ABC of Reading

Ezra Pound pontificating in 1934, frothing at the mouth about the state of intellectual development in America and England, groaning about the idiocy of people who dared to question his earlier pamphlet, How To Read, which I daresay was nearly unreadable based on his savage railing against the complaints.

And yet Pound is someone we must pet into our pocket and humor, keep with us through the ages. His wit and wisdom do sometimes shine forth, once you wipe off his stray spittle and overlook his use of ALL CAPS for emphasis throughout. “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient…. accurate, clear.” “The fogged language of swindling classes serves only a temporary purpose.” Later in Chapter 8, “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words… One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.”

Above all, he exhorts us to read good work and to think about it, to be informed by the examples he lays out at the end (which are strangely pro-Chaucer and neutral on Shakespeare, or as he calls him Jacques Père.) Naturally the list is 100% male, with a sneer at Jane Austen. “If you can read only English, start on Fielding… After which I suppose one should recommend Miss Jane Austen.” (You can hear his reluctance. Get over it, Pound.) Tom Jones is his Fielding rec, then Tristam Shandy and the Sentimental Journey by Sterne.

But he is on our side, after all, fighting the battle to preserve the health and sanity of our nations.

The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.

It is very difficult to make people understand the impersonal indignation that a decay of writing can cause men who understand what it implies, and the end whereto it leads. It is almost impossible to express any degree of such indignation without being called embittered or something of that sort.

“Dante called words ‘buttered’ and ‘shaggy’ because of the different noises they make. Or pexa et hirsuta, combed and unkempt.”

Here he is complaining about and taunting his readers:

You have been promised a text-book, and I perhaps ramble on as if we had been taken outdoors to study botany from the trees instead of from engravings in classroom. That is partly the fault of people who complained that I gave them lists without saying why I had chosen such-and-such authors.

YOU WILL NEVER KNOW either why I chose them, or why they were worth choosing, or why you approve or disapprove my choice, until you go to the TEXTS, the originals.

And once you get to the actual TEXTS, the originals, he challenges you not to read his footnotes but to guess who wrote the passage and why it was included. Fun guy!

He thumbs his nose at sacred Goethe, “My own belief is that Goethe and Stefan George at their lyric best are doing nothing that hadn’t already been done better or as well… a lot of subject matter of no great present interest has been stuffed into German verse that is not very skillful. I can see no reason why a foreign writer would study it.” Burn!

Exasperated at those of us who cannot read Greek, Latin, Italian, French, “For those who read only English, I have done what I can. I have translated the TA HIO so that they can learn where to start THINKING. And I have translated the Seafarer; so that they can see more or less where English poetry starts.”

“A man who really knows can tell all that is transmissible in a very few words. The economic problem of the teacher (of violin or of language or of anything else) is how to string it out so as to be paid for more lessons.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and at forty-eight.”

He sums Shakespeare (“Jacques Père, spelling it Shaxpear because J is either pronounced hard or confused with I”) up as writing 16th c plays out of 15th c Italian news.

“The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.”