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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.

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