Read Ezra Pound’s List of 23 “Don’ts” For Writing Poetry (1913)

1922 image by Alvin Lang­don Coburn, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Ezra Pound was a key fig­ure in 20th cen­tu­ry poet­ry. Not only did he demon­strate impres­sive poet­ic skill in his Can­tos; he also proved to be a cru­cial ear­ly sup­port­er of sev­er­al famous con­tem­po­raries, cham­pi­oning the likes of Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hem­ing­way, and H.D.. Before deserved­ly being con­demned for his fas­cist pol­i­tics and anti­semitism, Pound estab­lished him­self as one of the lead­ing lit­er­ary crit­ics of his time. David Perkins, in A His­to­ry of Mod­ern Poet­ry, wrote, “Dur­ing a cru­cial decade in the his­to­ry of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, approx­i­mate­ly 1912–1922, Pound was the most influ­en­tial and in some ways the best crit­ic of poet­ry in Eng­land or Amer­i­ca.”

Ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry, Pound helped found the Imag­ist poet­ry move­ment, which abid­ed by three key laws:

1. Direct treat­ment of the “thing” whether sub­jec­tive or objec­tive.

2. To use absolute­ly no word that does not con­tribute to the pre­sen­ta­tion.

3. As regard­ing rhythm: to com­pose in the sequence of the musi­cal phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

In 1913, Pound wrote an essay enti­tled “A Few Don’ts.” Its rules, enu­mer­at­ed below, pro­vide young poets with a much-need­ed reminder to reign in their egos and apply them­selves assid­u­ous­ly to their craft.

In a nut­shell, the rules state that each verse should be lean and pur­pose­ful, with no frills or filler to pro­vide padding. They also empha­size the impor­tance of pos­sess­ing an aware­ness of the work of pre­vi­ous poets, and of using this under­stand­ing in the cre­ation of new work.

