Ezra Pound on Origins, Teaching, Traditions, and Poetry

A return to origins invigorates because it is a return to nature and reason. The man who returns to origins does so because he wishes to behave in an eternally sensible manner. That is to say, naturally, reasonably, intuitively. He does not wish to do the right thing in the wrong place, to “hang an ox with trappings”, as Dante puts it. He wishes not pedagogy, but harmony, the fitting thing.

Literary essays of Ezra Pound, II

While I havn’t bought his (and T.S. Eliot’s) criticism of Milton’s poetry, and I find his politics as disappointing as I find almost everybody’s politics in the early to mid-20th century (which is to say, I feel quite comfortable judging their errors from my perch at the corner of incomprehensibility and radicalism), I cannot escape the astonishment that frequently overtakes me when I read Pound’s criticism.

Maybe he was just playing with our minds, but I don’ t think so, because some of what I’ve read by him in the past and found incomprehensible I now read and find quite insightful. Other times, he just makes good, sound, but practically helpful observations. Like this:

As to the traditional vers libre: Jammaris in his study of the Melic poets comes to the conclusion that they composed to the feel of the thing, to the cadence, as have all good poets since.

And then I’ll read something like this and think, “Wow! He’s saying something here,”:

Neither is surface imitation of much avail, for imitation is, indeed, of use only in so far as it connotes a closer observation, or an attempt closely to study certain forces through their effects.

In another essay, entitled The Teacher’s Mission, he contends for the role of the teacher and says things that need to be carefully considered because they are dangerous and because they might still be true or at least carry truth. The worst condition, therefore, would be for people to ignore the danger of the statements but still act on the ideas they express as though they are safe. Consider:

The mental life of a nation is no man’s private property. The function of the teaching profession is to maintain the HEALTH OF THE NATIONAL MIND.

Or take this:

Until the teacher wants to know all the facts, and to sort out the roots from the branches, the branches from the twigs, and to grasp the MAIN STRUCTURE of his subject, and the relative weights and importance of its parts, he is just a lump of dead clay in the system.

Ouch. But what great practical advice. I love these two:

All teaching of literature should be performed by the presentation and juxtaposition of specimens of writing and NOT by discussion of some other discusser’s opinion about the general standing of a poet or author.

The average reader has been brought up on vague general statements, which have naturally blunted his curiosity.

If you teach literature, may I invite you to reflect on and comment on one or both of those quotations. That’s the sort of thing we literature lovers need to be talking about. The problems with literature instruction are not new; we just have more really bad text books and untrained teachers than ever before.

I’m not sure where Pound is going on this next statement, but it’s worth a block

Retrospect is inexcusable, especially in education, save when used distinctly AS a leverage toward the future.

And I’m not sure about the first word in this next one: it might be criminals or animals. I suspect he said criminals. Worth a response:

Criminals [or animals] have no intellectual interests.

And finally, two statements from his essay On Tradition:

The two great lyric traditions which most concern us are that of the Melic poets and that of Provence. From the first arose practically all the poetry of the ‘ancient world,’ from the second practically all that of the modern.


The tradition is a beauty which we preserve and not a set of fetters to bind us.

When you teach your students, do you feed them on beauty or shackle them in fetters?

They tend, interestingly, not to like the second option.

The Pretentious Article

There are three different kinds of article in English: The indefinite article, so named because the noun it modifies is indefinite (an apple, a fish); the definite article, modifying a definite noun (the apple – you know, that one on the table, the fish – that one over there in the aquarium); and the pretentious definite article.

The definite article is used to clarify that you are referring to a particular item, one that is known by the conversant. But the pretentious definite article is the besetting sin of the modern novelist. It is a tawdry attempt by the writer to pretend that he has followed Tolstoy’s counsel and begun in the middle of the action. I believe I find the Pretentious article more annoying even than bad grammar or sloppy syntax. Nothing is more unforgivable in writing than pretence.

If you are unclear what I am talking about, go to the library (surely you will have no such books in your own house) and pull any book written in the last twenty or thirty years. In this age of unfeigned pretence, odds approximate one in two that the first book you open will begin with the prententious article.  Surely you see what I mean.

The lazy dog nozed open the door…
The man checked the casing of his firearm…
The soldier wandered to the river side…

The blah blah blah blah did blah blah blah blah.

You and I, dear reader, have this little secret. At least we do now that I have told you. There is a man, nudge, nudge. He’s “the man.” After all, if I had taken the trouble to identify him or to provide you with context or exposition you probably wouldn’t have continued.

This is simply shoddy writing using the presumed laziness, illiterateness, and emotional instability of the reader as an excuse.

I challenge you to find one good book that begins with a decontextualized definite noun in its opening sentence. It’s not the presence of the definite article that offends; it’s the pointlessness of it, the pretentiousness.

And the worst of it is that when you go to writer’s workshops, the novice writers who only read contemporary fiction to determine what writers should do encourage it. Teachers encourage it in the schools. It’s awful. Kill it, along with every other form of pretence. Why do people think this is good?

I just flipped through a collection of essays on writing by renouned story tellers like Madelaine L’Engle and Ursula K. LeGuin. Not one of them opened with a pretentious article. Not one. Who has spread the idea that it is good to do so? Who!!

I think it arises from a number of unthought conditions, such as the appetite for immediate action even if the action is disembodied (an impossibility, of course, but why would writers care about that), not having anything to say (usually a hint would go in the first sentence), lack of opening skills and/or tools, etc. Mostly, I think this deplorable tendency arises from fear of the reader; the fear that if you don’t push the reader on the roller coaster that is your book, she might never board and then all is lost.

