Ezra Unbound – Trying the Poetry (Part II)

Poetry Wise, Pound Foolish

In a previous post I described how a dinner conversation about Ezra Pound at my cousins’ house brought on acid indigestion for hosts and guests alike. My dinner fulminations continued here against Pound’s swelling fascism in the 1930’s and his unredeemable public broadcasts during the war. I find it hard to free the mad, evil Pound from the prison I have built for him in my mind. I find it hard to read his poetry without thinking “what rhymes with fascist?”

But then, at dinner, Norman unexpectedly recited Liu Ch’e, a poem that Pound translated from Classical Chinese poetry and published in Lustra, a collection of his original and translated poems published in 1916. It was beautiful. Norman recited it a second time, and it was as beautiful as the first time.

Before he lost his mind and heart to Mussolini, and before he became lost in his own unattainable poetic vision, Pound did create poetry that shimmers and shines — and is morally unstained. Hearing Norman recite Liu Ch’e, I began to wonder if the early poetry is how I could release Pound from the mental cage I have him in.

Making it new

As I noted last time, Pound’s early ideas at the start of the 20th century profoundly altered the English-language poetic tradition. To break the old rules, Pound articulated new rules: “Make it new,” he famously decreed. Directly treat the “thing” itself that you are writing about. Use no superfluous words. Let the image speak for itself. Rhyme and meter are the worn-out ideas of previous centuries, so throw away the prosodic metronome in favor of musical phrasing. He laid it out in his manifestoes as early as 1912.

Pound’s innovations were embraced by a restless avant garde seeking to abandon the worn artistic constraints of the past. History seemed to be lunging forward in dramatic and unpredictable ways, and a new language was needed to articulate the turbulent realities of the new century. “Make it new” became the mantra for 20th century art and poetry. Pound became a high priest to the avant garde movements in Europe and the U.S.

The sense of historical shift provides an important context for Pound’s experimental ideas. The start of the 20th century was a moment of great upheaval in the scientific, political, and philosophical fields. The advances launched by Darwin, Marx, Einstein, Freud, Bergson, Heidegger, Edison, the Wright brothers, and Henry Ford all sent existential tremors through human consciousness in a short span of time. Our relationship to light and dark, speed, time, the self, our origins as a species, the nature of reality, the universe itself and our place in it were all under the siege of new technologies and expanded knowledge. Factor in the re-opening of trade and cultural exchange between East and West and, then, the catastrophe of the world’s first great war and its vast destructive force.

With such dizzying change in the air, “make it new” certainly had the wind at its back. It was as if the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution all had their second coming at the same time. (The magnitude of change does sound a little familiar to us denizens of the early 21st century.)

A Pound of Cure

While Pound’s transformational ideas were fiercely forward-looking, he also looked back many centuries to the classical poetry of China for inspiration. When he arrived in London as an American expatriate in 1908, there was already a rich interest in England and France in East Asian arts, including numerous English translations of Classical Chinese poetry by sinologists such as Herbert Giles, a respected professor of Chinese at Cambridge University.

Pound’s early interest became a passion after he attended a series of lectures by Laurence Binyon, a curator in the British Museum’s Print Room who had a deep background in Asian arts. In 1913, Binyon introduced Pound to the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, a Harvard-trained Orientalist, historian of Japanese art, and professor of philosophy and literature who had moved to Tokyo in the 1870’s and became a leading cultural figure there. He died unexpectedly in 1908, leaving behind two decades of unorganized notes and manuscripts from his studies of Japanese Noh drama and the ancient Chinese poets. Wishing to ensure her husband’s legacy, his widow met with Pound and decided to give him the papers to organize and publish. Pound immediately immersed himself in Fenollosa’s work and, more importantly for the future of Modernism, with his notes about classical Chinese poets of the 8th century such as Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei, and others. (Classical Chinese poetry extends across numerous dynastic eras in China, but the poets mentioned here are from the Tang dynasty, often called the Golden Age of Chinese poetry, in the 7th century C.E. to the 10th century C.E.)

