This subject for this post was brought to mind by the current fashion for all things Chinese. The Times has been running a "Brainteaser" feature in which readers are invited to use their intuition to match words with Chinese picturegrams. It reminded me of the excitement I once felt upon encountering Ezra Pound's theories of poetics. As I subsequently discovered, the inspiration for them came from a total misunderstanding of the nature of Chinese characters, but that did nothing to dampen down my enthusiasm, either for Pound's theories or his poems.
I came to his work via the now famous poem "In a Station at the Metro" in which commuters emerging from the Paris subway take on the aspect of wet petals.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It is now, to use an overworked word, iconic, but back then the compression, the rejection of conjunctions, the unorthodox spacing, were all new to me. Everything, in fact, was there in embyo, just waiting for its coming of age and its call-up for The Cantos.
So what was this "misunderstanding" that led to something that would prove ground-breaking?
When Fenellosa died, his widow asked Pound to edit her late husband's notebook. Pound found there a series of classical Chinese poems with Fenellosa's notes in English written beneath them. (Intriguingly, they were spaced rather as Pound would later space the lines of his poems, as he spaced those in the poem given above.) Fenellosa had fallen prey to the basic misunderstanding that Pound would inherit and accept completely: the belief that all Chinese characters were ideograms, compressed visual metaphors that had developed over long years of increasing abstraction. That being so, Fenellosa had reasoned, they could be directly transcribed into English, without reference to their original language. Pound accepted this, too, as gospel, and saw this "sign language" as a model for a new kind of poetry in which he would juxtapose, not just visual images, but almost anything else: narratives, prose on occasion, facts of all sorts, his theories of finance and usury. It led to the Imagist movement and to The Cantos.
So what do I recall of that far off time? (I am speaking once more of my art school days - see my "It's How He Sees It" post.)
I recall that we (some of us) actually read the cantos - though not in their entirety, I think!
We embraced his imagist theories, and thought that all poetry should be "Imagist", though what we meant by that varied.
We knew that Pound had edited Eliot's Waste Land, had given it its form and that it had been dedicated to him - and we applauded that and thought The Waste Land, like Cathay and Tha Cantos, were a breath of fresh air in what was a very stuffy environment, but we tended to read Pound, not Eliot.
And I recall that we (most of us) felt that The Cantos didn't quite work, but that it didn't matter, for their importance transcended their quality - which I think was correct.
Even knowing that Pound was a tireless promoter of Eliots cause, didn't persuade us to read Eliot - so far as I can recall - from what was over fifty years back!
I have scoured the Internet for a glimpse of Pound's exposition of his imagist theories, but have found nothing. Some bits about him, but none by him. If any kind person reading this should know something I don't know, I would be very grateful to be enlightened.