Presentation of Timothy Billings, ed., Ezra Pound, tr., Cathay: A Critical Edition
1. The Distance to China
Did Imagism draw Pound to the Chinese poetry or rather the poetry deeper him into Imagism? By 1913 the Imagist movement Pound himself founded was in flight by the publishing of “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”. Earlier than that he drafted “In a Station of the Metro,” one of the first if not too famous glimmers of Modernist poetry. Its relation to Japanese haiku both in terms of format and stylistics, is as striking as it is obvious.
During this period musing about the Orient, Pound encountered the notes and manuscripts by Ernst Fenollosa, an art historian who knew little classical Chinese himself and had studied the poems in 1899 with Mori Kainan, perhaps the most important kanshi poet of the day—that is, a Japanese poet who wrote in classical Chinese. The professor of international law Ariga Nagao, was employed as a translator.
As Billings pointed out, Mori and Ariga used what is called the kundoku method of reading and translating. This exegesis-like reading allowed scholars who couldn’t speak Chinese to read the text by turning the entire sentense into Japanese, but in a twisted fashion – and below we see a github project doing this type of analysis in English.
The Cathay contains mostly eighth-century poems, borrowed from an eighteenth-century anthology, proceeded through this “gloss-reading.” The process of notetaking, as here we see for the poem The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance 玉階怨 offers both gloss readings and paraphrase, and Pound treats them almost equally as source of his poetry-making. While it is an issue of translation method, it is also about the expectation of how the poem would work. We see above Mori’s note and below, Pound’s. It seems here he is drawn to a poem whose meaning could be worked out only through implicit suggestion. Indeed, his attraction to the poetry was, beyond what in 1911 he called “Luminous Detail,” but the demand placed on the reader to detect what lay beneath the surface. He remarked about this poem later that “You can play Conan Doyle if you like.”
Of course, largely ignorant of Chinese culture, without Fenollosa’s notebooks Pound could never have penetrated the sense of a poem relying so much on gesture and custom. Indeed the critical edition has been reminding us how past scholarships mistakenly found too much Holmesian deductions throughout Cathay—yet here Pound actually does go further than his source. Mori never mentions a palace and does not associate gauze stockings with court ladies. Here Pound shows his play of deduction that has been wrongly credited for elsewhere.
2. Other Chinas
The editor of this critical edition surely wants to make more explicit the mutative process from medieval Chinese into modern English. But it seems equally important to bear in mind that this might not be a one-way movement. In the fall of 1913, Pound had placed a series of poems in Poetry by his friend Allen Upward. Upward hadn’t taken these poems from Chinese—he’d just made them up and stuffed them in a Chinese Jar for a while. But these pieces surely fall in an Imagist\e lineation of prose and subjects. Pound surely found interest in Upwards’ work. But did he investigate Fenollosa’s notes as a scavenge hunter through an Imagistic looking glass?
At a couple of times Pound uses a hemistich and enjambment to break the couplet structure, turning two lines into three and haiku-like. But a theory that Pound were manufacturing Chinese poems into haiku or into fake Chinese poems like Upwards’ would be of biases. For if Pound was wearing coloured glasses, he might have worn more than one pair.
On the left is the version from the Fenollosa notebooks of Cathay’s opening poem, the “Song of the Bowmen of Shu.” A poem long associated as a response to WWI. Pound has, seemingly, made no major changes to the meaning of Fenollosa’s lines. But two major changes happen: first is now fern-shoots are no longer Warabis; second is that now the general’s horse is tired, then vigorous and strong in the notebook. Both of these moves, however, seem to be a double move, pulling the world of ancient China closer with more translated terms and accessible emotions, yet curiously also pushing it away for an early twentieth century Anglophone audience with the unfamiliar costume of fern-picking, as well as a tired general not enjoying himself behind the lines as the men suffer in the trenches – that’s WWI, at least stereotypically. Here the temporal and cultural divide is itself taken up as Pound’s poetic gesture.
Another example is how he keeps the name of the barbarian, Ken-nin, which seems to be an equivalent of Mongols here; in a latter version we see the more accurate huns as for xiongnu in the original context. But is this only about historical accuracy? Thinking about the Mongolian invasion of medieval Japan and how Central European threat of Germans appeared like Huns to the English, the choice of the names carries interesting historical significance. The act of translation appears to be a point of mutual communications where a now and here runs against a past and there.