Calligraphy of Li Po’s poetry

Pound found in the works of the Chinese artists exactly the poetic values he believed would point the way forward. Unlike the Greek and Roman classics that inspired the artists of the Renaissance through the Victorian era, the Classical Chinese works were verbally concise, image-laden, musical rather than metrical, direct rather than symbolic or decorative, brief rather than heroic or epic. In addition, Fenollosa and Pound believed that the ideogrammatic nature of Chinese characters provided a more immediate, pictorial relation to things and experiences in the world than was embedded in English letters and words. (About this, they were both wrong, but more on the subject shortly.)

The portrait of Pound as a young artist exhibits someone who not only had great artistic ambition and intellectual swagger but who sought to awaken the creative minds of his generation. Once Pound got his hands on Fenollosa’s papers, his aim was to blow out the candles of the 19th century and turn on all the 20th century’s new electric lights. The Classical Chinese poets lit the way. As David Hinton explains in his brilliant book The Wilds of Poetry, Pound “unwittingly brought into English poetry the entire Taoist… complex of insight” by instilling the clarity, simplicity, energy, and thing-ness of ancient Chinese poetic practice and thought into the Modernist disposition.

“Unwittingly.” I’ll come back to that.

Liberating poetry from the shackles of earlier prosodic conventions, Pound made it new.  He yanked free verse from the exuberant sweaty embrace of Walt Whitman and showed his modern cohorts and the generations that followed how it should be done.

I pause here to note the irony that the liberator of verse would soon himself be in shackles, and the world would need to be liberated from his repugnant political ideas and prejudices.

I can’t forgive Pound for his trespasses against humanity. Moreover, as I explained in my last post, I find the Cantos impenetrable and vainglorious. And in my view, Pound’s artistic and political excesses are not unrelated. One classical scholar of poetry and languages described the Cantos as “the brittle, jumbled, inhumane, monomaniacal, and spiritually desiccated work of a very limited, but fatally authoritarian mind.” (Steven Willett, Wrong Meaning, Right Feeling: Ezra Pound as Translator, at JSTOR, sorry if it’s behind a paywall.) He might just as well have been describing Pound’s WW II radio broadcasts.

But I am trying to make peace with Pound as an artist, if that is possible. I have to focus on his early poetry and, in particular, on the bursts of imagery and tacit meanings found in his translations of the ancients. Norman’s little recital pointed in that direction. Maybe I can open myself up to his early work.

Assuming there are no further scandals hidden there.

Pound in the Station

Pound’s most famous poem In a Station by the Metro epitomizes both the Chinese influence and the Modernist paradigm in a mere two lines (three, if you count the title).

In A Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; 
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Captivated by the beautiful faces of women and children in a metro station in Paris, Pound wrote a 30-line poem that he felt was not “worthy or as lovely as that sudden emotion” that overcame him in the Metro. He cut the poem in half, and then in half again, and soon settled on the terse, haiku-like version above.

Probably not the faces that inspired Pound

Indeed, this short poem has the feeling of Japanese haiku – it invokes nature in a particular season (“petals”) and juxtaposes two images (“faces” and “petals”). The poem, however, is in free verse, dispensing with the 5-7-5 syllabic count we are all familiar with.

In a Station of the Metro was first published in the influential magazine Poetry in 1913, the same year Pound was up to his neck in Fenollosa’s papers. Two years later, he published Cathay, a book of 14 poems translated from the Chinese (plus one from Anglo-Saxon), often regarded as a masterpiece of world literature.

And in 1916 he followed Cathay with Lustra, a longer book comprised of his original poetry, including In a Station of the Metro, all of the Cathay translations, and a few more Chinese translations, including Liu Ch’e.

