Wednesday, February 03, 2016

`The Courtesy of Clarity'

In his essay on Paul Valéry, Joseph Epstein formulates what we might characterize as an etiquette of writing:

“One of the keenest pleasures of reading derives from being in the close company of someone more thoughtful than you but whose thoughts, owing to the courtesy of clarity, are handsomely accessible to you.”

What we do at home in our notebooks is strictly private, and there we can behave as vulgarly and self-indulgently as we wish. But when we take the next logical step and presume to share what we’ve written with the world, the rules change. Good manners oblige us to exercise discipline, respect for readers and what Epstein calls “the courtesy of clarity.” In short, to write well. Mystification, whether intentional or through incompetence, is rude, among other things. If intentional, it suggests an ego-driven striving after obscurity, a desire to cull one’s readership to an elite worshipful few (think: Gertrude Stein); if unintentional, a willingness to strive after mediocrity or worse, coupled with a blithe disregard for readers (think: Joyce Carol Oates). Epstein’s observation came to mind as I read “Confucian Confusions,” Eric Ormsby’s review in The New Criterion of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound, the poet who epitomizes both sorts of mystification as described above:
“He will probably not be long remembered for The Cantos, his baggy, rambling and tedious `epic,’ the tutelary spirit of which is the hapless Confucius. Discontinuous flashes may work in a brief lyric but they tend to sputter out in a long poem, and The Cantos runs to over 800 pages. Or, if remembered as other than a miscalculation of colossal proportions, it will probably be as a monument to ungovernable eccentricity, a sort of Watts Tower of modern verse.”

Should I weep or laugh when contemplating the hours I spent as a young man pretending to understand and even enjoy The Cantos? So much of Modernism and what came after is an exercise in mass hypnosis. I’m too old for that.

Today we fly to Canada, where my middle son already attends St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., and where my youngest son is scheduled for an interview on Thursday. An internet connection is unreliable, so I will post some Canada-related material in advance for the rest of the week, and perhaps add my two cents later.

1 comment:

Samuel Nock said...

The more familiar one becomes with Pound's life and work, the more impressive he becomes as an editor, a mid-wife and promoter of others' creative work, as an essayist, as a translator and as an impresario, as a overall "figure"; and the less impressive appears the poetic work on which his popular image and reputation rest. There is little doubt that Pound was central to the project of modernism. But his poetic output fades into obscurity and appears mediocre as time goes by. I believe he was aware of this himself, and there are many indications that he knew the Cantos were a huge mess and a failure.

Ironically, his best poetic work may actually have been his "translation" of the Book of Odes. I have translation is scare quotes there because the fact is his Chinese was all but non-existent. His correspondence with Achilles Fang contained in the book Ezra Pound's Chinese Friends makes it embarrassingly clear how utterly devoid of actual usable knowledge of the Chinese language Pound was, and how wrongheaded whatever limited understanding he did have often was. But I say that it was nonetheless his best poetic work because notwithstanding his ignorance of Chinese, he used existing translations and his own imagination to create a beautiful rendering of that book that somehow is more evocative of the original than many translations by people who actually knew Chinese.