  1. Pay no atten­tion to the crit­i­cism of men who have nev­er them­selves writ­ten a notable work. Con­sid­er the dis­crep­an­cies between the actu­al writ­ing of the Greek poets and drama­tists, and the the­o­ries of the Grae­co-Roman gram­mar­i­ans, con­coct­ed to explain their metres.
  2. Use no super­flu­ous word, no adjec­tive which does not reveal some­thing.
  3. Don’t use such an expres­sion as ‘dim lands of peace’. It dulls the image. It mix­es an abstrac­tion with the con­crete. It comes from the writer’s not real­iz­ing that the nat­ur­al object is always the ade­quate sym­bol.
  4. Go in fear of abstrac­tions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intel­li­gent per­son is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the dif­fi­cul­ties of the unspeak­ably dif­fi­cult art of good prose by chop­ping your com­po­si­tion into line lengths.
  5. What the expert is tired of today the pub­lic will be tired of tomor­row. Don’t imag­ine that the art of poet­ry is any sim­pler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as an aver­age piano teacher spends on the art of music.
  6. Be influ­enced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decen­cy either to acknowl­edge the debt out­right, or to try to con­ceal it. Don’t allow ‘influ­ence’ to mean mere­ly that you mop up the par­tic­u­lar dec­o­ra­tive vocab­u­lary of some one or two poets whom you hap­pen to admire. A Turk­ish war cor­re­spon­dent was recent­ly caught red-hand­ed bab­bling in his dis­patch­es of ‘dove-grey’ hills, or else it was ‘pearl-pale’, I can not remem­ber.
  7. Use either no orna­ment or good orna­ment.
  8. Let the can­di­date fill his mind with the finest cadences he can dis­cov­er, prefer­ably in a for­eign lan­guage, so that the mean­ing of the words may be less like­ly to divert his atten­tion from the move­ment; e.g. Sax­on charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shake­speare — if he can dis­so­ci­ate the vocab­u­lary from the cadence. Let him dis­sect the lyrics of Goethe cold­ly into their com­po­nent sound val­ues, syl­la­bles long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vow­els and con­so­nants.
  9. It is not nec­es­sary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert.
  10. Let the neo­phyte know asso­nance and allit­er­a­tion, rhyme imme­di­ate and delayed, sim­ple and poly­phon­ic, as a musi­cian would expect to know har­mo­ny and coun­ter­point and all the minu­ti­ae of his craft. No time is too great to give to these mat­ters or to any one of them, even if the artist sel­dom have need of them.
  11. Don’t imag­ine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.
  12. Don’t be ‘viewy’ — leave that to the writ­ers of pret­ty lit­tle philo­soph­ic essays. Don’t be descrip­tive; remem­ber that the painter can describe a land­scape much bet­ter than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.
  13. When Shake­speare talks of the ‘Dawn in rus­set man­tle clad’ he presents some­thing which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his noth­ing that one can call descrip­tion; he presents.
  14. Con­sid­er the way of the sci­en­tists rather than the way of an adver­tis­ing agent for a new soap. The sci­en­tist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great sci­en­tist until he has dis­cov­ered some­thing. He begins by learn­ing what has been dis­cov­ered already. He goes from that point onward. He does not bank on being a charm­ing fel­low per­son­al­ly. He does not expect his friends to applaud the results of his fresh­man class work. Fresh­men in poet­ry are unfor­tu­nate­ly not con­fined to a def­i­nite and rec­og­niz­able class room. They are ‘all over the shop’. Is it any won­der ‘the pub­lic is indif­fer­ent to poet­ry?’
  15. Don’t chop your stuff into sep­a­rate iambs. Don’t make each line stop dead at the end and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the begin­ning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a def­i­nite longish pause. In short, behave as a musi­cian, a good musi­cian, when deal­ing with that phase of your art which has exact par­al­lels in music. The same laws gov­ern, and you are bound by no oth­ers.
  16. Nat­u­ral­ly, your rhyth­mic struc­ture should not destroy the shape of your words, or their nat­ur­al sound, or their mean­ing. It is improb­a­ble that, at the start, you will he able to get a rhythm-struc­ture strong enough to affect them very much, though you may fall a vic­tim to all sorts of false stop­ping due to line ends, and caesurae.
  17. The Musi­cian can rely on pitch and the vol­ume of the orches­tra. You can not. The term har­mo­ny is mis­ap­plied in poet­ry; it refers to simul­ta­ne­ous sounds of dif­fer­ent pitch. There is, how­ev­er, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hear­er and acts more or less as an organ-base.
  18. A rhyme must have in it some slight ele­ment of sur­prise if it is to give plea­sure, it need not be bizarre or curi­ous, but it must be well used if used at all.
  19. That part of your poet­ry which strikes upon the imag­i­na­tive eye of the read­er will lose noth­ing by trans­la­tion into a for­eign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the orig­i­nal.
  20. Con­sid­er the def­i­nite­ness of Dan­te’s pre­sen­ta­tion, as com­pared with Mil­ton’s rhetoric. Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unut­ter­ably dull. If you want the gist of the mat­ter go to Sap­pho, Cat­ul­lus, Vil­lon, Heine when he is in the vein, Gau­ti­er when he is not too frigid; or, if you have not the tongues, seek out the leisure­ly Chaucer. Good prose will do you no harm, and there is good dis­ci­pline to be had by try­ing to write it.
  21. Trans­la­tion is like­wise good train­ing, if you find that your orig­i­nal mat­ter ‘wob­bles’ when you try to rewrite it. The mean­ing of the poem to be trans­lat­ed can not ‘wob­ble’.
  22. If you are using a sym­met­ri­cal form, don’t put in what you want to say and then fill up the remain­ing vac­u­ums with slush.
  23. Don’t mess up the per­cep­tion of one sense by try­ing to define it in terms of anoth­er. This is usu­al­ly only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word. To this clause there are pos­si­bly excep­tions.

