Creative process in writing: Ezra Pound: The qualities of “meaning”

In chapter four of his innovative and thought-provoking book, ABC of Reading, poet and literary critic Ezra Pound begins the chapter with the comment that “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

Following that opening statement is a  short sentence that begins Pound’s discussion of the power of poetry’s meaning being due at least in some part to its concentrated, compressed nature.

“Dichten = condensare”

Pound explains: “I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression”, and then elaborates:

“Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is almost as old as the German language. ‘Dichten’ is the German verb corresponding to the noun ‘Dichtung’ meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian verb meaning ‘to condense.'”

But with condensation, compression, and concentration, comes the need for precision in conveying the intended meaning with the precise word required, a task complicated by a number of factors, as Pound explains:

“…the good writer choses his words for their ‘meaning’, but that meaning…comes with roots, with associations, with how and where the word is familiarly used, or where it has been used brilliantly or memorably.”

“You can hardly say ‘incarnadine’ without one or more of your auditors thinking of a particular line of verse.”

Therefore, conveying meaning with words alone will always be difficult, in Pound’s view  because of people’s individual associations with words:

“There is no end to the number of qualities which some people can associate with a given word or kind of word, and most of these vary with the individual.”

All of which is just one small aspect of Pound’s interesting and erudite approach to the analysis of literature in his ABC of Reading (1).

(1) Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, A New Directions Paperbook, published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Ltd., first published in 1960 as New Directions Paperbook No. 89

Dennis Mellersh


About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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