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  • Cathay: A Critical Edition ed. by Timothy Billings
  • Espen Grønlie (bio)
Billings, Timothy, ed. 2019. Ezra Pound, Cathay: A Critical Edition. New York: Fordham University Press. Pp. xvii + 364. ISBN 9780823281060, Hardback $34.95.

In April 1915, at 29 years old, Ezra Pound published Cathay, his version of fourteen classical Chinese poems (as well as the Old English “The Seafarer”, a poem Pound had translated as early as 1911). He thereby became “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”, as T. S. Eliot would put it in his foreword to Pound’s Selected Poems (1928). What did Pound know of Chinese language at this point? Next to nothing, his biographer A. David Moody suggests: “He could not read the Chinese characters — he could not even sound them out” (Moody 2007, 272). So how does one translate from a language one does not know?

In November 1913, Pound received sixteen notebooks from Mary Fenollosa, the widow of Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), an American art historian who had worked for several years in Japan. These notebooks, now part of the Ezra Pound papers at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, included Fenollosa’s rudimentary translations of around a hundred Chinese classical poems. Pound’s work with the material resulted not only in Cathay, but also in Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916), later issued in an expanded version as “Noh”, or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan (1916), as well as “The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry” (1919), a Fenollosa essay edited by Pound (and edited to a larger extent than has usually been assumed, as is made clear in a critical edition of the essay, edited by Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein, and also published by Fordham University Press [2008]). According to Moody, Pound was “absolutely dependent on Fenollosa’s simple crib with its halting one-English-word-for-one-Chinese-character, followed by a paraphrase of the line” (Moody 2007, 272). Is Moody’s a fair assessment of the material Pound had to work with? And was Cathay, as stated by Saussy in his foreword to this new edition, “a masterpiece of the art of editing, an art at which Pound excelled” (xi)?

This edition is very useful to begin answering such questions. It helps us understand the making of the poems of Cathay, primarily by supplying annotated transcripts of the most relevant parts of Fenollosa’s notebooks. What is to be found in this edition is, in other words, not the contents of the entire sixteen notebooks, but only the entries corresponding to the poems Pound chose for Cathay. There has been some uncertainty as to what one can actually read in Fenollosa’s notebooks, and this new edition brings some clarity. As Timothy Billings notes, even eminent scholars such [End Page 136] as Ronald Bush and Hugh Kenner have made mistakes in their interpretation of them, transcribing, for example, “drum” as “dream” and “red / (of boni)” as “red / (of berri)”. As Billings notes, such errors probably have less to do with Fenollosa’s handwriting than with the scholars’ competence in Chinese and Japanese. Now, at last, we have transcripts that those of us who are ignorant of these languages can presumably rely on. I do not mean to imply that ignorance of the source languages makes one unable to judge Pound’s work. We need not necessarily follow Ford Madox Hueffer’s statement at the time Cathay was published: “If these were original verses, then, Pound was the greatest poet of the day” (Qian 2010, 337). Still, we should recognize the lesson many a poet has been able to learn from Pound: translators first and foremost need to know their target language. There is every reason to stress that Cathay was an intervention in English-language poetry.

The way Ming Xie, who has written on Pound’s appropriation of Chinese poetry, sees it, the “appeal of Cathay is largely its exoticism, evoking a poeticized imaginary realm with nineteenth-century Tennysonian associations” (Xie 1999, 211). This somewhat pejorative verdict, which I find hard to agree with, would suggest that...


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