Over at Poetry London there’s a feature “Did Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound get it wrong? Four poets discuss the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry” in which John Weston, W.N. Herbert, Polly Clark, and Yang Lian respond to the subject of “the complex beauty of Chinese characters” and the ways Western writers have tried to make use of it in their translations, most notably Ezra Pound, who used as a jumping-off point Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (online here with Pound’s annotations). Last year I posted about Sarah Maguire’s excellent analysis of Pound’s Cathay; I think she’s exactly right when she says “By the time Fenollosa’s notebooks fell into his hands, Pound was steeped in Chinese art and profoundly curious about the radically different world it represented. What Ming Xie and other Chinese commentators point out is that, even by the time of Cathay, Pound grasped ‘the paradigmatic frame of an entire culture’.” In other words, Pound was not simply looking at characters through Fenollosa’s overheated description and making stuff up, he was using Fenollosa’s idea as a lens through which to focus what he already knew about Chinese culture and poetry. This, sadly, has not generally been the case with subsequent poets who saw what Pound achieved and wanted to smoke some of what he was having.
The discussants at Poetry London are aware of the trap, but they don’t always avoid falling into it. This, by Herbert, particularly bothered me:
When Yang Lian discussed how, for him, each character seems to exist in its own self-sufficient universe, almost without any need for tense or grammar, it seemed to me that a Chinese reader looking at a character can be described as gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space. An English reader, on the other hand, is looking at a language which continually reveals its etymological roots. They are therefore gazing into time.
Further, a Chinese reader will find all their referents — everything that makes up pictograms, ideograms and phonograms — within Chinese. It is an autonomous field of reference. An English reader, however, is looking at hundreds of years of borrowing from foreign sources — Latin, Greek, French, German etc. The language presents itself as naturally gregarious, acquisitive, absorbent…
I loved Yang Lian’s description, for instance, of the way the character for ‘fresh’ is built out of the combination of the characters for ‘fish’ and ‘lamb’; or Zhou Zan’s use of the characters for ‘accident’ at the end of one line, and her neat reversal of the same two characters to produce the combination for ‘story’ at the end of the next. I understood we were only scratching the surface of a complex field of study, but felt that the excitement of that surface encounter was easily akin to the huge complex of information and emotions that overwhelmed me in visiting the Forbidden City for the first time.
Why is there this craving to see Chinese as some sort of weird Forbidden City? It’s just a language, much like any other; it happens to be written with a more complicated set of graphs than most, but it’s as full of borrowings (pace Herbert’s “autonomous field of reference”) and has just as much grammar as any other. Chinese readers are not “gazing into both pictorial and conceptual space,” they’re reading, just like anybody else. Yes, a Chinese writer can choose to foreground the pictorial element of a character, just as an English writer can choose to foreground a word’s roots, but there’s no inherent philosophical chasm—you play with the elements you find around you, and English poets can also play with the pictorial aspect of words. In general, I find the idea of the “exotic” one of the most unfortunate of our built-in preconceptions; it can lead to enjoyable works of art, but it makes it impossible to see what’s actually going on, which has deleterious consequences in real life as well as literature.
Aged 20, I resolved to learn both Chinese and Japanese to a degree of fluency which would allow me to know what they felt like “from the inside”. In the course of this study I have spent huge swathes of time trying to figure out, par example, how the rather startlingly different Chinese terminology for the simple Indo-European verb “to take” (they actually DO have a number of different verbs for it, depending on the different ways of holding) might affect the way the Chinese conceptualize the world and interact with it. As my fluency with the language grew, these ideas began to wane for the simple reason that I began to realize that the Chinese world is not all that different from ours.
(Via wood s lot.)