To read Pound’s com­plete essay, along­side sev­er­al oth­er works of his crit­i­cism, head over to Poet­ry Foun­da­tion.

Texts and read­ings by Pound can be found in our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books col­lec­tions.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Ezra Pound Read From His “Can­tos,” Some of the Great Poet­ic Works of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Ezra Pound’s Fiery 1939 Read­ing of His Ear­ly Poem, ‘Ses­ti­na: Altaforte’

Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni Talks and Reads Poet­ry with Ezra Pound (1967)

Ernest Hem­ing­way Writes of His Fas­cist Friend Ezra Pound: “He Deserves Pun­ish­ment and Dis­grace” (1943)

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • C. Peters says:

    He for­got one of the most impor­tant rules: Don’t spew racist and anti-Semit­ic pro­pa­gan­da in the name of a hor­ri­ble Fas­cist regime

  • mievri says:

    Just a reminder for C. Peters: The key les­son we learn from our species’ his­to­ry is that each of us is capa­ble of mon­strous acts, despite the fact we gen­er­al­ly deny it of our­selves, and the fact that each of us is capa­ble of equal­ly great acts of kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty and mer­cy. As far as I can see, Pound cer­tain­ly had repel­lent polit­i­cal views and act­ed on them. He was also a great poet and a huge­ly impor­tant force in 20th Cen­tu­ry poet­ry. Nei­ther of these things can­cel each oth­er out. You can admire one thing with­out hav­ing to admire the oth­er. Just a gen­tle reminder! Peace to you.

  • Leslie Fuquinay Miller says:

    Lots of great poets are not anti-Semit­ic. I would rather cel­e­brate those.

  • David Allan Cates says:

    Well those poets, those not anti-Semit­ic poets, are some­thing else, I’m sure. Cel­e­brate all of it, all the beau­ty, all of it. And if you can find any that isn’t attached to all the rest of what it is to be human, the ugli­ness includ­ed, well.…I don’t know. I can’t.

  • Poe had said all of this already.

  • Otavio Magnani says:

    To those com­plain­ing about Pound’s phi­los­o­phy of poet­ry: it makes no sense to dimin­ish it only because of Pound’s asso­ci­a­tion with Fas­cism, for there is no log­i­cal con­nec­tion between his ideas on poet­ry and those of Fas­cism. It’s per­fect­ly pos­si­ble for one set of ideas held by a man to be true while anoth­er set of ideas held by the same man is false, and this might very well be the case here.

    To make it clear­er, just con­sid­er the fact that Dante, Homer, Pla­to and oth­ers were also full of prej­u­dice — and if we are allowed to go out from the realm of poet­ry, we have the famous sculp­tor Berni­ni, who did great harm to his wife, and the com­pos­er Gesu­al­do, who was a mur­der­er — and yet we still call those men great artists and would glad­ly receive their artis­tic advice. Who would­n’t want to study poet­ry under the guid­ance of Shake­speare — that great man who so despised the low­er class­es?

    If Pound is a bad poet or if his advice is wrong, then this ought to be shown by means of sound argu­ment and not by blind rejec­tion of any­thing he says.

  • Derek Grierson says:

    Those of us who despise artists’ work due to some fault in the artist’s char­ac­ter, do humankind a dis­ser­vice. If we were to admit only those prac­ti­tion­ers of whom we uni­ver­sal­ly moral­ly approve, our con­cert halls would be silent, our libraries emp­ty and our walls bare. The gifts that an artist brings are not depen­dant on being an exem­plar of moral pro­bity.

  • prethgog says:

    As if he was igno­rant of truth and real­i­ty.

  • Tim Ward says:

    Bravis­si­ma, Leslie, bravis­si­ma!

  • Andrew says:

    Which must explain why, despite being accused of fas­cist and anti-Semit­ic sym­pa­thies, peo­ple still read him while nobody ever heard of you.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.