Pound for Pound

Pound’s genius for languages and for their poetic possibilities cannot be disputed. Reading his poetry, one encounters French, Italian, German, Old English/ Anglo-Saxon, Japanese, Latin, Greek, and, of course, Chinese. (Given his later history it is not surprising that he apparently had no interest in learning Hebrew or any Semitic languages, although he did mimic a Yiddish accent in the Cantos.) Even so, translating 1200-year old Chinese poetry into a new kind of English poetics seems like an unusually heavy lift.

“Translation,” however, is not really the right word to describe what Pound was up to. Why?

Because Pound himself could not read, speak, or write Chinese.

Say, wha’?

First, one must acknowledge Pound’s achievements. He invigorated 20th century poetry with the imagist aesthetics he found in the poetry of 8th century China. He made the ancient Eastern poets accessible to modern Western readers. And his modern translations are beautiful in form and in sound.

But what is equally certain is that the “translations” – and, yes, the scare quotes are necessary – are not faithful translations of the original poetry. Nor could they be. Nor were they intended to be. Nor did Pound claim otherwise.

They are poetic reproductions based not on the source materials but on the translations of other scholars and retrofitted for the emerging Modernist sensibility in the West.

There are broad hints right on the cover of Cathay. Here’s a closer look:

“Translations by Ezra Pound” seems straightforward enough, but I am struck by the next few words: “for the most part.” I know this almost certainly means the poems are “for the most part” by Rihaku, but frankly, I think the phrase can be read both ways: the poems are, for the most part, translations and they are, for the most part, by Rihaku.

But if I am stretching to make a point, the other facts on the cover are not disputable. Five individuals are identified: Pound, Fenollosa, Mori, Ariga, and Rihaku. Pound, as I’ve said, did not know Chinese. Fenollosa studied the Chinese poets while living in Japan but also knew little, if any, Chinese. Fenollosa’s intensive studies, expertise, and lasting contributions in East Asia were in Japanese art and culture and in Buddhism. Since Japanese poetry was influenced by the ancient Chinese masters, the scope of his inquiries inevitably extended to Li Po and others.

What are the “decipherings” of Professors Mori and Ariga? Who are these chaps? Mori Kainan was a kanshi poet – that is, a Japanese poet who wrote in Classical Chinese – with whom Fenollosa studied in 1899. Mori spoke no English, so Fenollosa hired one of his former Tokyo students, Ariga Nagao, as a translator. Together they studied the classical poems of China, and from their work together Fenellosa took the detailed notes and translations that Pound would grasp and recast as modern poetry after Fenoll0sa’s death.

Last, Rihaku is the Japanese name for the great Chinese poet Li Po. Most of the poems in Cathay are by Li Po. Working together in Japan, Fenollosa (English), Mori (Japanese), and Ariga (Japanese) unsurprisingly used Li Po’s Japanese name, and that is the name Pound used.

So what are we to make of this trilingual method of translation? And of Pound’s translation of translations?

Pound Unbound

There is a wide spectrum of opinion in academia about Cathay. No one disputes the poetry’s beauty, innovative techniques, and cultural significance. What is in dispute is whether the translations are linguistically and culturally faithful to the originals. Or, more precisely, whether the translations are the exercise of a brilliant poet bringing forth the essence of the original work or an act of irresponsible misreading or even ethnocentric appropriation.

Pound’s passion for East Asian painting and writing was no mere infatuation. He delved deep into early Asian thought, aesthetics, and artistic techniques, and his interest persisted throughout his life. (After WW II, he had plenty of time on his hands.) He used the insights of Taoist thought to inform his own poetic practice, influencing later poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder in bringing the East to the West. (Like Pound, Rexroth and Snyder translated Japanese and Chinese poetry into English. Unlike Pound, Rexroth and Snyder were fluent in the Eastern languages, repeatedly visited or lived in Japan, and practiced Buddhism, meditation, and yoga. The East was their spiritual home, not just a source of ideas for their works and poetic theories.)

