Jerome Rothenberg: Ezra Pound, Wai-lim Yip, & Chinese poetry in America (A tribute)

[NOTE.  For nearly forty years now Wai-lim Yip, a major Chinese poet-scholar, has been our (almost) neighbor & close friend in southern California.  His reputation in the United States has mostly focused on his critical writings on Ezra Pound (Pound’s Cathay & other seminal works) & on his Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres, which greatly expands & clarifies the Pound & Fennolosa approach to “the Chinese character as a medium for poetry.”  What these English works mask however is the extent of his prolific & influential writing in Chinese – an influence as a poet, translator & groundbreaking scholar that has continued to expand over the last two decades from Taiwan to mainland China.  His visibility there culminates in a nine-volume collection of his works published in 2004 in China; & an extensive section in Chinese Literature Today, devoted to him & his work, has now made the range of that work apparent for the first time to an audience outside of China.  The interview there by Jonathan Stalling focuses as well on Yip’s notion of a Daoist modernism, drawing from contemporary avant-gardists & linking them to “the Daoists, some twenty-three centuries ago, who, by questioning the framing functions of the official naming system, first worked to free language and meaning from efforts to lock them down through power.”  The interplay here of old & new is a further indication of his range as a poet & thinker. (J.R.)]

Talk & lecture, August 2002, for Chinese Comparative Literature Association meetings in Nanjing


            It is almost pro forma, in talking of Ezra Pound and Chinese poetry, that we go back to T.S. Eliot’s remark that “Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.”  Hugh Kenner does it.  Wai-lim Yip does it.  It is a statement that rings true, once one allows that Eliot was making it with tongue securely in cheek and looking for the maximum effect.  It is also a two-fold statement, balanced in an obvious way between “inventor of Chinese poetry” and “for our time.”  And yet, curiously, Wai-lim Yip omits the second part (“in our time”) when he first quotes Eliot in Pound’s Cathay, and Kenner, with more tongue and more cheek than Eliot, condenses it in the title of the pertinent chapter in his book The Pound Era, to read simply “The Invention of China.”  (Reading that last one, here, in China, is something of an embarrassment – but only if you miss the irony that lies behind it.)


            What did Pound do, then, and what did he fail to do, when his attention turned, circa 1914, to the domain of Chinese poetry?  For the first question, I will venture an answer on my own; for the second I will fall back on the work of Wai-lim Yip, who used his own “special view,” as a poet and a scholar, to reveal an actual Chinese poetry or to invent it anew for the era after Pound.


            The work by Pound to which all of this refers is Cathay, a small book of sixteen poems published in 1914 and subtitled Translations by Ezra Pound: For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku [Li Po], from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga.  The small scale of the work and the qualifications around its composition are a first point worth noting – in particular that Pound is avoiding a claim for authenticity or expertise as the author/translator.  Nor is he setting out to be an inventor of a country or a language or a poetry not his own.  Rather he is taking a series of raw notes at a notable remove (via Japanese) from the Chinese original, and he is making poems of a kind that seems new to him in English.


            The rawness of the notes leaves him with the nuclei from which poems can be made – “[radiant] clusters,” possibly, as he would elsewhere have it.  He had attempted a few years before to do something of the sort from finished if awkward translations by Herbert A. Giles, but there was too much interference there – too much of Giles’s finish – for him to work his way through.  But Fenollosa led him word by word, suggesting what might be there, but not distracting him:


                        blue                     blue                    river                  bank,               grass

                        luxuriously      luxuriously     garden               in                      willow

                        fill/full               fill/full             storied house   on                    girl

                         in first bloom of youth

                        white                   (ditto)               just / face         window            door




which Pound transformed into:


Blue, blue is the grass around the river

And the willows have overfilled the close garden.

And, within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth

White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.


From the perspective of those who practice poetry, what happened here (and more so elsewhere in Cathay) was that Pound, who had been looking for a way to write a new but still measured poetry of sharp perceptions [his version of vers libre], moved his work forward by this contact with masters like Li Po.  Where his famous imagiste poem of 1913, “In a Station of the Metro,” seems in retrospect to be a naïve example of a barely suppressed metaphor, the poems in Cathay – no matter their remove from the originals – allow a range of experience, Pound’s in alignment with those of the Chinese poets, that is a genuine breakthrough in English and that so far stands the test of time.  In the process, then, it pushes his own practice forward, advances it through an act of translation that goes beyond translation (where translation itself means  [literally] a “going beyond” or “carrying across”).


            What is Pound’s “invention,” then, his discovery in the act of translating and composing the poems in Cathay?


            Kenner in The Pound Era distinguishes three “principles” that arise here and in Pound’s other workings from that time.  These are worth setting down here, as a way to get us started: [1] the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition [this has the vaguest connection to classical Chinese but is crucial to how Pound sets out in his “translations”]; [2] the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; [3] the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.  [These last two show a connection to aspects of Chinese poetry that Pound may have sensed through Fenollosa/Mori and that Yip articulates more clearly over a half-century later.]


            There is, however, more to be said about what Pound discovered in his play among the isolated words in the Fenollosa/Mori notes and what has changed from that while coming into common practice in the years after Cathay:


            First (and of immediate importance to much of my own practice), a means for making poetry via translation that can then function as a comment not only on the past but on our own time as well.  Here we can mention Kenner’s reading of Cathay in the context of the First World War or what Pound does a little later, say, in his Homage to Sextus Propertius from the Latin.  This we might speak of as the principle of translation as composition.


            Second, the use of a range of appropriative techniques, which have become very common and possibly more radical in the postmodern period.  This could include translation but would extend as well into forms of collage and found poetry – as acts of writing through other poets or other texts (to borrow John Cage’s phrase).  The Cantos throughout are a marvelous proving ground for this kind of work.  And here we might use the term principle of appropriation, to set this approach apart.


