- East-West Exchange and Late Modernism: Williams, Moore, Pound by Zhaoming Qian
How do great artists deal with old age? It is natural for one to be artistically declining as he or she is physically on the decline. However, in the case of Claude Monet, for example, his infatuation with Japanese art induced him to focus on translating nature's changes into art; he experimented with simpler palette, more rhythmical brushwork and a less full canvas in his late career, leaving to the world the Water Lilies series, the culminating achievement of lifetime. Monet's rejuvenation in his late years opens up Zhaoming Qian's new project on East-West exchange and late modernism. Qian's study furnishes an answer to the question why some artists bring out only mediocre works in old age while others sustain creativity and sometimes even achieve greater successes later in life. Monet and the three American modernists under scrutiny—Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore—continued to challenge themselves in their later years. Their exchange with less familiar East Asian culture for formal and conceptual innovations ensured their thriving in old age.
For Qian, "modernism as a literary and artistic culture not only survived the Second World War but has continued through the second half of the twentieth century into the present century" (1). He uses the term "late modernism" to refer to the renewals of early twentieth-century modernism, "an avant-garde project distinguished by anti-tradition, anti-mimesis, and radical formal innovation" (1). In this richly documented and convincingly argued book, Qian offers a fascinating discussion of the three American modernists in the mid-twentieth century, specifically of how their respective East-West encounters pushed them back to what Marjorie Perloff refers to as the short-lived "avant-garde phase of modernism" in the early twentieth-century, a phase disrupted by the Second World War and its political turmoil.1
Building on Perloff's 21st-Century Modernism (2002), a pioneering work arguing for a later revival of modernism, Qian claims that there was a late flourishing of modernism in the 1960s. In Qian's eyes, the postmodernist rise on the literary scene inspired rather than stifled the three veteran modernists' enthusiasm for "making it new" (East-West Exchange, 11). And according to Qian, a key factor that nourished their renewal of modernism was their interaction with East Asia.
As a modernist scholar, Qian has produced several seminal works on the linkage of American modernism to Chinese culture. His first book, Orientalism and Modernism (1995), explored East-West exchange via text—the impact of classical Chinese poetry on Pound and Williams. His second book, The Modernist Response to Chinese Art (2003), extended poetic criticism to inter–arts studies by focusing on East-West exchange via image—the connection between American modernism and Chinese art. In this sequel to his previous books, Qian unfolds East-West exchange via personal interaction and collaboration. Qian argues that the three American modernists' interactions with their Chinese friends, the "interlocutors" from East Asian culture "informed of its language, place, history, and tradition," jolted them back to their early modernist ground in their late life (12).
Qian's new book consists of six chapters (two chapters on each of the three modernists) plus an Introduction and a Coda. The first chapter deals with Williams's 1957–61 collaboration with David Raphael Wang (王燊甫) on a translation of Chinese poetry, which turned out to be of mutual benefit. The translation was published posthumously under the title "The Cassia Tree" in New Directions (1966). Chapter two focuses on the impact of the collaboration on Williams's last book. While Wang acquired the old poet's strategies of the "structural interest" and "modern idiom" from the collaboration project and "quickly developed into a full-fledged Asian American poet and anthologist," Williams relearned "the minimalist, painterly qualities of classic Chinese [End Page 238] poetry"—the Chinese four-line "stop short" in particular—and moved away from the triad that...