Sunday, May 16, 2010


"What Pound passed on … seems less a teaching of technique than a technique of teaching. The point may be clarified by looking at his favorite anecdote, Agassiz and the fish, which begins the ABC of Reading (1934). The great zoologist hands a postgraduate student a small fish and tells him to describe it. The student returns with some textbook definitions. Again Agassiz tells him to describe the fish. The student produces a four-page essay, and is told once more to look at the fish. 'At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it' (p. 18). That, for Pound, exemplifies the method of modern science and ought to be the basis of all teaching. But what exactly has been taught? Nothing, apparently, except the necessity of looking. The last section of the ABC, its 'Treatise on Meter,' preaches a similar moral: 'The answer is: LISTEN to the sound it makes' (p. 201). One should not underestimate the value of this technique, in the hands of a respected master who convinces disciples that they too will be ruthlessly looked at and listened to. Yet the method is also very coercive, laying claims to objectivity while actually forcing the student to guess what sort of answer will satisfy the teacher. For teachers do want a specific something (not how the fish smells, for instance), and students find what they go looking for. To pass the course, Pound's disciples had to discover modern poetics. They learned how to do this less by grasping principles than by imitating Pound."

— Lawrence Lipking, "Poet-Critics," in
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 7, 455