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  Summer 2012
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The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry

Jeffery Beam

  The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition.
Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound.
Haun Saussy & Jonathan Stalling & Lucas Klein, editor.
Fordham University Press, 2008.
256 pages, $25 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0872860140

What American poet has not read Ezra Pound's edited version of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry as critical to understanding contemporary American poetry now as it was soon after Pound published it in 1919? This new scholarly edition allows for comparison of Ernest Fenollosa's original essay with Pound's heavily edited and singularly focused one. Pound's version argued the primary imagistic language of poetry as reflected in Chinese poetry minimizing Fenollosa's more expansive understanding of the poetry's complete aesthetics. As a result it not only influenced the way we have since read Chinese poetry, but also, from the Imagists on, influenced the development of American poetries. Most important was Pound's excision of Fenollosa's equal engagement with sound, and the metaphysical foundation of the Asian mind.

Beautifully produced, the book includes Fenollosa's complete essay and Pound's edited version (complete with Fenollosa and Pound's notes, excisions, and plates), Earlier drafts and related lectures trace the development of Fenollosa's ideas about culture, poetry, and translation. In them Fenollosa discusses Chinese and Japanese culture in relation to poetry and metaphysics, as well as western views of the East, and critical views of Asian and North American societies and their ability to take and learn from each other in the social and political arenas. In retrospect one can see that Fenollosa's polemic formed in part by his understanding of Asian poetics, but also from a sincere interest in Tendai Buddhism and Buddhist ontology.

Fenollosa's critical assessment of what could evolve from a blending of the East and West is perhaps more relevant today than when it was written. [Tendai Buddhism grew from a reconciliation of Japanese Buddhism and culture with its Chinese roots. In Tendai the phenomenal world IS Buddha nature, and the seeker's goal is to recognize it—to live it in the world. As a result the world is not to be abandoned, allowing for an art and aesthetics in which things are seen as they are, but also that "is-ness" reflecting Buddha-nature. The poetic image, the ideogram, describes not only material reality, but Buddhist realization and enlightenment.] Fenollosa's writings attempt to demonstrate this truth:

A million things are going on together, and to get at the truth we must do as much as we can to think them together. This is what poetry tries to do . . . This is the oriental way of thinking, to think full—not to think empty . . . Now this is just exactly what the comprehensiveness of the Chinese character does. It thinks full . . . Not only does it suggest to the Chinese mind all the individual specimens, or units, that contain the expressed quality [here he's describing the pictorial "dictionary" that Chinese ideograms relay] . . . but that the sum of all these actions by which a thing manifests itself are together and interrelated, and so thing, quality, and act become one rich indistinguishable substance.

But for Fenollosa, it wasn't just the ability of the ideogram to capture the world and all of its associations; sound, too, was important although excised in Pound's version:

All arts follow the same law; refined harmony lies in the delicate balance of the overtones . . . One false radiation, one suspicion of conflict between any two of these overtones, breaks up the magic impression, and deadens art to the commonplace. In this sense Poetry seems a more difficult art than Painting or music, because the overtones of its words, the halos of secondary meanings which cling to them, are struck among the infinite terms of things, vibrating with physical life and the warm wealth of human feeling.

Editor Haun Saussy's introductory essay, "Fenollosa Compounded," articulates this unrevealed fulsomeness in Fenollosa's work, as well as critically providing details and comparisons of Pound's "conversation" through editing with it. Saussy and the other editors Jonathan Stalling and Lucan Klein's work is an essential expansion and supplement to our understanding and appreciation of this influential and pivotal work for American poetry. But it also has given us a thorough understanding of Fenollosa the scholar, without distracting or diminishing the importance of Pound's interaction with the work.

. . .