Yesterday evening I was at Keats House in Hampstead listening to a Poetry Society debate on the subject of Ezra Pound’s enormously influential article ‘A Few Don’ts’, first published a hundred years ago.
As the respective editors of Poetry Review (UK) and Poetry (US), Maurice Riordan and Don Share could be said to represent the behemoth of the poetry establishment from both sides of the Atlantic. And both magazines published ‘A Few Don’ts’ when it first came out. Fascinating though the evening was, I guess this was never going to be a platform for a radical re-working of the ‘don’ts’.
Riordan in particular expressed fondness for many of the ‘rules’, and also argued that they were more discretionary than they are usually given credit for. “Go in fear of abstractions” isn’t the same thing as “don’t use abstractions”, for example. He also pointed out that Pound did say the ‘don’ts’ were not to be considered as dogma, rather that they offered guidance – “cautions gained by experience” and were up for debate.
There were some questions and observations from the floor and the talk was less about whether we need a new list of don’ts, but the bigger question of whether in this century we will see a new poetic movement to take us away from modernism, whether we need (or have) another Pound in our midst to reinvent poetry in the way that he did, “from the doughy mess of Romanticism”. Someone said that in order for a new movement to take off, enough people need to hate what currently holds as fine poetry.
Another important point made by Don Share was that there is far greater access now to poetry from around the world, and new ideas spread quickly via the internet. It’s hard to imagine anyone having the influence and power of Pound over today’s poetry scene, with its myriad different artistic movements, sub cultures and niche followings.
I first came across ‘A Few Don’ts’ in a brilliant book called Strong Words, an anthology of essays by poets on poetry, edited by W N Herbert and Matthew Hollis. I think it’s one of those books that’s on the reading list of any Creative Writing MA, but if like me you’ve never done one, it’s a revelation. Highly recommended.