Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ezra Pound's Encounter with Wang Wei: Toward the "Ideogrammic Method" of the Cantos

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ezra Pound's Encounter with Wang Wei: Toward the "Ideogrammic Method" of the Cantos

Article excerpt

In Ezra Pound Among the Poets, edited by George Bornstein, Li Po is recognized as one of Pound's major influences. Pound himself acknowledged his debt to the Chinese poet by introducing Cathay (1915) as a book "for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku [Li Po]" (P 130). Li Po, however, was not the only T'ang poet who influenced Pound in his early career. New evidence shows that after the publication of Cathay Pound continued to explore Chinese poetry through the Fenollosa Notebooks,(1) and that the poet who claimed a strong appeal for him during this period, the period that witnessed Pound's extraordinary experiments in pursuit of forms for The Cantos, was Li Po's contemporary Wang Wei (699-759), or Omakitsu, as he is called by Fenollosa.

I take for proof of this neglected encounter Pound's own statements made on various occasions between mid-1916 and early 1919. The first of such statements is to be found in Pound's letter to Iris Barry, dated 24 August 1916: "I have spent the day with Wang Wei, eighth century Jules Laforgue Chinois" (L 144). With it we can determine the date when Pound began his serious dialogue with Wang Wei. In addition, we are enabled to see why Pound should at this point show such enthusiasm for the T'ang painter-poet: he saw in him a modern sensibility and a likeness to the French symbolist Jules Laforgue. Pauline Yu contends that "Wang Wei's work is a fulfillment of several key Symbolist aims" (Poetry 22). To illustrate this, she enumerates as many as four poetic notions shared by the T'ang poet and the symbolists.(2) Thus Pound's comparison of Wang Wei to Laforgue confirms his critical perceptivity. In Wang Wei he apparently discovered the possibility of further modernizing his style by combining the French and Chinese influences.

Pound made a second statement about Wang Wei in his letter to Kate Buss, dated 4 January 1917. There he again emphasizes Wang Wei's modernity and his resemblance to the French Symbolists: "Omakitsu is the real modern - even Parisian - of VIII cent. China - " (L 154). This seems to indicate that Pound was continuing his study of Wang Wei in early 1917 (when he was almost ready to publish "Three Cantos"). Nevertheless, it was not until November 1918 (when he was rewriting Ur-Canto 4) that he brought out a short version of Wang Wei's poem in The Little Review:

Dawn on the Mountain Peach flowers turn the dew crimson, Green willows melt in the mist, The servant will not sweep up the fallen petals, And the nightingales Persist in their singing. Omakitsu

Apparently Pound was not satisfied with his translation, for he remarked in an essay on Remy de Gourmont (another French Symbolist he admired), in the February 1919 issue of the same magazine: "I do not think it possible to overemphasize Gourmont's sense of beauty. The mist clings to the lacquer. His spirit was the spirit of Omakitsu; his pays natal was near to the peach-blossom-fountain of the untranslatable poem" (LE 343). Here Pound is of course comparing de Gourmont's sense of beauty to that of Wang Wei. "The mist clings to the lacquer" is an image from another section of "Dawn on the Mountain," which, in Pound's view, vividly sums up de Gourmont's - and perhaps also Laforgue's and the Prufrock Eliot's - sensibility.

Wang Wei's spirit indeed entered Pound's Ur-Cantos along with other influences of the period. In a fragment among his early drafts for Canto 4 Pound laments for his lost adolescence, using Wang Wei's sensual image as an analogy:

When you find that feminine contact has no longer the richness of Omakitsu's verses, Know then, o man, that the Cytherean has turned from you, fugges! When the smoke no longer hangs clings upon the lacquer, When the night air no longer clings to your cuticle, When the air has in it no mystery about her, Know then that the days of your adolence [sic] are ended fugaces, fugges, fugus (Qtd. in Froula 103)

Christine Froula in her study of the genesis of Canto 4 takes pains to show how Pound created the "seven enigmatic lines [that] follow the wind poem" - "Smoke hangs on the stream, / The peach-trees shed bright leaves in the water, / Sound drifts in the evening haze, / The bark scrapes at the ford, / Gilt rafters above black water, / Three steps in an open field, / Gray stone-posts leading . …

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