"Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing." (Ezra Pound)
The ironic thing about the above statement from Ezra Pound is that, despite ostensibly being a call for precision, it is in itself rather vague. What exactly is meant by “statement”? Or “accuracy of statement”? Perhaps the cause of this ambiguity is less his choice of words than the context in which they are said: by an artist and about the art of writing. If a scientist or journalist had said the same thing, the vagueness of the words disappears. Dealing with facts and figures, of course accuracy is desired.
But when it comes to the resolutely non-factual and un-scientific world of art, almost every word of Pound’s formulation becomes problematic—most of all, the word “statement”. It deals with one of the central questions of art: what does it say? Alternatively, does art have to say anything? What else could it be for?
How you answer these questions determines how you interpret Pound’s maxim. There are two main schools of thought about this. The most straightforward and widely held is the belief that art is a way of saying something, equivalent to verbal communication. A good artist should be able to tell you what he was trying to say, and a good work of art should clearly say something. Applying Pound’s dictum, what is said should be as clear, direct and unambiguous as possible.
In her essay, “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag argued passionately against this idea “that a work of art is its content. Or, as it's usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something.” The problem of equating art with its content is not just that it ignores the question of form, but that it divides form and content up in the first place. To suggest that any “message” in art can be communicated directly and unmediated is fallacious. As Ray Carney said, “There can be no content that is not contained.”
What Sontag and Carney, among others, have posited instead, is that (good) art doesn’t really say anything—at least not in any verbally articulable or translatable way. Rather, art does something. Instead of being the simple transference of an idea from the artist to us, it’s an active, visceral experience—from which messages can consequently be drawn; but as a side effect, not as the thing itself. Like Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
So where does this leave Pound’s maxim? With the idea of art as statement rejected, “fundamental accuracy of statement” must mean simply that art should be made exactly as it should be—no more, no less. Why it “should” be one way or another is, it seems to me, pretty much indefinable—it’s up to each artist’s intuitive sense of what’s right.
This may seem to leave us back in pretty vague, maybe even redundant, territory. But it feels like Pound is speaking directly to artists here—and ineffable and immeasurable as it may be, this is certainly something they should strive for. That’s why Raymond Carver put it on a 3x4 above his desk. However, it’s not much use to those of us who just want to experience the stuff, not make it. We’d need another maxim for that.
Here’s a stab at one: if “accuracy of statement” according to the first school of thought would mean a clear, unambiguous message—maybe the alternative meaning is, more than just a clarity of form, clarity of truth— accuracy not to an idea, but to the way things are. Maybe that’s the sole morality of writing, and all art?