Today wood s lot quotes a well-known poem by Gary Snyder, and I’m going to quote it too, partly because I like it and partly because I have something to say about the chain of quotes within the poem:
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattem is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.-
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
It’s a wonderful image, and the chain of transmission back to the fourth century is impressive, but it actually goes back much further than that. Lu Ji was probably quoting the neo-Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, which Pound translated as The Unwobbling Pivot; Pound says of it: “It is divided into three parts: the axis; the process; and sincerity, the perfect word, or the precise word; into Metaphysics: ‘Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can effect any change’; Politics: ‘In cutting an axe-handle the model is not far off, in this sense: one holds one axe-handle while chopping the other. Thus one uses men in governing men’; Ethics: ‘The archer, when he misses the bull’s-eye, turns and seeks the cause of the error in himself.'”
But the actual quote from The Doctrine of the Mean (I.XIII.2) is: “In the Book of Poetry, it is said, ‘In hewing an ax-handle, in hewing an ax-handle, the pattern is not far off.’ We grasp one ax handle to hew the other; and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore, the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.” So we see that it actually goes way, way back to the Shih Ching, I:15; Legge translates the relevant lines as “In hewing an axe-handle, in hewing an axe-handle,/ The pattern is not far off,” and Pound himself, in his vigorous version, has “To hack an axe-haft/ an axe/ hacks;/ the pattern ‘s near.” And the pattern continues.
Incidentally, note in the Snyder poem the unusual phrase “And go gets it” (an extension from the normal imperative “Go get it!”); if you google it, you get almost entirely references to this poem, but there are a few others—in a comment on this blog, for instance, we find “To me, he is a smart man, black or white, he see’s the money and go gets it.”