Friday, March 13, 2009


Later it struck me that the best history of painting in London was the National Gallery, and that the best history of literature, more particularly of poetry, would be a twelve-volume anthology in which each poem was chosen not merely because it was a nice poem or a poem Aunt Hepsy liked, but because it contained an invention, a definite contribution to the art of verbal expression.

--Ezra Pound, "How to Read"

Pound is here advocating rewriting the history of literature on the model of (one version of) the history of science: as a progress narrative, not unlike the march through various models of the atom that constituted your tenth-grade chemistry book's sole nod to history. (Okay, perhaps it mentioned Boyle as well.)

This forward-moving model of history, from triumph to triumph, depends in part on repudiating the literary judgment of Aunt Hepsy, which is of necessity a matter of mere taste, and probably bad taste at that. That Aunt Hepsy (a spinster, a Hepzibah Pyncheon?) liked a poem carries no weight with Pound. Poetry is important stuff, the stuff of progress, and that clearly has nothing to do with the opinions of old women.

Modernism's "new realism" depended in part on masculinizing poetry through the authority of science/scientism. What did this mean for modernist poets like Marianne Moore, who were genuinely interested in science but who, by reason of their social station, were increasingly coming to resemble Aunt Hepsy as the years passed?

Ezra Pound, "How to Read," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T.S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968) 17.

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