Today’s writing lesson comes from American expatriate and arch-modernist Ezra Pound (1885-1972). Though an accomplished poet and translator in his own right, he may be best known as the guy who cut nearly 400 lines from T.S. Eliot’s original draft of The Waste Land.
Consider these exercises from his ABC of Reading (1934):
No one prized precision more than Pound. As the outspoken leader of the Imagist movement, he famously called for a modern literary language that was “hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” So while we might initially balk at the brusque manner of his phrasing or shrink from the cold justice of his editorial hatchet, his point is otherwise well-taken: Words are important.
Many of us already aim to teach “clear writing” as a corollary to “critical thinking”—something like: start with a clear thesis statement, expand upon it with clear supporting evidence, and conclude by elevating the argument—and we can certainly leave Pound’s peer-editing exercises at that.
But there is something else worth noting here.
Take a closer look the list. One of the five items, I would say, is not like the others.
Did you notice #3? “[See] how many words out of their usual place, and whether this alteration makes the statement any more interesting or more energetic.” The twist here is that words placed outside of their proper syntactical place don’t necessarily obscure the meaning. In fact, it suggests the opposite: that sometimes the most interesting or compelling articulation of an idea actually requires a rather un-“usual” way of expressing it.
Which then leads to this peculiar gem in Part II of his “Tests and Composition Exercises”:
Look at the repetition of “and not” in the final clauses of this passage: the closer you look at it, the less grammatical sense it makes. This might be a case of #5—“something clear on paper, but ambiguous if spoken aloud”—but I think it’s also a case of #3: it performs the paradoxical feat of energizing the sentence to a proper conclusion, while at the same time captivating our interest with a subtle strangeness that causes us to come back to it over and over again.
So what’s the real lesson here?
Pound’s anecdote provides a fitting analogy for us. Ideas and arguments are a lot like people: yes, there are several billion of them, and while one may resemble another in any number of ways—in kinship, affect, appearance—every argument has its own set of distinguishing features by which it can be recognized as unique. What accounts for this uniqueness is not only the specific combination of words by which an idea is articulated, but the very idiosyncrasies that define the writer’s language. These imperfections provide a necessary—and ultimately unavoidable—human corrective to pure, robotic clarity.
The task set before for us, then, as teachers of writing, shouldn’t concern the fastidious implementation of Pound’s dicta so much as reflecting a bit more on the possible ways we can preserve and encourage the interesting and energizing quirks, asymmetries, and obscurities that ruffle—ever so subtly—the smooth fetters of “clear” writing.