Eastern Influence

In his new book, English's Kern shows how Chinese inspired poets from Ezra Pound to Gary Snyder

By Michael Seele
Chronicle Editor

Ezra Pound led a movement that brought an appreciation for Chinese language and culture into the realm of English poetry, but which also infused the myths and stereotypes that had governed Western thinking about China for centuries.

Pound has the highest profile among the school of poets that picked Chinese out of what linguists considered a scrap heap of languages and used it as a model for English poetry, according to Assoc. Prof. Robert Kern (English), author of the new book, Orientalism, Modernism and the American Poem . But the verse they wrote reflected their Western stereotypes more than the themes and images found in actual Chinese poetry.

Kern's book traces the development of this school within the context of the development of linguistics. Despite their shortcomings, he said, these poets made valuable contributions to their craft and modern poets continue to show their influence, albeit with greater sensitivity to Chinese culture.

Assoc. Prof. Robert Kern (English)-"Their assumptions were that they were coming up with accurate translations of Chinese texts, but they ended up as interpretations." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

The roots of the movement can be found in Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the "language of nature," a belief that nature had its own intrinsic language and that objects in nature said something, Kern added.

While visiting Japan, one of Emerson's disciples, Ernest Fenollosa, became engrossed in Japanese and Chinese culture, and applied Emerson's ideas to the written Chinese language. He believed that by "looking at Chinese characters you could see things themselves," Kern said, and realized there was a poetic potential for English.

Fenollosa, however, was paddling against the current of 19th century linguists' conventional wisdom. They held the recently discovered language of Sanskrit up as the greatest language in human history. Chinese, Kern said, "wasn't even on their list of viable languages." Linguists disparaged it as a barbaric, developmentally stunted language.

After Fenollosa's death, his wife began looking for someone to continue his work and sent one of his essays to Ezra Pound. "Pound read the essay and it struck lightening in him," Kern said. "Orientalism became a major, lifelong interest to him."

Pound began translating Chinese poetry, "one of the first credible translators of Chinese poetry ever," Kern added, and in the process began a movement.

Chinese poetry is made up almost exclusively of imagery, Kern said, an element Pound began to incorporate in his own work. He began to eliminate rhetoric common in English poetry, Kern said, and presented images directly, the way he saw them in Chinese poetry. Though Chinese has conventions to help the reader make the transition between images, Kern said, Pound did not use them, bringing his Western perspective instead.

Many of Pound's contemporaries soon followed his lead. They produced poetry that was more Western and more imaginative. Several learned Chinese, or worked with others who knew the language, as they produced poetry that evoked what they thought were Chinese themes. Some of these Western views were drawn from portrayals they had seen on the porcelain dinner plates called china.

"They imposed English thinking on Chinese texts," Kern said. "It amounted to a kind of cultural imperialism." Some went so far as to label their work literal translations of Chinese poetry.

"Their assumptions were that they were coming up with accurate translations of Chinese texts, but they ended up as interpretations," Kern said. "You could do anything you wanted. Who would know?"

Over the ensuing decades, these Modernist-Orientalist poets became increasingly enlightened, Kern said, and the movement is still alive today, with the American poet Gary Snyder being its most prominent member. Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, these poets have seen China more realistically and have incorporated themes commonly found in authentic Chinese poetry, such as departure, loss, separation and loneliness.

"I think what Western writers are unaware of are the special meanings these themes have for Chinese culture," Kern said. "Slowly, they have come to realize them."

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