Ezra Pound and China: A Q & A with Ira Nadel

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Later this month, Penguin will publish Cathay: Ezra Pound’s Orient, a short book by biographer and literary specialist Ira Nadel that examines Ezra Pound’s interest in China and Chinese poetry. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Nadel’s book, which arrived just as I was preparing to interview Qiu Xiaolong for this blog. It was a fitting bit of timing, as one theme I explored with Qiu was his enduring interest in T.S. Eliot; the author of “The Wasteland” had famously asserted once that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” I caught up with Nadel by email, for whom that claim of Eliot’s is an important jumping off point: 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: First of all, since not all of our readers may be familiar with just how central Ezra Pound’s interest in China was to the writer’s career, could you just, in the spirit of the lists often associated with blogs, list five or 10 facts, or just tidbits worth knowing about where his engagement with Chinese poetry or the country generally are concerned?

IRA NADEL: Below, some key moments in EP’s Oriental education:

  1. Growing up in Philadelphia, he studied an 18th century-Chinese screen book of prints and ideograms owned by his parents which would become important in his well-known “Seven Lakes” (Canto 49) from his long work, The Cantos.
  2. He frequently visited the growing Asian collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  3. Attended lectures on Oriental art by Laurence Binyon in London beginning in 1909 and soon became friends with Binyon, who was an Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
  4. Became fascinated with Japanese Noh drama and spent three winters with Yeats at Stone Cottage (1913-16) in Sussex, partly preparing an edition of Noh drama published in 1916.
  5. Meeting the widow of the American sinologist Ernest Fenollosa in 1913, Pound impressed her with, first, his oriental-styled English poems, an essay on Tagore and then, with his knowledge of Oriental aesthetics, learned from attending various Oriental art exhibits in London ca. 1912 and 1913.
  6. Based on the work of Fenollosa, Pound published Noh; or, Accomplishment, a Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in 1916. That same year Pound and Yeats’s Certain Noh Plays of Japan
  7. In 1928, Pound’s translation of Confucius, To Hio: The Great Learning
  8. Late in his life, Pound studied Confucius and wrote the “Chinese Cantos” as part of his long work, The Cantos. He also incorporated various Chinese ideograms in these poems.
  9. He read Chinese badly but persisted in its study.
  10. When arrested by Italian partisans and handed over to American troops at the end of WWII, he took a Chinese dictionary and a volume of Confucius which he would translate while in a detention camp in Pisa before being flown to Washington, DC to stand trial. He continued to work on Confucius while in the St. Elizabeths hospital for the mentally disturbed in Washington.
  11. Throughout the 1950s Pound published a series of works by Confucius including The Great Digest and the Unwobbling Pivot, 1951, The Analects (1951) and The Classic Anthology, Defined by Confucius (1954).

You describe efforts he made to learn Chinese or at least figure out how the language worked, but works such as his Cathay aren’t really “translations,” in the ordinary sense —  at least the sense I tend to have in my mind of a translator, who is bilingual, doing a close reading of a text in one language she knows and then creatively yet faithfully strives to create a text that reads well in another language. So what is Cathay? Do you think of it like, for example, some translations of Homeric epics by poets who don’t know ancient Greek?  Or are there other, better parallels that come to mind?

Cathay is definitely NOT a translation. It is a creative reworking of Pound’s sense of Chinese and Japanese from a set of literal, stiff translations by a variety of hands beginning with the two Japanese assistants of Fenollosa, whose own Japanese was good but his Chinese almost non-existent. Pound did the same with his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” a work that provides the sense of the original but is not the original. The importance of this process is that Pound “made it new,” his Confucian mantra, for the Chinese texts, new in a way that influenced a generation of English poets who understood, perhaps for the first time, the elegance of Chinese poetry but now in contemporary English. Direct translations of the text would have likely had no impact upon writers but what Pound did, with a sense of adventure and originality, set a new bar for lyrical English poetry in opposition to the work of the Symbolists and Georgians. This was poetry that was direct and coincided with his development of Imagism best seen in the work of H.D.

Many decades ago, Wai-Lim Yip wrote this about Cathay: “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 into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.” Would you say your approach challenges or complements that interpretive stance — or simply veers off in a very different direction?

Context, not clairvoyance, provided Pound with the insight and originality to remake Cathay into an important collection of modern poetry. His sense and understanding of an Oriental aesthetic allowed him to not only “make it new” but to fashion an entirely new set of poems that, nonetheless, conveyed the literary attitude of the Orient. This was not an unconscious process but one that evolved from his genuine belief in the importance of an Oriental style summarized in his edition of Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry,” where Pound argued that metaphor is “at once the substance of nature and of language” and that poetry is “finer than prose because it gives us more concrete truth in the same compass of words.” Pound also importantly believed that the Chinese written language had a “pictorial visibility” which allowed it to maintain its originality with “more vigor and vividness than any phonetic tongue.”

I had never thought about the fact that, thanks to Pound, 1915 can be seen as an important year for the flow into the West of ideas about and texts that were created in China. This interests me because, as others have noted (see, for example, Peter Zarrow’s commentary for the History News Network) it was exactly a century ago that a journal that played a special role in introducing Chinese readers to Western ideas was founded. Anything else you find interesting about 1915 as a special year in either the history of modernist literature or in Western thinking about China?

1915 was a crucial year in modernism since it saw the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s narrative experiment, The Good Soldier, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, immediately prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Conrad’s psychological novel Victory also appeared: set on an Indonesian island with a Chinese assistant to the hero Axel Heyst, it plays off Oriental stereotypes against Western adventurers. Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, also appeared in 1915, while Dorothy Richardson published Pointed Roofs, the first complete stream of consciousness novel in English. Kafka publishes The Metamorphosis and finished writing The Trial, although it would not see print until 1925, the year after his death. T.S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Joyce, Tzara and Lenin all took up residence in Zurich, later to be turned into Tom Stoppard’s engaging play Travesties (1974).

1915 was also the year the Chinese Great Dictionary, the Zhonghua Da Zidian, an unabridged Chinese dictionary with more than 48,000 entries for individual characters, appearing in 4 vols. However, offsetting such scholarship were popular stereotypes as in Sax Rhomer’s mystery The Yellow Claw, the story of an Oriental villain who attempts to hold the cream of London society at his mercy. The German writer Alfred Döblin, later known for Berlin Alexanderplatz, published The Three Leaps of Wang Lun that same year, a well-researched novel written in an expressionist manner. Many consider it the first modern German novel and the first western novel to show China untouched by the West. It focuses on a doomed rebellion during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the late 18th century. As a postscript, during WWI, the Allied Army of the Orient (Armées alliées en Orient) formed in 1915, made up of troops from Serbia, Russia Italy, Greece, Portugal and Albania, a rather broad interpretation of the Orient. So yes, the Orient definitely permeated the cultural environment in 1915 in a variety of ways.

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