Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fenollosa / Pound

"The twentieth century not only turns a new page in the book of the world, but opens another and startling chapter. Vistas of strange futures unfold for man, of world-embracing cultures half-weaned from Europe, of hitherto undreamed responsibilities for nations and races.

The Chinese problem alone is so vast that no nation can afford to ignore it. We in America, especially, must face it across the Pacific, and master it or it will master us. And the only way to master it is to strive with patient sympathy to understand the best, the most hopeful, and the most human elements in it."

So opens The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, written by Ernest Fenollosa in 1908 and recovered, finished, and published by Ezra Pound in 1918. Over the next few days I'll be trying to make sense of it, and of the dizzying edifice of responses that have since been built over its foundation.

At the moment the most I can say about it all is that he quotes from a verse by Sugawara Michizane, entirely without attribution. He just mentions the first line, but this is the whole thing:

月夜見梅花 Viewing Plum Blossoms on a Moonlit Night  

月輝如晴雪 The moon glitters like snow on a clear day
梅梅似照星 The plum blossoms look like shining stars
可憐金鏡転 It is a gorgeous gilded mirror as it sets
庭上玉房馨 Across the garden, fine fragrance carries

I don't know this poem well; I was only struck by it because the first two lines were the project I was working on for kakizome (New Year's calligraphy) this time last year. The website where I found it just now, Kanshi no sekai, notes that Michizane wrote it when he was 11 years old--can that be true?

What was Professor Fenollosa thinking, and crafty old Pound? In translating it the way I have, do I prove the professor's point that "the Chinese line impl[ies], as form, the very element that distinguishes poetry from prose." How did he happen upon this poem, I wonder? One I think of as my calligraphy lesson?

Here he goes:

"[Chinese poetry] speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds. It is, in some sense, more objective than either, more dramatic. In reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate."

Fenollosa (Pound?) goes through each of the characters in an interpretative method that would be helpful in puzzling out the pronouncements of an oracle. He doesn't translate the poem, but offers instead a "paraphrase." I'm not entirely confident of my translation, especially the last line, but there's a lot of embellishment going on in this one, I promise:

The moon's snow falls on the plum tree;
Its boughs are full of bright stars.
We can admire the bright turning disc;
The garden high above there, casts its pearls to our weeds.

This is followed by the most delightful comment:

"If our universities had been worth half a peck of horse-dung, something would have been done during the last quarter of a century to carry on Fenollosa's work. Millions have been spent in stultifying education....The infamy of the present monetary system does not stop with the malnutrition of the masses; it extends upward into every cranny of the intellectual life, even where cowards think themselves safest, and enough men of low vitality feel sure that boredom can never kill." This last remark makes me think Pound must have read my teaching evaluations.

He continues:

"The state of Chinese studies in the Occident is revoltingly squalid, and one has to read Frobenius in his own language? Because English and American professors are moles." Marvelous.

The back cover on my edition (San Francisco: City Lights, 1983) says it all, "Whether or not Pound proceeded on false premises remains an academic question. Let the pedants rave."

So that's what we do, eh? I suppose so, when we're doing what we should. That, and drink coffee. Beats murmuring.