Chinese Poetry and Erza Pound Imagism

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Chinese Imagism When developing his ideas for Imagism, Ezra Pound found such inspiration in Chinese poetry that he declared, It is possible that this century may find a new Greece in China.1 In 1915, Pound published Cathay, a translation of fifteen Chinese poems. Possessing no knowledge of Chinese himself, he based his translations entirely upon the glosses and notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who was fascinated with the Chinese language. Later scholars have both defended and shed doubt upon Pounds translations. His inaccuracies are obvious and undeniable, but his apologists claim that he succeeded in capturing the spirit of Chinese poetry in his translations. How many of Pounds ideas about Chinese poetry were invented by himself, and how many can we trace back to original Chinese poetry and criticism? I will approach this question first by examining Pounds most famous Imagist poem, At a Station in the Metro, and one of his translations from Cathay, A Jewel Stairs Grievance, using both Pounds own perspectives on Imagism as well as early Chinese literary theory. And finally, I will examine a Li Po poem, At Su Terrace Viewing the Past, and discuss how applicable Pounds Imagist concepts and ideas about Chinese poetry actually are to an authentic and untranslated Chinese poem. (All three poems can be found in the appendix) One of the most striking aspects of Imagist poetry is its precise rendering of the details of real, concrete objects. Pound, in his own self-proclaimed doctrine, enumerates two principles that guide this approach to writing poetry: 1. Direct treatment of the thing whether subjective or objective. 2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute the presentation.2 Pound scorned the affected and archaic diction, obscure abstractions and generalizations, and convoluted grammatical structures of older poems. He wanted to scrape away the crust of dead1 2

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York, 1968), 215. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 3.

English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary3 through a new economical use of language, in which sentences and words are pared down to leave only the essential and the concrete. This new way of writing poetry embodied restraint, simplicity, and precision. Instead of vague and abstruse abstractions, Imagist poetry yields the texture of experience in all its sensuous and tangible detail. In a Station in the Metro was initially a thirty line poem. Condensed and reduced to two lines, it became one of the most precise and accomplished Imagist poems ever written. Both lines are simple and straightforward in grammatical structure, consisting of two distinct images: faces in the metro and flower petals. Pound asserted that the natural object is always the adequate symbol,4 so concrete images should always be preferred to logical language or generalizations. He believed that images radiate with a fertile suggestiveness that is absent from abstract language. In Chinese Lyric Criticism in the Six Dynasties, Kang-i Sun Chang describes a similar concept found in Chinese poetry. Symbolic language, as opposed to analytical language, deals with sensual impressions and their qualitative implication and dwell[s] on the most essential qualities of objects.5 Similarly, Lu Chi, in his Essay on Literature, also speaks of the emotional power of exacting imagery: every detail in high and low relief [the poet] seeks to perfect Such precision must be wrought that it appeals to the heart as true.6 For Pound, this precision must contribute to the description of a luminous image, which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time (emphasis added).7 A complex must convey a manifold array of contradictory and ambiguous emotions and ideas. All these notions converge and interact in the image to lead to that flash of sudden3 4

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 193. Poetry (Chicago: Modern Poetry Association, March 1913). 5 Kang-i Sun Chang, Chinese Lyric Criticism in the Six Dynasties, in Theories of the Arts in China, ed. Susan Bush and Christian Murck (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 215. 6 Lu Chi, Essay on Literature, trans. by Shih-Hsiang Chen (Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1953), 208. 7 Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 4.


understanding.8 In later developments of this idea, Pound labeled the image a vortex, which is a radiant node or cluster from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.9 Similar notions of complex images exist in ancient Chinese literary theory. Lu Chi says, Words, as they expand, become all-evocative.10 A few well-selected words are endlessly fertile. Liu Hsieh, in The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, also emphasized the interplay between numerous ideas within the concrete poetic image: the Ancient Poets operated on the principle of endless association of ideas. They lost themselves in the myriad of things completely absorbed in the visual and auditory sensations.11 And according to Chang, The poetic value of the simple image lies in its power to evoke endless associations regarding the essential qualities of the object in question, despite its brevity in presentation. Pound sought to use the most minute and economical images to suggest the widest expanse of ideas. For both Pound and the ancient Chinese poets, a discrete image serves as the junction of multifarious feelings, the vortex visited by flowing ideas. The simplicity and conciseness of the image belies its incredible potential for complexity and the sweeping array of concepts contained within it. Consider the powerful and complex interplay of imagery in In a Station of the Metro. If we include the title as one of the lines of the poem, each line of the poem delineates a single image, laying out the whole poem in incredible simplicity. We move disjunctively from an image of machinery, to human beings, to nature. Though these images seem distinct and unrelated, the layout of the poem implicitly draws parallels between them. In what way do the

8 9

James F. Knapp, Ezra Pound (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), 76. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (1960 reprint), 92. 10 Lu, 207. 11 Liu Hsieh, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, trans. by Vincent Yu-chung Shih (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1983), 478-479.


faces of people resemble the petals of flowers, and what does their position in the subway say about these images? The subterranean setting of this poem suggests something dark, suppressed, and secret. The word apparition, which means ghosts, likens this underground site to Hades, even though the modern technological apparatus of the metro contrasts sharply with the suggestion of an alternate classical place. The black color of the flowers bough reinforces the sense of death connoted by Hades and the apparition. The apparitions and the soft petals of the flowers, which are ethereal and almost spiritually immaterial, are mentioned in context of the solid and fearsome mechanisms of a clamorous ironclad subway. The speaker discovers the stillness of diminutive flowers in a fleeting moment amongst the speed of the colossal metro. All these contradictory feelings of death and life, fragility and strength, and speed and stillness intersect in these simple compressed images. Thus, the faces can suggest death, fragility, and beauty all at once. Throughout each line of the poem, each image becomes smaller, from the metro to human beings to flowers. Ironically, this increasingly microscopic focus leads to an expansive enlargement of meaning and emotions. The poems rhythm and form underscore the discreteness and individual force of each of the images. In the last line, the triple stress on wet, black bough leaves us with a protracted image that lingers long after the poem has concluded. In the first line, each stress takes place on a noun word: apparition, faces, and crowd. Prepositional words are all unstressed. In addition, the original typography of In a Station of the Metro featured large spaces to separate each image (see appendix). Thus, not only does each line designate a distinct image, but each cluster of words also denotes a smaller specific image. The result is an unfolding of images through several phases of perception.1212

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 197.


This impressionistic display of imagery closely resembles Chinese characters. Pound was fascinated and influenced by Fenollosas The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry, in which Fenollosa argued that the Chinese languages uniqueness and highly poetic qualities lay in the fact that it is ideographic. Later sinologists have pointed out that only a small proportion of Chinese characters are strictly ideographic, with most being phonetic. However, Fenollosas insight lies in the fact that each Chinese character, each syllable, carries a single distinct meaning whereas a single syllable of English may be completely nonsensical. The original typographic from of In a Station of the Metro resembles Chinese poetry if we view each cluster of words as a Chinese character. In a Chinese poem, each noun usually carries one stress and prepositional words are generally eliminated, which is the same effect Pound was trying to achieve in English by using one stress for each noun and leaving the prepositions unstressed. An important effect of this sequence of discrete images is a sense of timelessness. The utter lack of verbs in In a Station of the Metro yields the impression of a moment caught in time. As Kenner noted, A verb is not a thing (emphasis added),13 and thus its inclusion in a poem would contradict Pounds Imagist principle of direct treatment of the thing. In Chinese poetry, the verb is often missing and must be inferred from the relationship between the set of given poetic images. Con