Ezra Pound – Two “Piths” From The ABC of Reading

AG: The ABC of Reading from Ezra Pound – yeah how many know that? I recommend taking a look at that or buying it, or reading it. It’s a litttle anthology, like a teaching anthology, to hit high points and special effects in .. you know, Mike? (sic) have you read it?

Student (Mike):  Yes

AG: When?

Student (Mike): In the summer, the past summer..

AG: (We’re)  talking about Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. It’s a book I’ve come back to over and over again for clear ideas and suggestions in how to write, how to think about writing. I think, we’ll, in the next bulletin from Naropa, I think we’ll be quoting a line of Pound as our headline – “Don’t..” “Don’t look for..” “Don’t take criticism from anybody who has not himself written a notable work”. or..”Don’t take criticism in your field of art from somebody who has not himself created a notable work”. And there are a lot of little gists and piths, condensed suggestions, in that book which are full of wisdom and practical experience (in fact, wisdom derived from practical experience, from writing). And Pound seems to me to have one of the best historical takes on the development of English ear, prosody, verse line and its mixture with foreign verse forms – like Chaucer – Chaucer mixed with French, Chaucer’s English mixed with French verse forms and French poetic techniques. on the cross-fertilization of languages as the cultures developed. So he’s got good history, if you want to understand the morphilogy of verse forms, and he’s got good basic definitions. One that I’ve worked at quite a bit with people when I’ve been working on their poetry is the notion of condensing (which he speaks about with great clarity, taking it from.. Basil Bunting, I think, was the original.) I’ll read that little paragraph:

“DICHTEN = CONDENSARE” – And then a footnote – “A Japanese student in America, on being asked the difference between prose and poetry, said: Poetry consists of gists and piths” – “This chapter-heading is Mr Bunting’s discovery..” (“Dichten = Condensare” – “Dichten” – what does it mean? – does anyone know… is Mark (sic) here?..German? Dichten?)

Student: Speak..?

AG: Well, “dichter” is poet. It’s “poetry-making”, I think…

Student: Yeah

AG: …in German,  “(poetry-making) equals “to condense”. And I think Bunting found that in an old German dictionary. oddly enough . ” This chapter-heading is Mr Bunting’s discovery and his prime contribution to contemporary criticism” – “and his prime contribution to contemporary criticism” (pretty good, actually – it hit me like a ton of bricks, I think I mentioned this, but I read in 1965 all my own poetry in Morden Tower, Newcastle, a place where a reading series was organized for (Robert) Creeley and American writers by Bunting’s protege and supporter Tom Pickard, a British poet, and Bunting came (because he was there) and I’d heard so much about him that meeting him for the first time I read all through “Howl” and all through “Kaddish”,  and everything, everything I’d written from 1948 to 1965 practically, a three-and-a-half-hour reading! – or longer!  Then, when we were going home, I asked Bunting what he thought, and he said, “Too many words”! – meaning, not “that you go on, you’ve been writing too long”, but just, in the instances of “Howl”, or of “Kaddish”, (that) “there are too many words for what you want to say”. And I…took that to heart. Somehow it cut in., it made sense. Out of his mouth, it made sense. It didn’t make sense out of anybody else’s mouth, but out of his mouth I understood it (sort of like hearing (Chogyam) Trungpa say something, actually). It just went right in, and I said, “Oh, of course”, naturally. And then, when I started putting together poems from The Fall of America, I did begin condensing quite a bit (and those of you who I’ve worked with on individual poems may recognize that -simply, like taking long-winded phrases and cutting out all of the articles and prepositions and trying to get it packed into as packed a line as possible, as condensed a line as possible. In other words, it’s not “the eyeglasses of my mother”, but “my mother’s eyeglasses” – simple as that – you’re not going to say “the eyeglasses of my mother”, just “my mother’s eyeglasses”. “These are my mother’s eyeglasses”).

So, “It is, as we have said, ingrained..” – (the idea is far from new) – ” ingrained in the very language of Germany, and it has magnificently FUNCTIONED, brilliantly functioned. Pisistratus found the Homeric texts in disorder, we don’t quite know what he did about it. The Bible is a compendium, people trimmed it to make it solid. It has gone on for ages because it wasn’t allowed to overrun all the available parchment; a Japanese emperor, whose name I have forgotten and whose name you needn’t remember, found that there were TOO MANY NOH PLAYS, he picked out 450, and the Noh stage LASTED from 1400 or whenever right down to the day the American navy intruded, and that didn’t stop it. Umewaka Minoru started again as soon as the revolution wore off. Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a compendium, not an epic like Homer’s; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a compendiun of all the good yarns Chaucer knew. The Tales have lasted through centuries while the long-winded medieval narratives went into museums.”