But Pound’s first passion was the avant garde movements of his time, and this provided a bigger stage for his dance with Classical Chinese poetry. Europe’s cultural fascination with the East was well underway before Pound arrived in England, and the great ancient poets had already been translated by the Victorian translators in a manner reflecting the highly regulated, traditional poetics of the Victorian era. These renderings were exactly the type of poetry Pound wanted to demolish. Here’s an example of a poem by Li Po translated by the sinologist Herbert Giles, mentioned above:

You ask what my soul does away in the sky,
I inwardly smile but I cannot reply;
Like the peach-blossom carried away by the stream,
I soar to a world of which you cannot dream.

You can see the problem from Pound’s viewpoint. The rhymed meter clops along in a way that feels nothing like the lightning-quick imagery and veiled feeling of the great Chinese masters as Pound understood them. It is faux-Zen. Though Giles had a deep knowledge of colloquial and classical Chinese, he was not a poet. He was an English diplomat to China and a University of Cambridge professor of Chinese. He compiled the first history of Chinese literature and art, spent time in the East, and published the first Chinese-English dictionary. But his translation was bound by the conventional rules of 19th century English poetry.

Those unthinking ties to convention are exactly what Pound sought to unbind in his poetry, essays, and translations. And in Classical Chinese poetry, he believed he found the forebears of his own radical notions. The masters’ poetic values sanctioned his own: verbal economy, visual clarity, and metric freedom. Further, partly due to the pictorial nature of the language, the poetry emphasized a closeness to the “thing” itself, without abstraction, ornamentation, or sentimentality. These were the rudiments of Pound’s insurgent poetics. His summons was to wrest the golden-age avatars away from the old-fashioned versifiers and conscript them into the early 20th century’s avant garde revolution. As Steven Willett noted, Chinese poetry for Pound “seemed to ratify his modernist project.” 

But Pound was as wrong as he was right about Classical Chinese poetry. Ultimately, like his Victorian predecessors, he cut the cloth of classical poetry to fit the fashion – the emerging fashion – of the times. As numerous literary pundits have noted, there’s not much China in Pound’s Chinese translations. But there’s a lot of Pound.

Lost in Translation

There are three significant issues here.

First, the illusion of Chinese “free verse.” While classical Chinese poetry met Modernism’s call for concise language and a feeling of immediacy and presence in the world, it needed to satisfy another indispensable requirement: the replacement of metered verse with unstructured free verse. For Pound, it fit the bill. He referred to the classical Chinese poets as “the great vers libre writers before the Petrarchan age…” (Petrarch essentially invented the sonnet in 11th century Italy, creating a highly structured form that lives side by side with free verse to this day.) Pound’s cohorts endorsed the idea that the Chinese masters wrote freely and wildly.

But this is incorrect. The forms of classical Chinese poetry did, in fact, rely on rhyme schemes and metric patterns and were “infinitely far from being vers libre of any kind,” as Ming Xie explained in an essay worth reading (if you can access it). Another scholar notes that classical poetry had strict patterns with “fixed positionings, rhyme schemes, and metered verse.” These features were impossible to reproduce in an English translation. But, more importantly, they did not fit the Modernist program and were more “like the structured Victorian forms Pound wanted to abandon.” Many of the Cathay poems that Pound published as free verse had a structure of eight lines with five characters per line. As Xie notes, a “tacit consensus” emerged at Pound’s time to regard the old poems as free and irregular in form so that Modernism could wear the crown and robes of the past. But the truth is, Pound and his cohort gave classical Chinese poetry a Modernist make-over.

Second, outright mistakes. Cathay is rife with errors, both in translation and attribution. Pound relied on Fenollosa, and Fenollosa relied on Mori and Ariga, and brilliant as each was, as a Japanese-English team they dropped the Chinese ball quite a bit. A small academic cottage industry exists for the purpose of highlighting the slippage.

