Book Review

ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound

Photo on 04-01-2015 at 17.29 #2

I’ve never gotten on well with Ezra Pound’s poems. Though a staple within the pretentious anthologies I used to read during my undergraduate (and just after) years, his poems didn’t thrill me. I perhaps found them too difficult, too long, too something, but given my contempt of all Joyce post-Dubliners, I feel the fault most likely was the exhibition of a smug intellectualism, which is a human* trait I cannot stand. In ABC of Reading, Pound oozes smug intellectualism in a way that almost burn the pages.

The book is a guide to reading poetry, and in some places is quite interesting. The first half is long essays, the second half consists of short essays and examples of poems that Pound likes. Though a few relevant and informative ideas do manage to squeeze their way through the fog of condescension in the first half, the selection of poetry presented in the second is odd at best, self-defeating at worst. Some of it is dull, dreadfully dull, the kind of poets that poets like Pound were meant to have understood as irrelevant and departed from tradition in the way they did for that reason. There are pages and pages of poems by Gavin Douglas, a man who wrote a century after Chaucer, very few of which do anything impressive. Pound seems to be here merely redressing a problem he perceives. He thinks Douglas is great, but Douglas is not widely anthologised, thus Pound includes far more Douglas than makes any critical point in order to get the man’s work into the public eye. Now, in other places, that’s fine. Trying to raise the profile of a long-dead poet isn’t a shameful thing to do, but within the context of a book attempting to show the development of English-language verse, offering such a meandering study of one writer is inconsistent. To be honest, many of the “essential” poems Pound selects are boring, and it almost seems like the book does little more than emphasise the importance of his (and his contemporaries’) own work…

But that’s unfair. Where Pound is perceptive, he is compelling. Unfortunately, though, his writing in ABC of Reading is at its most entertaining when it is nothing more than self-absorbed snobbishness: be that whineing about how little money poets make, be it referring to a “current issue” of a journal, presuming that his readers are polylingual academics, or such brilliant bon mots as:

Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.


The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the reader can lap off it with no strain WHATSOEVER on his habitually slack attention.

For me, the real pleasure in the book came from the rediscovery of the works of Chaucer and Donne, poets I haven’t read for about a decade and enjoyed very much here. Pound seems correct in the level of importance he affords Chaucer, but does seem a little misguided with some of the other voices he deems as Chaucer’s equal.

Anyway, ABC of Reading is a short, occasionally entertaining read, but it’s patronising, condescending and in some ways self-defeating. An odd book.


* I say human, but really I mean literary. For me, there’s little to no difference, living as I do in thrall to prose and nothing else. I do understand that most people have more in their lives than books.

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