stated, then dropped as another theme is introduced, and then repeated with variations throughout the composition. In this fashion, there is a simultaneous progression of the various ideas Pound wishes to stress, with some linkage established between the ideas by their congruity. This pattern becomes apparent only during the process of reading itself because Pound’s pedagogic approach precludes an outline.

To further this plan, the table of contents is divided into what looks like a solid, mechanical scheme of ideas with subdivisions and subsections, but the various “parts” (six in all) of the book are not self-enclosed and do not concentrate on specific subjects. Similarly, the subsections (of which there are thirteen) occur seemingly at random, as do the fifty-eight “chapters.” Pound offers a recapitulation of “nuclei in my exposition” on page 348, in which some of his most important preoccupations (“items”) are listed, but the pagination is incomplete and whimsical, as in a listing of “Food” on page 111. The most serious reference guide is the index, which accurately indicates where a particular concept or individual is covered, and crucial terminology is explained by cross-references, but this aspect of the book is not entirely Pound’s, since he acknowledges the “valued help” of John Drummond in its making. Beyond this, the book’s first statement, preceding the formal title page but following a page with the title, is a reproduction of a wax impression from about 1460, thus extending the book back in history from the time of its composition. Instead of a conclusion in the usual sense of the word, the last pages following the final chapter include an addendum from 1952, a postscript added by the editor which he found among Pound’s papers, and then an “Introductory TEXT BOOK” which covers some of Pound’s basic ideas for the last time, implying an open-ended and lingering quality, as if Pound vaguely hoped that the book might continue into the future as a living testament to his thought and as a guide that might be consulted to refresh and redirect the true teacher of what Pound considered essential human wisdom.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Chace, William M. The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, 1973.

De Rachewiltz, Mary. Ezra Pound, Father and Teacher: Discretions, 1971.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era, 1971.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound, 1987.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound, 1970.

Tytell, John. Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano, 1987.

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