POETS Day! Li Bai, Ernest Fenollosa, and Ezra Pound

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the episodes of Days of Our Lives dutifully unwatched by a somnambulist workforce blindly attending to responsibilities. Thanks to the protestant work ethic supposedly dying in the United States, the world’s longest running scripted T.V. (television) show is now streaming on something called Peacock Network; premium subscription only. Want to know how Kristen reacts to the revelation that she and Megan are really sisters? What Brady, who won’t take Kristen’s desperate jailhouse calls, will do now that Vic’s name came up during her hypnosis session with Steph? Too bad. That’s for Premium Members only. This is on you, POETS Day people. Daytime shows die when people slack off viewing in favor of work. Days of Our Lives lost its regularly scheduled slot, but it’s not too late to save Judge JudyLet’s Make a Deal, and so many others. There are good, honest, salt-of-the-Earth types in Hollywood. They don’t ask much. Just Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. That three or four hours at the end of the week is what?… Time to write a sales projection report for your employer? Maybe an inventory of pre-stressed cement planks? It doesn’t seem like a lot to you and me, but that little bit of extra viewing might mean a new Fendi stroller for a Hollywood pre-toddler or a new Grayson Perry ceramic vase lending his trademark incongruity to a lonely Hollywood etagere. So lie, dissemble, fudge the truth, whatever you need to do to get out of work in the wee PM hours and get a jump start on the weekend. Go to a neighborhood watering hole. Ask the barman to turn off the afternoon baseball game and turn on something Wapneresque. Even thirty minutes a week watching I Love Lucy reruns on a fledgling local network may raise the ratings enough to interest a plaintiff’s attorney in purchasing a life giving ad spot. Act now before all our gameshows, small claims court dramas, tabloid talk formats, and yes, even our stories are gone. The next Oprah is out there waiting. But as always, make time for a little verse.


The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

                                             By Rihaku.

Note. – Jewel stairs, therefore a place. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain, of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

Ezra Pound once wrote that he was, not without cause, accused of selling his notebooks. If you’ve ever read “How to Read” or any of the essays in ABC of Reading you’ll know what he means and be grateful for it. His prose invites a peak into his thought process and breadth of comparison. The above is an excerpt from his book Cathay, Translations by Ezra Pound and lengthily subtitled For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. The above poem is the only one from that collection with appended notes making it the most interesting entry in the collection.

Cathay is very much a poetry book to be enjoyed as any other, but for the interested, it’s a study in authorship, poetry as a concept, and responsibility assumed by the translator.

Li Bia, who Fenollosa and Pound refer to as Rihaku as he is known in Japan, was born in 701 A.D. He became, along with his friend Du Fu, one of the most celebrated poets of the Tang Dynasty’s Golden Age of Chinese Poetry and wrote about the ravages of war, the life of the common man, often the common soldier, drunkenness, domestic relationships, and the importance of tradition. A lifelong wanderer, some of the most powerful translations of his work I’ve read capture the moment of goodbye between friends who know there will be no more meetings.

He died somewhere between 760 and 762, likely of natural causes. Tradition, being unbound by pesky things like recorded accounts, beats scholarship in his case with its insistence that the great poet drowned in the Yangtze drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection. There’s no evidence, but it’s more fun to accept that whatever number of Chinese people subscribe to the drowning poet scenario can’t be wrong.

All but two of the poems in Cathay translated from Chinese are his.

Ernest Fenollosa was an American scholar who taught at Tokyo Imperial University where he discovered and was fascinated by Chinese poetry, of which he made basic, crib style from what I gather, translations. His great contribution was the essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” in which he discusses the pictogram as a poetic aspect and addresses the inadequacies of translations that restrict themselves to literal conversions of words without conveying the imagery contributed by the writing itself.

Not all characters are recognizable representations of the language they conjure, but some are. As an example he uses the simple sentence “Man sees horse.” We see the latin-script alphabet, recognize the symbols for their phonetic meaning, and understand what is being described. Fenollosa shows Chinese characters meaning the same. The character for “man” is abstract but recognizably an armless stick figure of a man walking. The next character, that for “sees”, is a stylized eye on stalks similar to the “man” symbol’s legs in the same stride moving in the direction of the next symbol, the “horse”, with four. From Fenollosa:

First stands the man on his two legs. Second, his eye moves through space: a bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified picture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs but unforgettable once you have seen it. Third stands the horse on his four legs.

The thought picture is not only called up by these signs as by words but far more vividly and concretely. Legs belong to all three characters: they are alive. The group holds something of the quality of a continuous moving picture.

To convey this vitality he recommends,

In translating Chinese, verse especially, we must hold as closely as possible to the concrete force of the original, eschewing adjectives, nouns and intransitive forms wherever we can, and seeking instead strong and individual verbs.


Like nature, the Chinese [written] words are alive and plastic, because things and action are not formally separated.

