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Cathay 100

What kind of China could Ezra Pound invent when he'd never been there?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

In April 1915 Ezra Pound’s slim but important volume of poems Cathay was published, the note on the title page immediately signalling the strangeness of what this collection’s curious and controversial pages held:



This, then, is a hybrid thing: a translation by a translator who can’t speak Chinese, using the notes of a dead man who studied the poems through Japanese teachers; a book with a medieval name that was at the forefront of the avant-garde; a set of poems from ancient Asia that critic Hugh Kenner can see as ‘among the most durable of all poetic responses to World War I’. Cathay is also a book capable both of being accused of racist Chinoiserie, and cited by China’s ‘Misty Poets’ as an inspiration for their own work: and a collection by one of the great male egos of Modernism (a man who would later be shamed as an anti-Semite and fascist), that is yet a Chinese whisper of tremulous delicacy, full of tender details, a valley of ‘bright flowers’, ‘willow-coloured water’.

I discovered the book myself as an undergraduate. Before Cathay the little translated poetry I had read – cheap editions of Baudelaire or Pushkin – seemed to suggest that poetry was indeed what got ‘lost in translation’ (as Robert Frost observed). Cathay was different — I loved it from the moment I began to read ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

I immediately felt this gave me something that English poetry couldn’t, a sense of access to otherness. The poet Sarah Maguire has also spoken of this feeling; in an essay for the Poetry Review she claims Pound’s Cathay ‘successfully “domesticates” and simultaneously “foreignises”’ the poems. He makes them work in English, but their deep un-Englishness is somehow intact. For me, it was the beginning of a love-affair with translated poetry and the worlds it could open up.

Many of Pound’s contemporaries were equally excited. William Carlos Williams said that had they been original verses they would have made Pound ‘the greatest poet of the day’. Ford Madox Ford declared it ‘the best work he has yet done’. T. S. Eliot predicted that Cathay would be remembered as a ‘magnificent specimen of twentieth-century poetry’. It resonated with those fighting too — from trenches near the Marne, Ezra Pound’s friend, the 23-year-old sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, wrote: ‘I keep the book in my pocket. Indeed, I use [the poems] to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the “Bowmen” and the “North Gate”… which are so appropriate to our case’. We can imagine his fellow soldiers identifying with poems such as the ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’:

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
     to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.

The final line of the poem – ‘And we guardsmen fed to tigers’ – accepts that the powerful will destroy ordinary men when it suits them, and suggests an absurd meaninglessness to the sacrifice. So does the ‘Song of the Bowmen of Shu’ with its conclusion: ‘Who will know of our grief?’ Pound has been criticised for missing out the original’s stirring call to arms, but it seems a deliberate omission, enabling the poem to speak to his day: by (mis)using this ancient text he could voice uncomfortable truths in a time of jingoism.

Cathay’s reception was not entirely rapturous though, and other criticisms have proved harder to brush off. Very soon after publication, scholars began to point out ‘howlers’ in Pound’s versions. By 1918 Arthur Waley made new translations of ‘The Poet Li Po’ which, according to Kenner, ‘implied rebuke’. Innumerable academics have since taken the book to task for errors. Most famously, perhaps due to misreading Fenollosa’s (extremely flawed) notes, Pound’s ‘The River Song’ presents as one poem what are actually two separate poems by Li Po. Elsewhere Fenollosa’s note that horses are ‘tied’ becomes ‘tired’ — a deliberate or just sloppy misreading?

Pound adds pronouns, particularly ‘I’, making poems into dramatic monologues when the originals are much more ambiguous. He also gives the impression (which many English readers still cherish) that these are free verse poems, and that he is using the Chinese model to help break the iambic pentameter. Actually, as academic Kodama has noted, many Chinese poems Pound uses in Cathay ‘were originally written in Chinese as five-character, eight-line, regulated poems’ and had complex metred patterns.

Perhaps more seriously, given Pound’s later embrace of fascism, there has been the charge of racism. T.S. Eliot called Pound ‘the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time’, but what kind of China could he ‘invent’, given that he had never been there or learnt the language? Is Pound’s China a set of clichés and stereotypes, cobbled together from apricot blossom, fans and ‘red jade’? George Steiner said that ‘Pound can imitate and persuade with the utmost economy not because he or his reader knows so much, but because both concur in knowing so little.’

Despite this uneasiness around the text, its impact on contemporary poetry has been vast and various. Steiner claims the vers libre of Pound’s translations ‘altered the feel of the language and set the pattern of cadence for modern verse’. Their use of what Pound called ‘luminous details’, rather than abstraction, had a profound effect on what we now consider to be ‘good’ poetry. In bringing Chinese poetry to the attention of the West (even a partially invented poetry ) Pound also inspired many writers such as the Beats; through Cathay Gary Snyder became so intoxicated by Eastern ideas that in his poem ‘Axe Handles’ he sees Pound as an axe that shaped the pattern of his life.

Most of all there is his influence on translation, with Pound subverting long-held assumptions about accuracy and faithfulness to form. His decision to translate into free verse was revelatory for many poets, such as Robert Lowell, who in his Imitations (1961) went as far as to say of metrical translators: ‘They are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds.’ One of the great poet-translators of the 20th century, Ted Hughes, followed Pound in always translating into free verse. Hughes, it should be said, was no linguist despite helping to set up Modern Poetry in Translation, and translated from languages he did not speak. This would not have been possible without Cathay.

Through Pound’s distinction between the ‘semantic’ and ‘poetic’ dimensions, he in fact invented a new form which is now ubiquitous — the ‘version’. Don Paterson, who has made versions of Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets, explains the distinction in an essay titled ‘Fourteen Notes on the Version’:

Essentially, if we are not prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit, we are likely to come away with nothing. Or, perhaps, between method and goal: in translation, the integrity of the means justifies the end; in the version, the integrity of the end justifies the means.

The latter definition is surely one that fits Pound’s Cathay. And it is one that has enabled books such as Heaney’s Beowulf, Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and all the many other recent versions of classic texts, including my own Ovid’s Heroines. I don’t speak Latin, and if I hadn’t fallen for Cathay all those years ago, I’m not sure I’d have ever had the nerve to try translating myself.

I am also grateful to Pound for showing that translation could be a joint enterprise between one (or more) who understands the original language and another who is a poet. At its best, this has led to generous and genuine collaborations, and to new friendships being forged across cultures. It is this collaborative model that inspired Sarah Maguire to establish The Poetry Translation Centre, for which I have co-translated much Somali poetry — an organisation born out of Maguire’s conviction that ‘poetry only ever develops through translation’. And so a hundred years after its publication, Cathay continues to compel English poetry in new directions.

Clare Pollard’s latest book, a new version of Ovid’s Heroines (Bloodaxe), is on tour as a one-woman show with Jaybird Live Literature.

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