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15 Editor’s Introduction Cracking the Crib Timothy Billings Since its publication in 1915, Ezra Pound’s Cathay has been almost universally recognized as a masterpiece of modernist poetry with a substantive influence on the evolution of American poetics, as well as a founding text of world literature instrumental in popularizing Tangdynasty poetry. Upon its release, it was admired by the likes of W. B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and Ford Maddox Ford; and a few years later, in a much-cited essay, T.S. Eliot called Pound “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,” and praised the translations in Cathay as “translucencies” for the way they at least seem to show us the original Chinese poems as if through a glass clearly.1 Others like Arthur Waley who could read Chinese were less sanguine about them as “translations,” but admired the boldness of the poetry anyway, however begrudgingly. After all, Pound had accomplished this feat of “translucence” in spite of the fact—and, surely, partly due to the fact—that he knew no Chinese at the time. Instead, he relied on a collection of private notebooks containing word-for-word “cribs” of more than a hundred ancient and medieval Chinese poems that Pound had inherited from the American art historian and Japanologist Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908). These notebooks were a windfall for Pound at that moment in his life, since he had recently taken a keen interest in Chinese aesthetics while living in London, and had already tried his hand at rewriting a few Chinese poems from published translations by the British sinologist Herbert Giles, mostly by chiseling their statuesque prolixity down into dazzling little imagistic figurines.2 As a defender of Japanese traditional art, Fenollosa had become an important figure in Japan and had the good fortune to study Noh theater and Chinese poetry with such prominent scholars as Umewaka Minoru 梅若実 (1828–1909) and Mori Kainan 森槐南 (1863–1911).3 Ernest’s widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, a successful novelist and poet herself, entrusted the Chinese cribs and Noh translations to Pound after meeting with him only three times in September and October of 1913.4 Pound and Mary first met at the home of Sarojini Naidu, where he quipped learnedly about Chinese poetry after having read only a few chapters of Giles’s A History of Chinese Literature. Together with his sense of avant-garde aesthetics, samples of his poetry, and a passion for turning to the “East” (in this case) to reinvigorate “Western” poetics, Pound convinced Mary that he was the destined heir to Fenollosa’s literary legacy.5 Within that extraordinary bequest were also to be found Fenollosa’s drafts of what Pound would later edit and in 1919 publish as The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, one of the most influential works of literary criticism in the twentieth century, which Pound himself called “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics” (41). Fenollosa’s essay (at times misleadingly) emphasizes the pictographic, imagistic, and ideationally synthetic 16 Timothy Billings qualities of Chinese characters as if they were “something much more than arbitrary symbols,” and instead founded on “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” (45). This notion of Chinese as essentially “ideographic” has been especially seductive for imagistic poetics—even though it is not actually true—and provided Pound with an exotic and yet still classical model for imagism-become-vorticism.6 All this is well known. But it is impossible to appreciate the nuances of Pound’s craft without the ability to compare his remarkable translations with the cribs he used—and yet those cribs have never been published in their entirety before. Since shortly after Pound’s death in 1972, anyone with the right credentials could consult them in Yale University’s rare books and manuscripts library, but they have only ever been studied in a scattershot way, selectively quoted, and variously misrepresented, resulting in fundamental misconceptions about Pound’s sources and the nature of his work. The chief aim of this book is to correct those misconceptions by giving readers the chance to see and appreciate for themselves exactly what Pound has done with the materials at his disposal. A Kind of Clairvoyance When one compares carefully the poems of Cathay with the corresponding Chinese texts and Fenollosa’s notes (at the Beinecke Library, Yale University), one becomes aware, however, that many of the misrepresentations are attributable to Mori’s flawed cribs and Fenollosa’s rough translations. In...


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