Essay on Poetic Theory

“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts” (1918)

by Ezra Pound

Introduction

A poet, critic, translator, and literary force of the modernist era, Ezra Pound was born in Idaho in 1885. He grew up in Pennsylvania and was educated at Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he met William Carlos Williams and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). After receiving his MA degree, he traveled in Europe and returned to the United States to teach briefly at Wabash College in Indiana. Pound eventually moved to London where he lived for 12 years, where he became acquainted with writers W.B. Yeats and Ford Madox Ford as well as artists, composers, and philosophers. By 1912 Pound, along with H.D., Richard Adlington, and F.S. Flint, had founded the imagist group. Their principles are outlined in the first three points of “A Retrospect.” 

Pound moved to Paris in 1921, and then to Italy. In Italy he became increasingly fascinated by Benito Mussolini, and from 1941-1943 he made radio talks in which he expressed his support of the dictator. In 1943 Pound was indicted for treason; he was held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. until his release in 1958. He spent his final years in Italy.

As a literary critic and mentor, Pound had a great influence on his contemporaries. W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost both accepted editorial advice from him. A champion of T.S. Eliot, he convinced Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, to publish Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound also heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. Pound’s own poetry was influenced by his knowledge of languages—among them Chinese, Japanese, and Italian. His works include versions of Chinese poems, the two-line imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro,” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberely,” and his modern epic The Cantos.

Pound’s “A Retrospect,” published in 1918, is a collection of his essays on poetry. It includes “A Few Don’ts” which was originally published in Poetry in 1913 as “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” and “Prolegomena,” which first appeared in the Poetry Review in 1912.  In “A Retrospect” Pound presents his beliefs about what makes good poetry.  The essay begins with the three principles of imagism, including “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” Pound defines “image” as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” He elaborates on the “rules” of imagism, advising precision, and proclaiming, among other things, “Use either no ornament or good ornament” and “Go in fear of abstraction.” Beyond attention to the image, Pound discusses the merits of translation, the rigors of free verse, and poets of the past. The essay is bracing and energetic; after all: “The mastery of any art is the work of a lifetime.”

The text is taken from Pound’s Pavannes and Divagations (1918).

A RETROSPECT

There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.

In the spring or early summer of 1912, “H. D.,” Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Upon many points of taste and of predilection we differed, but agreeing upon these three positions we thought we had as much right to a group name, at least as much right, as a number of French “schools” proclaimed by Mr. Flint in the August number of Harold Monro’s magazine for 1911.

This school has since been “joined” or “followed” by numerous people who, whatever their merits, do not show any signs of agreeing with the second specification. Indeed vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. It has brought faults of its own. The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shovelled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound. Whether or no the phrases followed by the followers are musical must be left to the reader’s decision. At times I can find a marked metre in “vers libres,” as stale and hackneyed as any pseudo-Swinburnian, at times the writers seem to follow no musical structure whatever. But it is, on the whole, good that the field should be ploughed. Perhaps a few good poems have come from the new method, and if so it is justified.

Criticism is not a circumscription or a set of prohibitions. It provides fixed points of departure. It may startle a dull reader into alertness. That little of it which is good is mostly in stray phrases; or if it be an older artist helping a younger it is in great measure but rules of thumb, cautions gained by experience.

I set together a few phrases on practical working about the time the first remarks on imagisme were published. The first use of the word “Imagiste” was in my note to T. E. Hulme’s five poems, printed at the end of my “Ripostes” in the autumn of 1912. I reprint my cautions from Poetry for March, 1913.

A FEW DON’TS

An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term “complex” rather in the technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we may not agree absolutely in our application.

It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.

It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

All this, however, some may consider open to debate. The immediate necessity is to tabulate A LIST OF DON’TS for those beginning to write verses. I can not put all of them into Mosaic negative.

To begin with, consider the three propositions (demanding direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase), not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to explain their metres.

LANGUAGE

Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 Ezra  Pound

Biography

Of all the major literary figures in the twentieth century, Ezra Pound has been one of the most controversial; he has also been one of modern poetry's most important contributors. In an introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot declared that Pound "is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual." Four decades later, Donald Hall reaffirmed in remarks collected . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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