Ideogramic method is a method of verse composition devised by the modernist poet Ezra Pound. It is based on the juxtaposition of words and images and, by avoiding abstraction and consecutive discourse, aims to achieve greater force and immediacy.
Pound hit upon the method around 1914 when reading the note-books of Ernest Fenollosa, a deceased American orientalist. According to Fenollosa, as Pound understood him, the characters of the Chinese alphabet are ideograms. That is to say, each one is either a simplified picture of the object it refers to or a composite of such pictures which can stand for an idea. For example, the character which means ‘east’ is a composite of the characters for ‘sun’ and tree’: it represents the rising sun entangled in a tree’s branches. Thus, the simple characters are direct representations of things like ‘sun’ or ‘tree’, while the complex ones are visual metaphors.
In Chinese poetry, which Pound now began to translate, he found a representational directness, especially in the syntax, which for him registered the physical world with more vigour, economy and directness than anything he knew in Western literature. He ascribed this to the way the Chinese language appeared to derive its concepts, not from abstract symbols, but from concrete particulars. The Chinese poets, moreover, give one image to each line, so the lines are juxtaposed with one another.
The method is present in Pound’s poetry from 1914 on, but it does not achieve its full potential until he embarks on his epic poem, The Cantos (1925-69). This proceeds by association, not by narrative. Meaning is generated from a matrix or field of juxtaposed objects, events and quotations. By setting these items in productive tension, he provokes their re-connection in the reader’s mind. The reader thus becomes a vital part of the creative process: we derive meaning from concrete ‘facts’, much as we do from the objects of experience.
Pound’s understanding of the Chinese alphabet has been seriously impugned – apparently, only 10 percent of Chinese characters can be construed as pictorial symbols – and the method of The Cantos has been condemned as widely as it has been praised. It is nonetheless impossible to ignore the beauty and intellectual stimulation of Pound’s achievement. Its revitalizing effect on the English poetic tradition, moreover, has been incalculable. The many poets who have learnt from the ideogramic method include T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Charles Olson. C. H. Sisson and John Peck.
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