He makes the mistake of many natives in thrall to something new and foreign and berates his boring old domestic language for needing modifiers and prepositional phrases as adjuncts to verbs rather than as useful tools to form a concrete image. Pound knows better.

The two men never met. Fenollosa died in 1908. Five years later, while working in London as Yeats’s secretary, Ezra Pound met Mary McNeil Fenollosa, Ernest’s widow. She knew him by reputation and trusted him with her husband’s papers. Pound edited and published Fenollosa’s Chinese character essay and expanded on it in the first chapter of ABC of Reading.

Pound singles out the symbol for “East” as an example of a ready-made poetic image in Chinese writing. It is a combination of the symbol for “sun” overlaid on a slightly altered symbol for “tree.” Thus you have a sunrise over a forest visually built in to whatever other image it is you wish to evoke. Pound doesn’t address any problems the symbolism might introduce if the poet were writing about a barren desert to the east, but I don’t think Pound would have considered that as a problem to be fixed from a translator’s point of view. The effect of the picture would have been known to the original writer and should be expressed in the new incarnation even as irony or something counter.

Fenellosa was telling how and why a language written in this way simply HAD TO STAY POETIC; simply couldn’t help being and staying poetic in a way that a column of English type might very well not stay poetic.

The pictographic image and all that it carries must be reflected in the translation or it is not a translation. It would be something else. Pound, who had his own well-defined opinions on the use of modifiers and prepositional phrases and knew precisely how to deploy them when appropriate, decided the solution was to translate the text loosely in order to translate the meaning fully.

There are differing opinions on how good Fenollosa’s literal translations of the works were, but from those Pound wrote his interpretation of fifteen of Li Bai’s poems. Wikipedia notes that some scholars point to mistakes in Pound’s work. Others point to “Pound’s work as the best translations of Chinese to English poetry ever made.” Wikipedia also quotes poet and UC San Diego professor Wai-lim Yip:

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.

Cathay is fascinating. Whose work did I read? Was it Li Bai who wrote the original in Chinese almost thirteen hundred years ago? Is this an original Pound collection inspired by the concepts assembled by Li Bai? Was Pound ghost translating for Fenollosa? Filling in with poetic talent where the scholar’s abilities fell off? According to the subtitle Professors Mori and Arigo provided “Decipherings.” Did they work with Fenollosa? Were they consultants aiding Pound? I have no idea. As to the quality of the final product, William Carlos Williams said of it “If these were original verses, then Pound was the greatest poet of the day.”

Pound includes his translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” in Cathay. It’s odd when you come across it, but I suppose he wanted to show how he translated a familiar poem contemporary to Li Bai’s that wasn’t written in an iconographic language. The note accompanying “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” the exhaustive subtitle, the Anglo-Saxon elegy; all tell the reader that the book is not simply a translation. It is a series of visual clues about all that went into creating the poetry as presented. There’s no temporal order in the presentation so it’s not Fenollosa’s “continuous moving picture,” but it is alive. What you see tells a story beyond the meaning of the written word. It’s a pictogram.

Pound ends the book with a bizarre rant.

There are also other poems, notably the “Five colour Screen,: in which Professor Fenollosa was, as an art critic, especially interested, and Rihaku’s sort of Ars Poetica, which might be given with diffidence to an audience of good will. But if I give them, with the necessary breaks for explanation, and a tedium of notes, it is quite certain that the personal hatred in which I am held by many, and the Invidia which is directed against me because I have dared openly to declare my belief in certain young artists, will be brought to bear first on the flaws of such translation, and will then be merged into depreciation of the whole book of translations. Therefore I give only these unquestionable poems.

From Rihaku
Four Poems of Departure

Light rain is on the light dust.
The willows of the inn-yard
Will be going greener and greener,
But you, Sir, had better take wine ere your departure,
For you will have no friends about you
When you come to the gates of Go.

Separation on the River Kiang

Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.

Taking Leave of a Friend

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud.
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.

Leave-taking near Shoku

“Sanso, King of Shoku, built roads”

They say the roads of Sanso are steep,
Sheer as the mountains.
The walls rise in a man’s face,
Clouds grow out of the hill
at his horse’s bridle.
Sweet trees are on the paved way of the Shin,
Their trunks burst through the paving,
And freshets are bursting their ice
in the midst of Shoku, a proud city.

Men’s fates are already set,
There is no need of asking diviners.

The City of Choan

The phoenix are at play on their terrace.
The phoenix are gone, the river flows on alone.
Flowers and grass
Cover over the dark path
where lay the dynastic house of the Go.
The bright cloths and bright caps of Shin
Are now the base of old hills.

The Three Mountains fall through the far heaven,
The isle of White Heron
splits the two streams apart.
Now the high clouds cover the sun
And I can not see Choan afar
And I am sad.

Cathay is available as a free download at The Gutenberg Project here. “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” is included in Pound’s Instigations, also available for free from Gutenberg here.

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