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  • The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound: A Critical Edition
  • David F. Armstrong
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound: A Critical Edition, ed. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, 216 pp., cloth, $25.00, ISBN 978–0-8232–2868–3)

This volume includes an original essay on the relevance of Chinese writing to modern poetry by Ernest Fenollosa, along with the well-known version edited by Ezra Pound and a critical essay by Haun Saussy. The volume also contains additional pieces by Fenollosa. The piece that is central to the volume, Pound’s edited version of Fenollosa’s original essay, is generally considered an important source document for imagism, a central force in the development of modernist poetry early in the twentieth century. The essay has been roundly criticized by scholars of the Chinese language for naively representing the Chinese writing system as “ideographic” or pictorial. Saussy argues that it is better understood not as a serious analysis of the system of Chinese characters (although Pound’s alterations may make it seem less serious in this regard than it really is) but as a philosophical manifesto on the nature of human language in general and poetry in particular. Of special interest here is its exposition of the nature of the visual perception of reality that inevitably underlies language of all kinds, whether it is ultimately expressed audibly or visually. In this regard, Fenollosa and Pound take up many of the concepts that later become important in the cognitive movement in linguistics—especially gesture and metaphor.

Pound’s goal was to strip away the frills and trappings of the Victorian era in poetry, from which the Western world was then emerging. Pound was thus led to announce an ideogrammic method to show how [End Page 480] abstraction could arise from concrete images. According to Saussy, in this regard Pound, through his understanding of Fenollosa, saw Chinese writing as a model for “valid thinking”:

[Fenollosa] got to the root of the matter, to the root of the difference between what is valid in Chinese thinking and invalid or misleading in a great deal of European thinking and language.

The simplest statement I can make of his meaning is as follows: In Europe, if you ask a man to define anything, his definition always moves away from the simple things that he knows perfectly well, it recedes into an unknown region, that is a region of remoter and progressively remoter abstraction.

Thus if you ask him what red is, he says it is a “color” . . .

If you ask him what vibration is, he tells you it is a mode of energy, or something of that sort, until you arrive at a modality of being, or non-being, at any rate you get in beyond your depth, and beyond his depth . . .

The Chinese still use abbreviated pictures AS pictures, that is to say, the Chinese ideogram does not try to be the picture of a sound, or to be a written sign recalling a sound, but it is still the picture of a thing; of a thing in a given position or relation, or of a combination of things. It means the thing or the action or situation, or quality germane to the several things that it pictures . . .

He is to define red. How can he do it in a picture that isn’t painted in red paint?

He puts (or his ancestor put) together the abbreviated pictures of



. . .

That, you see, is very much the kind of thing a biologist does . . . when he gets together a few hundred or thousand slides, and picks out what is necessary for his general statement.


Thus, according to Fenollosa and Pound, the Chinese character for “red” is only a partial abstraction derived from concrete images of red objects of various shades. Again, this represents a distortion of the actual [End Page 481] Chinese writing system, which does represent actual Chinese spoken words and does incorporate phonetic cues in its system of characters. Again, however...


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