I will give a few examples for the flavor, but you can go here or here if you want more. The first poem in Cathay is attributed to “Kutsugen. 4th Century B.C.” but it may have been written by a Chinese poet as early as the 11th century B.C.E. Pound twice refers to the “River Kiang,” not knowing that the Chinese ideogram for “kiang” means “river.” In other words, the scene of both poems is the “River River.” From the Chinese characters for “elephant (ivory) bow,” Fenollosa wrote “ivory edge of arrow” which Pound turned into “the generals have ivory arrows” although there are no ivory arrows in China’s martial history. Elsewhere, Pound’s “blue plums” are based on a misreading of the Chinese word for “blue.” A fruitful misunderstanding, one might say.

Third, the myth of the ideogram. Fenollosa believed, and Pound was enchanted with the idea, that classical Chinese was principally ideographic and that each word-character was, in a sense, equal to the sum of the meaning of its parts. As one Pound scholar notes (in an essay irresistably entitled Modernist Scandals: Pound’s Translations of ‘the’ Chinese Poem), “In their attention to Chinese ideography, Pound and Fenellosa entirely misunderstood the nature of the Chinese writing system, fixating somewhat blindly on its more exotic secondary elements.” Pound, he notes, thought that “Chinese ideography was so pictographically transparent (as opposed to phonetic writing) that one could decipher the characters without even knowing Chinese.” That is a rather convenient thing to believe if you are translating Chinese poetry and don’t happen to speak the language.

The problem is, according to language scholars, only a very small percent of Chinese characters are ideographic in nature. But Fenollosa found the concept he needed for translation, and it met Pound’s demands for Modernism: poetry as a series of stacked images with a grammar that functions contextually and strips away parts of speech that clutter up the line.

Translation, Creation, or Appropriation?

Are the poems in Cathay fine poetry or just bad translations riddled with errors? How faithful to the original poem must a translator be? What does “faithful” even mean in translating a poem? Faithful to the prosody (e.g., rhyme or meter) or faithful to the spirit or feeling of the poem? How far can a translation stray from the source before it is a new work of art? How fluent in the source language must the translator be? What if the source language is ancient and no longer spoken? What if the source language uses a writing system that is completely alien to the language of the translator?

These are familiar questions to anyone translating, or even just reading, a translated poem. Or a translated anything. In a poem, the word is the jumping-off point for meaning, but then there is the play between words, the multiple meanings of words, their length, the associations they create alone or together, the sounds they make when spoken or in the mind, the rhythm of the line, the meter of a string of words. All of this before you get to the feeling of the poem. I jotted down a quote from somewhere but forgot to attribute it. I think Pound said it: one should translate “as if you didn’t know the words of the original and were telling what happened . . . Don’t bother about the WORDS, translate the MEANING.”

Here’s an example of how that works. In Fenollosa’s notes, he created this crib of a Chinese poem:

moon rays like pure snow
plum flowers resemble bright stars
can admire gold disc turn
garden high above jewel weeds fragrant

Pound was not in a position to assess the accuracy of the translation, but it didn’t matter. He turned Fenollosa’s word-columns into a poem:

The moon’s snow falls on the plum tree;
Its boughs are full of bright stars.
We can admire the bright turning disc;
The garden high above there, casts its pearls to our weeds.

So: is this little poem, along with the poems in Cathay and Liu Ch’e, a case of translation, creation, or appropriation? I am going to check all three boxes. They are all “translations” because the meaning of each was imported from a source-language text into a target-language text. Each is also a “creation” in its own right, because not only is translation an inherently creative process, in this instance the translated work departs so radically from the source that it conceives a new aesthetic for people in a new century. And each is an act of “appropriation” because Pound used only those features of the old texts that suited his agenda and ignored or purposely misinterpreted the rest. He was not moving the reader toward the author but moving the author toward the translator, or what has been called an “ethnocentric form of translation.”