But readers like to meet people and chat with them in the line. Human beings are what make stories appealing, even if they are hidden in the forms of animals. Actual, contextualized, flesh and blood, named human beings. Give them to your reader and your reader will follow you past the first sentence.

In short, the most important purpose of 9 out of 10 opening sentences is to put a character in front of the reader who exists, and existence always requires context. Some examples from the book I refered to above (Origins of Story):

“When I was a child, I was always puzzled by the heoric status accorded to Jack, who climbed the beanstalk.”

“One of my favorite beginnings is from Coleridge’s unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan”:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A Stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to the sunless sea…”

“Play is one of two universal childhood creative acts, the other being dreaming.”

“The first idea I had for The Hounds of the Morrigan came in a dream…”

I’m not a big fan of the much abused “One of my” or “One of the” openings, but it has its place. But apart from that, these are living openings. Look at the verbs and look at the actors. No pretence. Just vivid presentation, even of abstractions.

Here’s a suggested “opening exercise”:

Write a simple sentence with a simple subject and predicate: The dog ate the wishbone. (you could use the Mad-lib approach here and just fill in the blanks with nouns and verbs).

Fix that sentence with these two steps:

One, identify the dog.
Two, add the word “when” or “after” and begin the sentence with an adverbial phrase:

When Tom went swimming, his dog Rover ate the wishbone.
After Tom ate his Thanksgiving leftovers, the neighbor’s collie Fido ate the wishbone.
After my dog Dobbie ate the wishbone, everything I ever desired came to pass. 

All I’ve done is add a little bit of flesh and blood to an otherwise wholly unsatisfactory sentence. Even more could be added by identifying the wishbone, but opening sentences shouldn’t carry too much weight. Also, “the wishbone” does not offer us a pretentious article because there is no need to be any clearer about wishbone we are talking about.

No more pretentious articles! Please!

How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

A Writing/worldview exercise

If you were writing a fairy tale/fantasy a la Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, even Rowling, would you give magical powers to the humans in the story? Why?

Comment and let me know!

Harry Potter

Or rather, JK Rowling. Let me state this horribly controversial point to begin with: The Harry Potter series is very good, but not perfect.

So what’s my problem today? Mostly I’m jealous, but I’ve sublimated my jealousy into an idea to justify it. It boils down to this. I think she’s a chicken. The thing is, I’ve been writing a Romance Adventure myself lately, and I keep finding it wants me to deal with all these deep and controversial issues (not issues that were controversial 450 years ago. By the way, contra Rowling (Harry III, 1, 2), persecuting witches was a Renaissance hangup, not a medieval one. It was intimately associated with the rather extreme steps Ren Folk (and the En Folk who followed them) were willing to explore every licit or illicit means of gaining power) because it is about human nature, how we learn, how we should relate to each other, power, death, babes, all that stuff.

Well, I’m open to correction, but I haven’t found anything in Rowling that could be in any way controversial. When she comes close, it seems to me, she generalizes to irrelevence. But for the most part, she just doesn’t raise hard questions. What about pre-marital sex? Nothing, just some innocent dancing and normal jealousy. What about divorce? Never comes up, so far as I can recall. What about abortion? Unless there’s something hidden in that very cleverly mysterious baby at the end of Harry VII (which would go to my first point), nothing. What about home schooling? Certainly not recommended for muggles, but she never quite touches the issue. The welfare state? War in Iraq? France? Nothing remotely taking sides on any of these issues.

Ok, genocide. She opposes that. But even here, I doubt that her presentation will open people’s eyes and consciences to the many forms of genocide that are taking place today – even outside Darfur. And once you’ve committed genocide, then what? And how do you anticipate it?

Does she lay out any principles that might touch on any of these matters?

H I-VII are supposed to be inspiration to the adolescents of today. I’m afraid they might not get anything out of them but escape. Of course, they won’t only get that, and there’s a lot more to them than that. I was particularly moved by Dudley’s show of affection to Harry in Harry VII, though Harry’s response was not exemplary. Harry’s forgiving and recognizing Snape was also quite impressive. And it’s hard to deny his courage and the justice of the motivation behind it, though I don’t know how much value it will have for children who don’t get the thrill of confronting evil wizards and can’t fall back on their own magical solutions. I understand the metaphorical value and all that. Indeed, I push that in my own teaching and practice. But these books are for adolescents. They need to engage a little more directly.

It’s like the word muggle. Very cute. Very Victorian. But not really adequate. Too easily dismissed. She misses on that one, though only slightly. A lot of her names are ingenious (Voldemort, Harry Potter, Hermione (truly an inspired selection – and no I’m not being sarcastic or even ironic) Ron Weasley. I’m not sure about Dumbledore, though. Again, too cute. Gandalf would have been better, but I suppose that’s been used already. Snape was a great name! Malfoy! Perfect. Hagrid. Fine name, excessively cute character.

The point is, she drifts into a cuteness that doesn’t match the later volumes but that she was stuck with from the earlier ones. But that’s how she seems to deal with issues too. Cute. Not Thomas Kincade; I would never reduce her to that level. She’s no hack. But too cute.

Each volume is increasingly well written and I found the last two gripping. But nothing controversial. I think she was driven by the market. It did her a lot of good, I’m sure. I think she could have done her readers more good if she was willing to focus on the noblest of them.

Which all leaves me bitterly jealous of her genius, but pleased that she has provided me with plenty of excuses for my own impending and inevitable literary failure.

By the way, I will now take the bull of controversy by the hands or the horns or whatever and offer my opinion: magnificent tales. Read the first two as quickly as you can so you can have them out of the way and be ready for the rest, but by the time you get to the last two she’s really got it figured out. The lady can weave a romance.

 Gotta go, I need to go hang out with Sirius Black a little more!