HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity (in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anyway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

%d bloggers like this: