Article Index





The only exception is the only collective weakness of the volume visible from any position I am able to adopt. It is not specific to this collection, but I cannot not notice it. Like many other works which address Imagism after 1951, this one includes many references to influences “Eastern” or “Oriental” or “Asian” or “Japanese,” scare quotes around those last two because in this context they are as much reifications as the others. The appeals to authority in this case are not conscious. No authority is named or known as their source. But as in dozens of previous works which address Imagism or Pound or both, they reproduce erroneous orthodoxy and badly misread, or fail to read at all, Pound himself.

     One way to frame the point is strictly in quantitative terms. “Asian poetics” is listed as an index sub-entry under both “Imagism(e)” and “Pound,” thirteen pages for the former, five for the latter. But what Asia, and what poetics? Ernest Fenollosa is mentioned on one page, Cathay on two. Kishbaugh has read closely enough to know that two of Pound’s poems in Des Imagistes are reworkings of poems Herbert Giles translated in the History of Chinese Literature, and in his analysis of the arrangement of poems in the anthology, Kishbaugh notes Allen Upward’s “Scented Leaves from a Chinese Jar,” which Pound included in it. In another essay may be found passing but apparently confident reference to “the Chinese Taoist philosopher, So-Shu” (55), without note that “So-shu” is a presence in Canto 2 (6, 9) or that “So-shu” is a confused Japanese reading of a probably-Chinese name which in Chinese would be unrecognizable as “So-shu,” like a reference to Helmut Kohl as “former-Chancellor Cabbage-head” except that in the absence of the Chinese characters it is less fathomable even than that. So-shu in Canto 2 is obscure enough to have set off an acrimonious spat among Pound scholars which between Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies and Paideuma lasted twenty-eight years and never was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.4 Beyond this, the only references to China or anything Chinese are in Stoneback’s “Afterword” in reference to Stoneback actually having lived in China. Nowhere in the book is mentioned “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”

     Pound’s attempts to publish “CWC” were a comedy of errors which spanned nearly five years,5 but the manuscript was in his hands by midsummer 1914. By January 1915 he had written that it was “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.” By 20 February, nearly two years after Kenner has Pound quitting Imagism and nine months after “The Vorticist Manifesto,” Pound calls upon “CWC” in a feisty defense of Imagism in which he writes that what “we” have been doing is “s[eeking] the force of Chinese ideographs without knowing it” (italics Pound’s), and “English, being the … least inflected of the European languages, is precisely the one … best suited to render the force and concision of the uninflected Chinese” (“Imagisme and England” 185). If anything Pound wrote after this date may be called “Imagist,” “CWC” is a part of the equation.

     As for Japan—and one may turn to Japan so quickly because nothing else Asian is mentioned save a passing reference to Tagore singing—the source of the “Asian poetics” becomes clear. Six of the thirteen essays call attention to an influence on Imagism from “haiku,” a seventh, quoting Pound, from “hokku.” The latter term, the one Pound used, for the record, if we are to assume any real Japanese tradition or even any real Japan, is the correct one, although with few exceptions hokku was not considered a poem on its own until the nineteenth century. Before that by definition it was a complex part of something larger. Three of the contributors quote the Metro poem in full, a fourth half of it, each noting its relation to haiku. That’s it for Japan but for an accidental reference to Noh, by McDuffie calling attention to something else, in a quote from Pound.

     The final count in my quantitative analysis, then, is lopsided: haiku / hokku = 21; direct suggestions of Eastern, Asian, or Oriental influence on Imagism without specific reference to haiku = 14; anything Chinese other than Stoneback having lived there = 4 (3 descriptive in Kishbaugh + “So-Shu” = no relation to poetics); anything Japanese other than haiku / hokku = Noh = 1; Fenollosa = 1; anything else remotely related to Asia = 1 (Tagore singing).

     This is not as it should be. “Haiku” is a term not commonly used in Japanese until it became something allegedly central to Japanese tradition, which was written about a lot in English and then became something written about a lot in Japanese. Whatever is meant by “haiku” in English, if it has anything to do with Japanese tradition, is roughly the equivalent in Japanese of a couplet ripped out of context from an Elizabethan sonnet. Or a limerick in Chinese. Metrical verse as understood in English is not representable in Japanese or Chinese. The languages do not work that way. Some English speakers have little trouble understanding this, but the coordinate point of a poetics moving in the opposite direction, something not representable in English, seems to cause confusion. Kakekotoba, for example, the “pivot word” as Donald Keene translated it, a central feature of classical Japanese verse, including hokku, is not representable in English. The homophonic word-play possible in Japanese upon which it depends is not possible in English. The best try I know was by Keene himself struggling to represent it by “crude example” in Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (4-5). If you look there you might see what I mean. Pound was aware of this sort of thing. He called it logopoeia. It “does not translate” (‘How to Read’ 26).

      The reasons that an iamb, a central feature of verse in the English tradition, is not representable in Japanese, and that kakekotoba, a central feature of verse in the Japanese tradition, is not representable in English, differ somewhat, although both have to do with the fact that languages do not, in Pound’s terms, melopoeaically or logopoeiacally overlap. Pound understood this early on, but his terms for describing it did not emerge until after his work with Fenollosa’s manuscripts. Metrical verse as understood in English is impossible in Japanese or Chinese, because of, in Pound’s terms, melopoeaic differences in languages. Japanese and Chinese have no stress accent. An English metrical foot is impossible except in some clumsy way which in an attempt to represent it would invoke confusion or laughter or both, like Keene’s explanation of kakekotoba. Kakekotoba is impossible in English because of logopoeiac differences. Japanese has hundreds of homophones for every two in English, and this opens the way to play upon them which only vaguely can be imagined in English.

      Plays on tone patterns in Chinese or the kakekotoba of Japanese are what Pound calls, in regard to logopoeia, “poetry that is akin to nothing but language which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modifications of ideas and characters” (Instigations 234), an “ironical play” which “holds the aesthetic content which is peculiarly the domain of verbal manifestation” (“How to Read” 26). No better definition in English yet. Japanese and English do not dance in the same way. The play of the intelligence among words is not a difference of degree but of kind. The genomes of the languages are not coordinate. A tenuous grasp of hokku in translation helped Pound arrive at the Metro poem, no denying that, but it was nothing close to the most important of Pound’s debts to Japanese tradition, in the Imagist period or any other. “Haiku” in English, unless part of something larger, a series, say, as in Muldoon, for example, making something dance in the ways that English can dance, ordinarily is a signifier which functions to make the writing of small poems easy for someone who knows what a concrete noun is and has a passing grasp of the relational field of the colon or dash.

     A further point is that the dance and music of traditional Japanese and Chinese verse are allusive in a way which is practically irreproducible in English. The best modern scholarly translations sometimes try to handle it with explanatory footnotes, but they fail and know it and admit it. A simple way to put the point is that much of the most delightful play in Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, for example, and a haibun, for the record, simply is not recognizable without identifying first its joyous dancing and singing along with Saigyō, who died 454 years before Bashō was born. Collapsing this richness into “haiku” in English, seventeen easy phanopoeiaic syllables in a homophone-poor language, is a shame. It is also something for which Pound is not responsible. It is something which has been done and continues to be done by others, many of them invoking Pound’s name.

     We all know the primary-source origin of this lop-sidedness as well as we know the Metro poem without having someone quote it again. Pound used the word “hokku” exactly eight times in anything he ever wrote which has seen print, including the whole of the periodical publications and all the volumes of letters. Four of these references, the famous ones, are in the same essay, “Vorticism,” of September 1914. The first three span nine sentences on one page and the fourth is in a footnote about Noh. The essay was reprinted in Gaudier-Brzeska in 1916 and again in later collected editions but those four references and four later and lesser-known uses of the word, each in passing and not in reference to his own poetics,6 are the beginning and end of Pound’s “hokku.” Never once did he write the word “haiku.” And after “Vorticism” he did not use the collocation “super-position” again, while I’m at it, nor, to try at least to wound a couple of related sacred cows, does anything in Japanese verse tradition have anything whatever to do with Aristotle’s peripeteia, any more than the ideogram of “Chinese Written Character” “inheres in Aristotle on metaphor” (Kenner, Poetry 62-63, 76).

     At around the time Pound wrote the word “hokku” four times in one essay he was at work on Fenollosa’s Noh manuscripts. The first of these published was “Nishikigi” four months before “Vorticism,” May 1914—“the most beautiful verse ever produced by an American” Kenneth Rexroth called it years later in a letter to James Laughlin (87)—then “The Classical Drama of Japan,” October 1914, then “The Classical Stage of Japan,” May 1915, then emended and together with plays from other periodical publications and additional material these came together as “Noh” or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, dated 1916 but printed in January 1917. It ends with twelve pages of musical notation, in introduction to which Pound correctly “doubts” that “Noh music can be rendered intelligibly by our notation” system (257). For those keeping count that’s four references in one essay of September 1914 and four fleeting reference elsewhere for “hokku” and just under three years and a book of 268 pages for Noh, followed by dozens of further references in critical articles and letters and explicit allusions woven through The Cantos, principal threads of the mythos of the fabric at Pisa, in Drafts and Fragments, and elsewhere. The years of the early Noh work coincide with the four Imagist anthologies and the birth of The Cantos. During those years Pound also wrote some Noh of his own and helped Yeats out of a rut he had been in about verse drama.