Well that’s (just on) that one phrase, “DICHTEN = CONDENSARE” – Poetry equals Condensation, Poetics equals Condensation

And the other generalization which I’ve gone over and over and over, repeated over and over, is the distinction between phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia, pictures, melody, and word-wit. Everybody’s familiar with that that’s been in the class before? – (and anyone who’s not been in the class, I’ve used this before as..three ways of looking at poetry – examining poems for their picture (content), for the sound (prettiness, melodic prettiness), and also for the humor of the language, or the wit of the language, or the smartness). So there’s a nice redefinition of this (these three divisions) in The ABC Of Reading

“One – Phanopoeia – “throwing the object (fixed or moving{ onto the visual imagination”, or “casting a picture on he mind’s eye”, he said elsewhere – Two – Melopoeia – melody (“poeia” – making melody – from “poetics”..”poesis”, Greek, “poesis”, making, right? making? – poetry means making – In original Greek, poesis has to do with making something) – So,, Thanopoeia – picture-making, Melopoeia – music-making (and in Melopoeia, “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and the rhythm of the speech” – “As you came…” – I think I was pointing out in the little tune about Walsingham – “As you came from the holy land/ of Walsingham,/ Met you not with my true love/ By the way as you came? ” – That little cadence there which has such a delicate balance – “by the way”, “as you came”, that the gentility and delight, the tenderness of the inquiry (“by the way?” “as you came?”) and some of the urgency does get across in that cadence). So “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and the rhythm of the speech:” – That would be the melopoeia – And logopoeia – “inducing both of the effects by stimulating the associations. intellectual or emotional, that have remained in the receiver’s consciousness in relation to the actual words or groups of words employed” – “on purpose laid to make the taker mad” – Love, “on purpose laid to make the taker mad” was my prime example of logopoeia in Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Love is “on purpose laid to make the taker mad” – just a funny mouthful, not only sound, interesting sound but.. “on purpose laid to make the taker mad” (“on purpose laid” is pretty interesting) as just witty language. And to nail back down the idea of condensation, the next sentence of Pound – “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words. The reader’s first and simple test of an author will be to look for words that do not function, that contribute nothing to the meaning OR that distract from the MOST important factor of the meaning to factors of minor importance”

Then he suggests some ” Tests and Composition Exercises” (which you might do some time – or we might do) – “Let the pupils exchange composition papers…” – (see, like this is an ABC book, like “How To..” – how to read, how to write – so it’s, like, a text-book for classes – maybe some time we might actually try and use this in a.. as a class text, you know, take a whole term and use the Pound – it’d be really interesting to see if it would work) – “”Let the pupils exchange composition papers and see how many and what useless words have been used..” – (In other words, you have them exchange papers and figure out whether or not in each other’s poems, there are useless words, you know, just sort of draggy, extra, bullshit) – “..and how many words that convey nothing new – Two – “How many words that obscure the meaning” – ( instead of bringing it out) – Three – “How many words out of their usual place, and whether this alteration makes the statement in any way more interesting or more energetic” – (- or less – that’s pretty good) – And there’s anothe rpretty thing that I misquoted here – for sketching – for William Carlos Williams-style sketching – “It is said that Flaubert taught De Maupassant to write. When De Maupassant returned from a walk Flaubert would ask him to describe someone, say a concierge.. [a landlady in a rooming house or hotel] – “..say a concierge, whom they would both pass in their next walk, and to describe the person so that Flaubert would recognize, say, the concierge, and not mistake her for some other concierge” – (you understand)- ” and not the one De Maupassant had described.” – (In other words, to describe it so sharply and so acutely, finding by what particular she was significant – that’s (Carl) Rakosi’s language – “by what particulars is he significant” – have I used that one yet? – “by what particulars is he significant” – to find those particulars which would make that particular concierge significant, like a purple nose, say, so that Flaubert wouldn’t mistake her for any other concierge – These are really practical suggestions

I start off with Pound – Incidentally, he also says – “Exercises” – “Metrical writing” – “One – Let the pupil try and write in the meter of any poem he likes – (that’s a good one, because I was assigning meters similar to Ben Jonson‘s, or somewhere between Jonson and (Sir Walter) Ralegh, between Ralegh and Jonson, Raleigh, (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Jonson, up through there – that was the assignment – to write a poem about mortality). Also he suggests “Let him write words to a well-known tune” – (Well, people do that all the time, I mean musicians do that all the time). And, “Let him try to write words to the same tune in such a way that the words will not be distorted when one sings them” – (In other words, where each note would fit a syllable, and the word wouldn’t be distorted in the pronunciation if you were trying to fit it into the tune)

{ Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately fourteen minutes in]

{This material first appeared on the Allen Ginsberg Project – here]

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