            3.  Moving away from translation and appropriation as such, Pound’s work in Cathay shows a way of making poetry from lists of words – connected or not at their origin.  As a form of systemic or process poetry, this has been utilized by Jackson Mac Low in his Asymmetries and Light Poems, by David Antin in his Meditations, by me in The Lorca Variations, and by various other poets both in America and elsewhere.  This we might call, after Mac Low, the nuclei principle.


            But what about the invention of China or of Chinese poetry?


            What is left to say is that Pound set a style that came to typify early twentieth-century translations into English/American and that he later pointed (in Canto 49, say) toward other styles that were possibly closer to the classical Chinese:


                        Sun up; work

                        sundown; to rest

                        dig well and drink of the water

                        dig field; eat of the grain

                        Imperial power is? and to us what is it?


And even this of course is the bringing-to-light of a terse telegraphic style (a poetry of essential words) while canceling out the other, recognizably formal qualities of the original – fixed measure and rhyme.


            It fell to Wai-lim Yip – a poet first and foremost – to unearth all this for us – not to invent China over again but to explain and explore aspects of the traditional poetry that link to American works after and beyond Pound and William Carlos Williams.  From Yip’s work we get what we might call the montage principle based on both a knowledge and practice of Chinese poetry and an observation of the work of later American poets, including Pound himself in the Cantos.  (That Yip’s approach is not only that of a scholar but of a deeply involved poet is also something worth noting.)  In the course of doing this Yip has opened for us not only a sensible view of Chinese poetry but a profound understanding of the nature of translation and the possibilities of poetry as they emerge from an actual practice.


            The central works in Yip’s writings about poetry as it moves between China and America (or America and China) are in three books published over the last thirty years: Pound’s Cathay, Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres, and Diffusion of Distances: Dialogues Between Chinese and Western Poetics.  Throughout there is an attempt to differentiate and in some sense to reconcile the way two languages and traditions – Chinese and English – frame reality in the act of making poetry.  The work of American poets – of some not all American poets – pursues a poetry of juxtapositions that arises more readily in the open – relatively open –  syntax of Chinese poets like Li Po and Wang Wei.  In Yip’s chronology the starting point is Pound’s Cathay, but the stronger (theoretical) underpinning is from the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who also worked from an interest in the Chinese written character, not only as a “medium for poetry” (to use the title of Fenollosa’s famous essay) but as a “medium for montage,” which for Eisenstein was the basis of the new art of film, of “moving images.”  Thus Yip brings together the following: Eisenstein’s definition of montage, “the juxtaposition of two separate shots by splicing them together,” and Pound’s similar comments, from more than a decade earlier, comparing “In a Station at the Metro” with a traditional Japanese haiku (and, by implication, other Asian poetry as well): “The ‘one image poem’ is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another” [rather than a comparison, in the manner of metaphor and simile].


            Here Yip writes as a poet, understanding that to achieve these results to  maximum effect, syntax itself – the grammar of connectives – gets in the way, or gets in the way until Pound and others begin to break it, leading to the relatively open syntax of later American poetry.  Here are some examples cited by Yip:


                        Ezra Pound: lines from various cantos


                        Rain; empty river, a voyage

                        . . . . . . . . . . . .

                        Autumn moon; hills rose above lakes

                        . . . . . . . . . . . .

                        Broad water; geese line out with the autumn.

                                                                        from Canto 49


                        Prayer: hands uplifted

                        Solitude: a person, a Nurse.

                                            from Canto 54


                        William Carlos Williams: “The Locust Tree in Flower”















                        Gertrude Stein (who is also grist for Yip’s mill): Orange


                        Why is a feel / oyster / an egg / stir. / Why is it orange / centre. / A show at

                        tick / and loosen / loosen it / so to speak / sat. / It was an extra leaker / with

                        a sea spoon.                                                                                                        

[Yip’s division into short verse lines to highlight the juxtaposed elements.]


And later, Gary Snyder:


                        First day of the world

                        white rock ridges

                                                               new born

                        Jay chatters            the first time

                        Rolling a smoke by the campfire

                        New!              never before.

                        bitter coffee, cold

                        dawn wind, sun of the cliffs.


The examples multiply as we think about them and the topics raised by Wai-lim Yip really take off from here.  In the process of course Yip himself enters as a poet, to give his writing an authority that can only, from my perspective, ring true from within poetry.  Here, therefore, is an example of Yip, writing in English, as a poet, like many others [Reznikoff, Hollo, Codrescu, Joris, Waldrop, Bukowski], who has himself made the move between languages:




conception –







grip :







immediate mounting











feathers and clouds

a thousand piles

a million piles

break up


distant wars


in brain's lobes

fruits fall








To this I will add, by way of conclusion, a small poem that I wrote ten years ago [now more like twenty] in Taiwan, while attending another seminar on Yip’s work, both scholarly and, as we say, “creative.”   Yip, for his part, prepared and read a long poem to the gathered conferees: a testimony to his art and to a search for meaning that can take us into dangerous areas as well as safe ones, “blinding images” (in his formulation) as well as clear ones.  Sitting in the hall of Fu Jen University I wrote down fragments of what he said and what was said about him, calling it


                        A Poem of Longing (for Wai-lim Yip)  


                        ghosts of the underworld

                        & fishy smells


                        the real world, broken



                        it brings forth doubts

                        & longings


                        after some other world

                        we search for


                        like the eye behind

                        the movie camera, says


                        I want to be in the land of Lu,

                        but I am blocked  by mountains