      Kenner wrote in The Poetry of Ezra Pound: “The Pisan Cantos are full of hokku” (63). It was the first time that more than passing note had been made of Pound’s “hokku.”7 Kenner mentions Noh in one passage there, in passing (222-23). In the “Introduction” to Pound’s Translations two years later, he found “traces of Yeats” in Pound’s Noh but otherwise had a “sense” that Pound had a “sense” that the Noh plays were “thin” and “exotic” (13-14). Fascinating deflection in the etymological field of that last adjective. No way to divagate to Aristotle. And in any case Pound already had set his sense of the Noh “form of perception” specifically against Aristotelian categories (“Affirmations VI” 19). In six hundred pages of The Pound Era Kenner gave one-and-a-half to the Metro poem and its derivation from hokku (184-85) and nine in passing short shrift to Noh. He did not have the slightest idea what Noh was, but this did not stop him finding that it was hardly worth notice.

     People who write about Pound have been chasing after hokku ever since, morphed into “haiku” somewhere along the way. They keep discovering it in the Metro poem, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and not reading Pound on what he gained from Japan and China. The repeated discovery of haiku has spiraled through to supersets of people who write about Imagism in general, or John Gould Fletcher, for example. Some Japanese scholars who write in English have made it a centerpiece of their career, bolstering the whole wrong thing with the authenticity of a Japanese voice. A slim line of counter-intelligence began in an essay by Myles Slatin in 1963 and in English has been carried forward and expanded by people reading Pound, Ronald Bush (Genesis 102-11; “‘Rhythm’”), James Longenbach (197-250), Wendy Flory (193-98), Akiko Miyake, Peter Stoicheff (96-122), Peter Nicholls, Akitoshi Nagahata, and most recently by young scholars such as Andrew Houwen, RékaMihálka, and Diego Pellecchia. But in the meantime, on the main thoroughfare, haiku, the real red herring of the story, keeps being discovered anew, a critical commonplace if ever one existed, ad nauseam, proof by repeated assertion, as it has been now for sixty-three years.

      To turn to Pound himself instead of what other people keep writing about what other people have written about him, if we look in a direction not already pointed at or to by Kenner six decades ago a number of texts present themselves. To choose among them those representing one line of textualised thought, not random because it is suggested by the subject of this book and is turned to directly by three of its contributors, what about a relation of Imagism and The Cantos? Pound himself never wrote exactly about that, using “image” and “Canto” or “Cantos” in the same sentence or paragraph or essay, but he did three times, no more and no less in anything which has seen print, directly link his concept of the image with the possibility of a long poem.8 Each is concurrent with the earliest unmistakable references in Pound’s letters to work having begun on The Cantos. Unless something new is discovered these are the only three things we have by Pound himself on the subject:

     1) September 1914: “I am often asked whether there can be a long imagiste or vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved also the Noh plays. In the best ‘Noh’ the whole play may consist of one image. I mean it is gathered about one image. Its unity consists in one image, enforced by movement and music. I see nothing against a long vorticist poem” (“Vorticism” 471).

      2) before February 1915: “I have been challenged as to whether ‘imagisme’ was ‘any good for anything save very short poems.’ Obviously the dogma that poetry should be as well written as prose applies to all poems regardless of length. Questioned as to ‘the image itself,’ I have been able to reply that the Japanese ‘Noh’ plays seem to me in many cases to be built ‘out of the image.’ That is to say their structure in many cases seems to me to be built from a single image, or from two or three images in dramatic relation. And the image, or the succession of images in relation, is in each case reinforced by the metric of the Noh speech, by the line of the movements and of the dancing” (“Affirmations VI” 17).

     3) May 1915, on “Unity of Image” in Suma Genji: “This intensification of the Image, the manner of construction, is very interesting to me personally, as an Imagiste, for we Imagistes knew nothing of these plays when we set out in our own manner. These plays are … an answer to a question that has several times been put to me: ‘Could one do a long Imagiste poem, or even a long poem in vers libre?’” (“Classical Stage” 224; “Noh” 45).

      Numerous other primary texts could be rolled out here to bolster the point but I’ll let those stand. If anyone finds another substantive word Pound wrote on hokku let me know and I’ll issue a public apology, but until that happens I would like to call a moratorium on haiku-chasing, and for goodness’s sake enough about haiku and the Metro poem. Everybody knows that already. A dim undergraduate who could not distinguish another two lines of modern verse from an avocado knows it.