And now I will uncheck all three boxes. The works in Cathay are not “translations,” because they do not have a meaningful linguistic fidelity to the original and they serve artistic purposes beyond what the originators intended. Nor can they be said to be “creations” because they are, in fact, not original. They are like cover versions of popular songs. Finally, they cannot fairly be said to be acts of appropriation because, notwithstanding his Modernist agenda, Pound attributed his sources and aimed to reproduce the essential spirit of the originals. As literary professor Wai-Lim Yip wrote, “One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get to the central concerns of the original author by what may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.”

So, perhaps a better word to describe Pound’s translations would be “clairvoyances.” Or adaptations or transparencies or reworkings. Or, perhaps, metamorphoses. Pound’s Metamorphoses.

Speaking of which: I recently had the idea of reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The original, of course, is in Latin, so I need a translator. I had my old edition of Rolfe Humphries’ dependable translation from the 1950’s, and I recently bought Ted Hughes’ free verse translation. I started to read them side by side and immediately suffered from cognitive dissonance: same story, two vastly different tellings. This made me wonder about the original Latin, but that would solve nothing since Latin, as they say, is Greek to me. It also made me curious about the newest translation by Stephanie McCarter, a so-called “feminist” version that is getting rave reviews. If I wanted to knock myself out with couplets, I can read the 1567 version by the Elizabethan translator Arthur Golding, which is what Shakespeare read. Or I could find various prose versions doing away with couplets and poetry altogether. Apparently there’s a Metamorphoses for everyone.

And that was exactly the point that T.S. Eliot was making when he famously said of Cathay that “Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” He went on to explain that whenever a new, modern translation is published, modern readers have the illusion that through the translation they will “really at last get to the original.” But the best translation is at most a “magnificent specimen” of its own era rather than a translation. As Eliot notes, Chapman’s Homer in the Elizabethan era “is more Chapman than Homer.” Eliot all but said that Pound’s Li Po is more Pound than Li Po.

However much Pound inserted himself into Li Po’s poetry, whatever wayward tacks he took by following Fenollosa, the result are renderings of ancient poetry that soared above other translations in his own time. He heightened interest in the Chinese poets, brought the old into the new, and showed the way forward for 20th century poets.

And, as the contemporary poet and translator David Hinton said, Pound “unwittingly” brought Taoism to the West because the ancient ideas of Ch’an Buddhism are embedded in his poetics. “Pound’s poetry of images was a poetry of Ch’an enlightenment,” Hinton says, further noting that Ch’an was imported from China to Japan where in Japanese pronunciation it was known, more familiarly to us in the West, as Zen.

And so the interesting question is whether any of the misunderstandings or outright errors matter. There is no such thing as artistic blasphemy. Poetic license cannot be suspended or revoked. Whether you happen to like the Cathay poems or not, the consensus is: they are great art.

As for cultural appropriation, I’ve seen several essays by modern Chinese scholars opining that, despite the language barrier, Pound deeply intuited and successfully summoned the greatness of the Classical Chinese poets, and that the only cultural appropriation is by Western critics who see so much of Pound in the translations that the ancient poet all but disappears.

At long last: Liu Ch’e

Finally, we come to Liu Ch’e. That’s the lovely poem that Norman recited at dinner and started me down this Poundian primrose path. My proposed treaty with Pound is that he won’t insist that I read the Cantos with their odor of elitism if I stop calling him an unrepentant fascist and instead read his early poems.

Toward that end, I decided to examine Liu Ch’e more closely and perhaps do what Billy Collins said students of poetry always do when closely reading a poem: “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.

In a third posting I will look at Liu Ch’e‘s exquisite deportment by “beating it with a hose.”

But Ezra Pound always makes things complicated for me. I need to address a new problem. Translation, creation, or appropriation are not the only options when characterizing a Pound translation. There is also plagiarism.

Next time.


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