15 September 2005

Blaming Ezra

A recent article in the Contemporary Poetry Review finds Ezra Pound responsible for students' inability to read poetry aloud (and that's just the beginning).

Garrick Davis sat in on a poetry class at Boston University and
was subsequently astonished by two facts. The first was that the nine students who read had, not a variety of speaking voices, but a remarkably uniform delivery: they mumbled out the lines as rapidly as they could read them, oblivious to line breaks, or rhyme, or rhythm. Garcia Lorca was read, essentially, in the same monotone accorded an office memo.

The second fact was that the teacher, by invariably interrupting each student after a few lines to correct the speed and intonation of their faulty recital, was aware that these near-graduates of a prestigious writing program, these most promising of our young poets, had still to learn how to read poetry.
Davis goes from this to that in ten paragraphs flat:
Put another way, to understand the crisis of American poetry one must understand the career of Ezra Pound. How long has chaos reigned? 1913 is as good a date as any, and that year might usefully serve as a rallying cry in our scholarly magazines and schools--for a past mistake that still haunts our present culture.
Quite the maddening little article.

Ok. First of all, I'm willing to bet that those students' lack of expression in reading aloud is not limited to poetry. Give them Salinger and it'd be the same story. Expression comes with fluency and practice--and, let's face it, not many people read aloud for fun anymore.

Second of all, oral interpretation of poetry isn't much different from that of prose. You're not supposed to pause at the end of every line or anything ridiculous like that, but follow the punctuation and phrasing of the poet. One should never read rhyme in anything resembling a sing-song voice.

That the faults of current U.S. students are placed on the shoulders of Ezra Pound is nothing short of silly. There's a lot wrong with education in the United States and it isn't limited to academia or the teaching of poetry. Reading aloud is something that should be practiced in every grade from kindergarten on up.

Davis' charge against Pound is really linked to the whole verse vs. free verse debate, which is itself a tired issue. Both are poetry, both have fine qualities, both should be taught (and taught well). That many people nowadays try to call vapid self-expression "poetry" is not a problem confined to free verse. As the editor of a student lit journal, I read so much bad poetry it was coming out my ears--and 90% of it was rhymed.

Davis also attempts to use Eliot as a witness for the prosecution by saying he "thought it best to warn the poets that vers libre did not actually exist, as it:
is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that [it] is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse and chaos."
I heartily agree. But this does not mean that one cannot love John Donne and e.e. cummings at the same time.


Bud Parr said...

I agree with you so much that you prompted me to write my own post on the matter.

amcorrea said...

Excellent! You were a bit more charitable than I was.

What got to me was Davis' characterization of Pound as some sort of modern-day Pandora who set loose forces in the world that he couldn't control...which brings up the issue of artistic responsibility. Is there such a thing? Should artists/writers be held responsible for others' misapprehension or misuse of their ideas? Is a great writer to blame for the sloppy work of those who claim his work as precedent? I don't think so.

(Notice that Davis makes no mention of Whitman...)