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                                                        The Legacy of Pound's Translations


(For much of this essay, I will be relying on information from Robert Kern's Orientalism, Modernism and the American Poem although I will give a couple of other sources at the end for further reading.)

In order to understand the differences between contemporary haiku and tanka and more traditional hokku and waka, one must look at the hybridization of Western and Eastern aesthetics that has occurred during the 20th century. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Shiki wished to push Japanese literature from its isolation into the mainstream of world literature and looked to the introduction of Western ideas as a way of accomplishing that goal. At the same time Western poets were looking at Asian literature and incorporating some of its aesthetics into modern theories that would change English language poetry and eventually filter into contemporary English language haiku and tanka. Perhaps no one has had greater influence than Ezra Pound on modernist American poetic theory. I want to look at the legacy that Pound's translations in Chinese and Japanese started and then later in a follow-up essay look at what some of Pound's followers have done that have influenced contemporary haiku and tanka.

Early in his career Pound was sent the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, who studied Chinese culture. Pound, who at the time did not know Chinese or Japanese, became fascinated with Fenollosa's work and decided to translate some of Li Po's poetry using Fenollosa's notes. In Chinese Pound found some of the ideas that were already gelling into the basis of modernist theory: a concreteness of images that tried to show something as it really was with a timeless quality. While Chinese had a very strict structure (Ancient Style was composed of 4 vertical columns with 5 or sometimes 7 characters in each line and a specific rhyme scheme), Pound decided to revolutionize translation by totally ignoring the word for word translation and structure of Chinese and instead relying on the experience of the poem to translate into a free-verse English. The following characteristics used in his translations became part of Imagist and later Vorticist theory.

1. Concreteness of image. Chinese characters often indicate nouns with an action implied within the character. The character shows the image as it is, not an abstract symbolism of how the image should be seen.

2. Timelessness. There is no verb tense in Chinese but one must use context in order to determine time if needed for the understanding of the poem.

3. Free verse lines based on the author's thought rather than any grammar or idea of line meter. Pound had a great disdain for the rhythms of Victorian poetry and English grammar ["Take a man's mind off the human value of the poem he is reading, switch it on to some questions of grammar and you begin his dehumanization." (Kern, 147)]. He wanted a form that would better fit the alienation brought about by 20th century politics, world events and psychological discoveries.

4. An inversion of normal English syntax and dropping of some articles and adjectives to make the English translations sound more foreign. Some might argue that this was his attempt to make the structure of his English more like the original structure of the Chinese but his end stopped, free verse lines clearly show his intent to make the translations modern English.

5. The beginnings of ideogrammatic method, a piling of unlike images and allusions together without semantic or syntactic connections (such as English simile) which results in fragmentation of language but necessitates the reader's participation in processing meaning. As Pound progressed with this method in his Cantos, it meant that readers had to have knowledge of classical Western and Eastern literature which brought complexity and abstraction into his work.

Do some of these ideas sound familiar to those of you writing Asian verse? Pound was sensitive in some ways to Asian aesthetics, but was interested in advancing his ideas about free verse English poetry. What we see here is the groundwork for contemporary haiku and tanka including an increased role of the writer as the determiner of structure and the beginning of form fitting content.

How successful was Pound? One only needs to look at the number of 20th century poets who acknowledge him as one of their major influences. Kern in Orientalism, Modernism and the American Poem suggests that his translations were so successful that attempts to deviate from his conventions in translating Chinese poetry into English would now be considered by the reading public to be deviant even though they might be more similar to the original Chinese poems (Kern 180). But as Kern points out "...The issue here is not the direct or indirect influence of Chinese in American writing but a romantic or mythological--and Western--conception of language that is imposed upon Chinese and then appropriated as a model" (Kern 6).

Although the discussion here is about Chinese translation and aesthetics, a similar process happened with the Japanese. Many writers after Shiki incorporated Western ideas while Western writers looked to modern Japanese for models of Japanese aesthetics. What each culture found was not a pure form of the other's aesthetics but a hybridized version which sometimes was not recognized as such.

For further reading:

1. "Ezra Pound and the Chinese Written Language,"

2. Kern, Robert, Orientalism, Modernism and the American Poem, NY: Cambridge UP, 1996.

3. Pound, Ezra, "Selected Poems of Ezra Pound," NY: New Directions, 1956.

4. Rexroth, Kenneth, World Outside the Window, NY: New Directions, 1987. (Essays include "The Influence of Classical Japanese Poetry on Modern American Poetry" and "The Art of Literature")