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What reading did Pound loathe?

A. David Moody

 

Much, possibly too much, is being made of Pound’s having said that he “loathed reading”. After all, that was not all that he had to say on the matter.

            Reviewing Michael Kindellan’s The Late Cantos of Ezra Pound in Make It New IV.4, Massimo Bacigalupo accepted its pivotal view that “The Cantos, largely composed as it is of reports of Pound’s reading, is written by a man who loathes the act of reading as such”. And Alec Marsh in his review of the book in the same number, wrote, “This idea of the cantos as anti-philology comports with the startling claim with which Kindellan opens his book; to wit, that Pound ‘loathed reading’ and that ‘The Cantos as writing could itself constitute an explicit protest against reading”. Kindellan’s first chapter is headed ‘“I have always loathed reading”: Pound and Philology’; and his first sentence has Pound writing those words to Michael Reck from St Elizabeths on May 17, 1955: “I have always loathed reading, and can now read practically nothing save to learn what I don’t know / FACTS.”[1] Then there is what Pound wrote in Guide to Kulchur:

     To read and be conscious of the act of reading is for some men (the writer among them) to suffer. I loathe the operation. My eyes are geared for the horizon. Nevertheless

I do read for days on end when I have caught the scent of a trail. And I, like any other tired business man, read also when I am “sunk”, when I am too exhausted to use my mind to any good purpose [or derive any exhilaration or pleasure from using it].[2]

Kindellan cites this on his second page, but omits the words in my square brackets. Those words might not be redundant.

            In that passage Pound is not saying anything so simple as that he “loathed reading as such”. What he loathes is “To read and be conscious of the act of reading”, (emphasis added). That is the negative to the preceding strongly positive statement:

     Properly, we should read for power. Man reading shd. be man intensely alive. The book shd. be a ball of light in one’s hand.

There is the “exhilaration or pleasure”, in being caught up in the reading, empowered by it.[3] Clearly he rejoices in that quality of reading, and loathes reading when the act is felt to be not empowering. He is making a vital discrimination, not resisting or rejecting reading as such. Thus “I do read for days on end when I have caught the scent of a trail.” When intent and concentrated on the scent he would be not “conscious of the act of reading”, and there would be no question of his loathing the reading then.

            Under Kindellan’s chapter heading ‘I have always loathed reading” there is an epigraph, presumably intended to enforce that statement:

The persistent avoidance throughout a full decade of most of the past and all living authors of high dynamism, the perpetual dalliance with tepidities, of blunt and crummy mentalities, leaves a printed page that I find utmost difficulty in traversing.[4]

That is an objection to the writing on offer, not to reading as such. Indeed the epigraph leads me to suggest that it is not reading that Pound loathes, but rather unrewarding writing. More broadly, I see him resisting having to read writing that does not fulfil some need.

            That may explain what he wrote in that letter to Michael Reck. As always, context matters. The letter is reproduced in Reck’s Ezra Pound: A Close-up, where Reck adds this note: “I had begun a verse translation of The Iliad”. One gathers from the letter that Reck had sent Pound his translation of the first three books of The Iliad, and that Pound was putting off going through it for him. The letter begins:

Based on D.P.’s report that there is hope. As I have always loathed reading, and can now practically read nothing save to learn what I don’t know / FACTS .

Suggest Reck consider following points, as to whether he wants to revise before E.P. attempts.[5]

There follows a page of “points”, such as “Reck reread 3 books to see if ANYWHERE still bitched by the SYNTAX of the original”, and “Has Reck at any point taken his eye of the THING , in trying to follow the original LANGUAGE?” Evidently in May 1955 Pound felt rather strongly disinclined to work his way through the 2,000 lines or so of Reck’s verse translation of The Iliad. Just then he was engaged in reading Paul the Deacon’s De Gestis Langobardorum in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, together with “Bede and other (Arabic?) sources for canto 96”.[6] He was reading what he needed to read for Thrones, seeking such facts or “luminous details” as “& inviting his wife to drink from her father’s skull / (Cunimundus) a cup which I, Paulus, saw” (96/671).

            We know how committed Pound was to reading for enlightenment, and how he urged others to read the texts he thought vital. He was no masochist, he did not spend his days doing what he loathed. He simply had no time for what he had no use for.

            That he was an idiosyncratic reader making his own sense of his chosen texts is beyond question. What is in question is what we, as readers of the late cantos, are to make of that, and this is where Kindellan’s work comes into its own.

 


[1] Michael Kindellan, The Late Cantos of Ezra Pound: Composition, Revision, Publication (Bloomsbury, 2017), 1.

[2] Guide to Kulchur (Peter Owen, 1952), 55.

[3] I am reminded of Eliot’s “music heard so deeply | That it is not heard at all, but you are the music | While the music lasts” in The Dry Salvages V – but then what a world of difference!

[4] Kindellan gives the source of the quotation as “Toward Orthology”, EPP 6062, i.e. a 1935 typescript in the Beinecke Ezra Pound Papers. The passage quoted is not present in “Toward Orthology: Sargent Florence” in New English Weekly of 20 June 1935, nor in “Towards Orthology” in New English Weekly of 11 April 1935.

[5] Michael Reck, Ezra Pound: A Close-up (London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd., 1968), facing p.83. Reck published his translation as The Iliad for Speaking in 1990.

[6] Information from Mary de Rachewiltz, A Catalogue of the Poetry Notebooks of Ezra Pound (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1980), 82,83.