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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound, pt 1 (front matter + Chapters 1-7)

Image result for abc of reading by ezra poundI write these as much for me as for others--to jog memory and to grapple with what I'm reading. This one's curious though. Usually you open a book and the author wastes takes time to explain why you need to buy his book. Not so here. Ezra Pound* seems to discourage reading about art as opposed to going out to read or see art for one's self. He also warns us about "a long dull stretch shortly after the beginning of the book. The student will have to endure it." He's as harsh with himself as he is others, apparently.

An opening claim:

  • A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author probably never heard). It is classic because of eternal and irrepressible freshness.
I've always bought into "Make it new," but "fresh" seems problematic. If we're using the metaphor of grocery produce, they have a "sell by" or expiration date. How can a thing set to expire be eternally "fresh"? Also, similarly, what if we see a thing used a hundred times? If we come upon that in the originator, how can it feel fresh? I don't mean to disagree but to ask for a different metaphor. It doesn't seem exactly apt. He also writes that it's "news that stays news," but that's just the same metaphor in a floppy hat.
  • If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.
Surely, that's a testable hypothesis. So the pinnacle of British literature was Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and the King James Bible. Was that also the pinnacle of their empire? Was the pinnacle of Russia the 19th century with Tolstoy, Chekhov, et al? Does county power = literary power? and country weakness = literary weakness? 

Chapter 2 concludes saying you need an expert to help you pick out whatever you're looking for: cars, radishes, diaper capacity. Presumably, this means we need Pound to guide us (even though he told us it's better to go look at the art itself than to read about it--presumably the person who reads about it also looks... unless he's turned off by what he's expected to see).

  • Good writers are those who keep the language efficient.... keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn't matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm.
This seems intuitively true. But what about ambiguity--not the murky kind but the multiplicity kind? Isn't that unclear? Also, do some poets, to a degree,  purposefully move away from clarity to get readers to struggle with the language? Is that good or bad?

Chapter 4 brings us the ideas that two writer types are worth reading--the inventors and the masters. The first come up with something cool while the second perfect that. He has four more categories he doesn't think are worthy, including those who start crazes, but could that also be an inventor? Maybe it is a cheap invention.

He talks about needing to be able to read all the world masters in their native languages. Pardon my snort. How does one do that and make a living? Maybe one has to start early or start rich. That also brings to mind his idea of nations atrophying when literature atrophies but what if he has it backwards? What if literature is a rich man's game and the only way we can have rich literature is to have rich people? (I don't mean that to be definitive but fodder.)

One advantage in a writer learning another language is seeing his own language in a new light. Other languages approach their construction differently, e.g. in Spanish you can leave out pronouns if they're understood.

  • it is my conviction that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many.

I won't debate that one.

  • start by thinking of the different KINDS of expression, the different WAYS of getting meaning into words, rather than of particular thing said or particular comments made.
Ah! He gets at the heart of art: aesthetics... which brings me to following disclaimer which shouldn't need saying but does in our present society:

* For those lacking aesthetics, reading a fascist does not make one a fascist. It makes one objective, or at least attempting objectivity. In a world of increasing divides, we desperately need objectivity. 

Chapter 5 gives examples of what he was saying in previous chapters but using languages most of us won't be able to translate, so that we really can't follow. We'll have to take him at his word.

Chapter 6 suggests reading Shakespeare not against his mediocre contemporaries but against someone Dante, Voltaire, Stendahl, Flaubert, or Fielding (in the original languages, of course).

  • Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.
  • There are three kinds of melopoeia, that is verse made to sing; to chant or intone; and to speak.
  • The older one gets the more one believes in the first
I was just listening to Tennyson read on Poetry Speaks and fascinated by his nearly singing or chanting his verse. Sometimes I read older verse and it feels stodgy. It's too bad we don't have more great poets reading their own works. I'll post a video of him reading, but you won't be able to understand him unless you're reading along with his poems. The first is "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The second video is creepy and cool--I'm not sure which adjective I'm leaning toward.

Chapter 7 is two paragraphs saying that mediocre poetry knows no language barrier.

This covers a third of the book. Thirty more pages of the ABCs remain as does "Exhibits," which makes up half the book (poems plus commentary), and a small section on meter.

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