3. The Rhizome of Language
So far we seems to have only a bi-polar model of translation; but the world or better worlds associated with Cathay might appear more like a Deleuzian rhizome: that is, not only as a singular instance of English bumping up against Chinese, but as the crossroads of multiple international trends meeting each other.
We know from Japonisme or chinoisme that French has long been a central source where Westerners engage the Oreint. By the turn of the century Paul‑Louis Couchoud and his friends tried their hand at haiku and was certainly known to the Imagist circle. The more famous Cent visions de guerre is published also around the same time with Cathay.
Pound’s own attempt to make translation into a multiplying network of relationships is visible in The Seafarer, which he translated from Old English from an Anglo-Saxon textbook, often employing the glossary, as Billings recounts, the way he later did the glosses of Mori and Ariga. Some methods Pound used here also appear latter in the Cathay, include literal but unidiomatic translations—or, “exotically literal translation,” in Billings words, and “homophonic substitution,” that willfully uses the often accidental similarities between words.
The parallel game for Old English and Chinese is not insignificant. In a latter occasion Pound talks about the translation of the piece into Chinese. Although the episode may be fictious, Pound’s alttitude itself is interesting. For there is not only the contemporaneity or synchrony and the thematic similarities between the Seafarer with Li Po, but almost that there is a line structure in common.
I want to add one more comment from the term solid here; since another project Pound was working on in 1915 by the same time with Cathay was the Japanese Noh theatre project, which he also excavated from Fenollosa’s notes. The Japan had been thought of as less satisfactory for early Pound as not solid enough; but it seems the inspiration of noh theatre as a long imagistic poem was at least somewhat useful for his working with Cathay, which also contains much longer ‘imagist/vorticist’ project than In a Station of the Metro. This issue moves into latter part of his life, but this time, Japan has consciously become the better ‘curator’ of the Chinese culture – here as better sounding for Chinese characters – which seems in accordance with his closeness with fascism and the attempt to make Japanese, Italian and English into a Tri-Lingual system proposed for world communications. In this way Cathay plays part in this enduring conversation, but not too close with Imagist movement nor Li Bo’s poetry.
4. Whose Language
One way of contextualising Cathay might be a modernist attempt to renew English language or poetry. Another a twisted Chinese anthology made from accumulated mistakes by Japanese commentators, Fenollosa, whose bad handwriting caused a number of amusing errors, and Pound himself with an overtly creative impulse. But the magic of Cathay might be its capability to be all of these at once.
We all know the famous T. S. Eliot line that Pound had invented “Chinese poetry for our time.” However another, less famous, opinion of his is rather more germane to the question of what Pound was doing in Cathay rather than why he undertook to “invent” Chinese poetry. “He is more himself,” Eliot explains in 1919, “more at ease, behind the mask of Arnaut, Bertrand, Guido, Li Po and Propertius, than when he speaks in his own person. He must hide to reveal himself.” Masks, of course, have been a central modernist metaphor. But here the problem of translating Chinese turns into a problem of general poetics. A persona, transported or translated, becomes a transparent mask, wearing the traits of multiple poets and responding to multiple situations, which overlap significantly and with significance.
I would like to see the invention in Cathay as one of a way of performative reading, that any reading itself might involve translation similar to the glossing or masked-reading of kundoku Mori and Ariga used to comprehend Chinese poetry to Fenollosa. As Haun noted in the foreward of the critical edition, the name Cathay, from Khitan, a once-empire in north China, appears to be a phantasm of China, restores to history the composition process as it passed through a series of authors in a series of languages over some thousand years. Pound’s dreams of eighth-century China may have been no more accurate than his fantasies of twelfth-century Périgord—but neither were anyone else’s.
The scholarly discourse today neither escape coloured glasses of glossing-reading. For example, we know that in Cathay the poet Li Bai’s name is rendered as ‘Rihaku’ – in an old Japanese fashion appealing to Pound maybe ideologically, or maybe it sounds fancier as just one word like Plato or Confucius. But all transliteration used by Pound specialist, from the multiple spellings of Li Bo, a Beijingese literal reading, to more standard Li Bai but also other possibilities of Li Bah or Lei Baak, really remind us of the potential performativity in any reading or re-reading of Chinese languages.
I want to end by showing you Zhao Yuanren’s reciting of a classical poem in local Changzhou style by late 19th century. Such would be one possibility among the many how it was recited in China, Japan, the West and every elsewhere. The question of whose language it is might effectively turn into another: that whose language it cannot become?