Cathay

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by Andrew Karas


In 1915, Ezra Pound published a slim volume of poems which he called Cathay and which contained, according to its title page, “translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.” Yet in writing the poems contained in Cathay, Pound set out to do much more than transcribe Chinese poems word-for-word or line-for-line into English. He set out to redefine poetic translation itself, replacing long-held ideals like “accuracy” and “faithfulness” with a conviction that one could use old—even ancient—texts to make English poetry look and sound quite new.


Critics have spilled a good deal of ink identifying the numerous inaccuracies of Cathay’s translations, many of which stem from Pound’s almost complete dependence on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who studied the Chinese poems while living in Japan. (Pound was not himself proficient in Chinese.) Fenollosa’s notes on the poems are terse, occasionally cryptic, and easy to misinterpret. For instance, Pound’s conflation of two distinct Chinese poems into one English piece, “The River Song,” most likely arose from a misreading of Fenollosa’s notebooks. Yet, even when Fenollosa’s notes on a poem’s content are unmistakably clear, Pound shows a remarkable willingness to alter that content in order to craft, in his judgment, a better English poem. Thus Pound often changes details of images or omits pieces of the text altogether. Such omissions often result from Pound’s decision to eliminate instances of complex literary allusion which, though characteristic of Chinese poetry, would probably confuse English readers not versed in the Chinese poetic tradition (Kenner 204-10).


Hugh Kenner is the most prominent of a number of scholars who argue that readers who criticize Pound for Cathay’s variations from its source texts miss the point of Pound’s effort, which was to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template. The “real achievement” of Cathay, according to Kenner,

lay not on the frontier of comparative poetics, but securely within the effort…to rethink the nature of an English poem. It consisted in maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.
These things had been done before but not simultaneously. (199)

Yet, even as Pound crafted his poems at the level of individual sounds, images, and lines, he also selected the contents of Cathay in a way that highlights the poems’ broad thematic linkages, beyond their authorial, geographical, and temporal affinities. Several of these thematic concerns—the place of the exile, for instance, as dramatized in “Exile’s Letter,” and the encounter of the poetic sensibility with war, as in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu”—occur elsewhere in Pound’s work, often in other poems based on historical texts or personages. The recurrence of these themes suggests not only Pound’s abiding interest in them, but also his belief that certain elements of human experience persist across boundaries of time, place, and language—and that it is the task of translation to reveal these enduring truths. Thus poems in Cathay thematically echo Pound’s earlier poems based on the lives and legends of the wandering, amorous troubadours, as well as later poems like “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (itself assailed as an erroneous translation), which ruminates on love, art, politics, and war.


The vivid, often gory realism of combatant-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen frequently defines the limits of what is considered “First World War poetry,” but to forget that Cathay appeared while the war was raging would be to neglect a crucial cultural context of the book’s publication. Kenner makes a spirited argument that Cathay should be read as a book of war poetry—that the book’s true theme, however obliquely addressed, is war as a transhistorical, universal phenomenon: “that all this has happened before and continually happens” (202). It is important to note, however, that not all readers of Pound concur in Kenner’s judgment. Many critics argue that Cathay should not overshadow the poetic testimony of men who actually experienced the horrors of war. For example, in championing Sassoon, Owen, and others like them, Edna Longley asks, “Is it not dandyish, even dangerous, of Hugh Kenner and Charles Tomlinson to salute Pound’s Cathay as ‘among the most durable of all poetic responses to World War I’?” (12).[1]


Regardless of the success of his overall argument that Cathay is a book of war poetry, Kenner does provide a very affecting piece of evidence that at least one of Pound’s contemporaries read it as such: a letter written by Pound’s friend, the cubist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who would die in the trenches. “I keep the book in my pocket,” he wrote of Cathay. “Indeed, I use [the poems] to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘North Gate’ [i.e. ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’] which are so appropriate to our case” (qtd. in Kenner 202). It is all too easy to imagine a soldier in the desperate conditions of trench warfare feeling a kinship with the distant Bowmen of Shu, who sing, in their melancholy, “Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots / And saying: When shall we go back to our country?”


Pound’s commitment to revealing the kinship of speakers across great distances of time and space (not to mention language) is perhaps most dramatically evinced by his decision to insert his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” into Cathay. Though it at first seems out of place in a book otherwise composed of translations from the Chinese, “The Seafarer” actually makes a striking complement to the other poems. Like so many of Pound’s protagonists, the speaker of “The Seafarer” is an exile and a wanderer, and he recalls a life filled with “bitter breast-cares”—cares endured by the Bowmen of Shu and the scribe of “Exile’s Letter,” as well as by those left behind by warriors and travelers, like “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Pound also knew that the Chinese poets he was translating and the anonymous author of “The Seafarer” wrote in roughly the same historical period, a fact that simultaneously emphasizes and downplays the geographical and cultural distance between Anglo-Saxon England and ancient China. Pound later wrote that he considered “Exile’s Letter” and “The Seafarer,” which are so thematically similar, the two greatest poems of the eighth century, and that the latter “shows the West on a par with the Orient” (ABC 51).


Furthermore, “The Seafarer” presented Pound with a distinct opportunity to innovate in the realm of poetic technique. In a phonological tour de force, Pound adapts the Old English pattern of alliterative lines of verse in order to make ordinary, contemporary language suddenly seem unfamiliar. Drawing on an Anglo-Saxon-derived lexicon that excludes almost all Latinate words, Pound crafts a poem that feels strange in the mouth and sounds foreign to the ear:

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed. (lines 1-9)

Anglo-Saxonists have objected to Pound’s uneven adherence to the literal meaning of his source text, as other scholars have objected to the accuracy of the Chinese poems and “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” It seems, however, that these critics fault Pound for missing a target he never aimed at. The poems in Cathay might be more profitably considered translations of certain states of mind or modes of existence than of specific words on a page. In this view, the task of the translator becomes to fashion out of contemporary language a poem that, like its readers, resides in modernity but is born of tradition.

Works Cited

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971.

Longley, Edna. Poetry in the Wars. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1987.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960.

---. Early Writings. Ed. Ira B. Nadel. New York: Penguin, 2005.

  1. I am indebted to Nathan Suhr-Sytsma for pointing me to this source.
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