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  • The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of for Poetry: A Critical Edition
  • Peter Nicholls
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein, eds. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv + 216. $25.00 (cloth).

The story of Ezra Pound's stroke of luck bears re-telling. In 1913, he met Mary McNeill Fenollosa at a dinner party hosted by the Indian poet and reformer Sarojini Naidu. Mrs. Fenollosa whose husband, Sinologue Ernest Fenollosa, had died in 1908, obviously took a shine to Pound, inviting him (as he reported to fiancée Dorothy) "to two bad plays & to dinner with [publisher] William Heinemann".1 A more momentous gift followed when Mrs. Fenollosa decided that Pound was the ideal person to assess and edit her late husband's notebooks. From this treasure-trove Pound would quarry an edition of Noh plays, thirteen translated poems that would provide the bulk of his pivotal collection Cathay, and the notes for what would become the short but pregnant essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Throughout his life, Pound would insist on the importance of this essay, describing it as nothing less than an "Ars Poetica, gorrdamit" and returning as late as 1958 in a retrospective account included here to Fenollosa's lecture notes as an antidote to "the filth of brain wash" apparently emanating from Yale and Harvard.

This lavish new edition of the essay marks its transition from the quasi-underground formats of Square Dollar and City Lights to the sort of status Pound claimed for it in his headnote to the 1936 edition: "a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics." For the first time, we can review the several drafts of the piece alongside Pound's annotations. Also included are Fenollosa's lecture notes on Chinese and Japanese poetry and three essays: "Chinese and Japanese Traits," "The Coming Fusion of East and West," and "Chinese Ideals." This additional material is to be welcomed on at least two counts: not only does it give a clearer sense of Pound's "dialogue" with his draft material, but it also allows us to understand Fenollosa's larger concerns, especially his hopes for some sort of "fusion" between East and West that might produce a "new world-type, rich in those million possibilities of thought and achievement that exclusion blindly stifles" (155). [End Page 694]

Of course, as every student knows, Fenollosa, and Pound after him, got it wrong about Chinese. Misled by a conviction that the language was inherently disposed toward imaginative dynamism and a "natural" syntactical order, Fenollosa committed a double error, misconstruing ideogram for pictogram, and characterizing the Chinese sentence by its dependence on active verbs. Professionals would be generally dismissive of such claims. George A. Kennedy's trenchant review of Pound's The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius in 1958 is probably the best-known rebuttal, with its flat rejection of Fenollosa's claim that Chinese "ideographic roots carry in them a verbal idea of action" (the language is simply not "overloaded with strong transitive verbs", Kennedy insisted), and—even worse news for the Fenollosa hypothesis—"There is hardly a case where the dictionary meaning of a character shows any intelligible dependence on the meanings of the parts."2 As Haun Saussy notes in his excellent introduction to this edition, "the overwhelming majority of Chinese characters, even many that had long been taken to be compound pictograms, were formed from a semantic clue added to a phonetic clue, and . . . the phonetic clues taken together gave a clear if not always definite map of the pronunciation of archaic Chinese" (8).

It has often been assumed that it was Fenollosa's concentration on the ideogram as a visual signifier that led Pound in his subsequent researches to disregard the phonetic dimension of the Chinese character. However, other texts by Fenollosa assembled in this edition shed light on Pound's retrospective comment that he "took what seemed to me most needed [from the notes], omitting the passages re/ sound" (174). As we see from this material, Fenollosa did not...


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