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                    Zhaoming Qian. East-West Exchange

 Sean Pryor. Poetry, Modernism and an Imperfect World.







Zhaoming Qian. East—West Exchange and Late Modernism: Williams, Moore, Pound. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press: 2017. Pp. xi+187. 

         review by Kent Su - University College London



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In the 1970s, Kenneth Rexroth collaborated with a Chinese professor, Ling Chung 鍾玲, to publish the first English version of the collected poems by one of the greatest female poets in Chinese history, Li Qingzhao李清照 (1084-1155). Rexroth’s poetic sensitivity worked surprisingly well with Ling’s expertise of the Chinese language. Rexroth would adopt the persona of the poetess in the lyrical device of ci , which bears a musical quality and deliberately refrains from telling the readers explicit feelings. Ling would provide suggestions on Rexroth’s choice of poetic diction and imagery that would bear more resemblance to the spirit of Li Qingzhao’s lines. Together, they recaptured the emotional intensity and elliptical character of the original Chinese lines. Since they were the first to translate Li Qingzhao’s works into English, their version represented the authoritative edition for years, until Jiaosheng Wang’s “faithful” translations were published 1989 (Liu 152). Nevertheless, Rexroth and Ling’s collaborative translation is a narrative of poetic partnership that demonstrates the beauty of transpacific dialogue.

Zhaoming Qian, a dominant figure in the field of Modernism and China, documents similar cases of cross-cultural correspondences in his newest contribution, The East - West Exchange and Late Modernism. The book delivers captivating anecdotes of how William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound collaborated with their Chinese friends on their poetic projects. Because none of the three poets ever set foot in China, they depended on secondary sources, such as paintings or translations of texts, to get to know the country’s aesthetic and historical traditions. Initially, they depended heavily on “Western orientalists,” such as James Legge, Arthur Waley, and Laurence Binyon (12). However, all three “in their middle years gradually grew fed up with such sources” (16). In their discontent, they began to highly value personal interaction and collaboration with Chinese intellectuals, who would then directly interpret the language, culture, philosophy or history of their country.

The first two chapters of East - West Exchange and Late Modernism explore the poetic project known as “The Cassia Tree,” developed collaboratively by William Carlos Williams and David Raphael Wang (1931-77) between 1957 and 1961. The results were not published until three years after Williams’ death in 1963. “The Cassia Tree” comprises 39 poems from the Tang dynasty. The “recreations” of these Chinese poems resemble the classical quatrains of “stop-short” lines with regulated metres. Qian notes that their minimal, spatial appearance “contrasted sharply with the triad” – a long line made up of three short units that had been a common poetic technique for Williams since 1948 (24). Williams grew restless with the triad form and was thrilled to know that the engagement with Chinese materials would facilitate a shift in his poetic medium.

Williams and Wang began working on the poetry of Wang Wei (699–759) in 1957. David Wang would chant the poems in Chinese to Williams and explain the lines’ Taoist implications. He would also provide Williams with verbatim translations of the meanings of each character. Qian notes that “[w]hile [Ernest] Fenollosa remained a passive textual source, [David] Wang was an active participant in the re-creation, a primary collaboration” (29). As we know, Pound worked purely from the treasure of notebooks by Fenollosa. He would then produce an edition of Japanese Noh plays with W. B. Yeats, thirteen translated Taoist poems that would become the bulk of Cathay and the extracts for what would become the short 20-page essay, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Conversely, Williams would show Wang his reworking of the Chinese poems, and Wang would take part in the revisions. Qian records one instance in which Wang voiced his disapproval of Williams’ version of the first poem: ‘‘I am afraid that you have changed the meaning too much’’ (30). Williams took Wang’s feedback to heart and discarded the work before the volume went to press.

This collaborative project was ultimately instrumental to Williams’ restoration of minimalism in his poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel (1962). We see examples in such poems as “The Chrysanthemum,’’ ‘‘Short Poem’’ and ‘‘Portrait of a Woman at Her Bath’’ (CP 2, 396, 416, 418). In Pictures from Brueghel, Williams was able to compose short-line quatrains with brevity and understatement, reminiscent of his Imagist practice from the 1910s to the 1930s. “The Cassia Tree” thus paved the way for Williams to revive his avant-garde poetic methods.

The middle two chapters focus on another twentieth-century modernist poet, Marianne Moore, who arguably “acquired a more astute understanding of Chinese aesthetics than Pound and Williams” (58). Qian centres most of the discussion on Moore’s lecture, “Tedium and Integrity in Poetry,” which was delivered in October 1957 in Oakland, California. Of this lecture, only the main body and conclusion originally remained, in manuscript form (this can be found in the appendix to Qian’s publication). However, Qian discovered an audio recording of 2003 at Mills College. This discovery was the key to understanding the materials that inspired this lecture. In its main part, Moore quoted extensively from The Tao of Paintings (1956), which was written by a Chinese painter-writer, Mai-mai Sze (1910-92).

Sze’s book discusses the ineffable quality of Taoist philosophy in Chinese landscape paintings, which themselves underline how the natural world determines its own ebb and flow. When human beings start to appear in these landscape paintings, they are often tiny figures. They are overshadowed by the mountains to which they journey, the lakes on which they fish, and the land which they cross. The painters would relinquish any authorial egotism in favour of depicting the compositional harmony of yin and yang. They would achieve this by using sparse and dense lines, light and thick colours, or concave and convex backgrounds that exuded an aura of exalted mysticism and impersonality (62-4).

Qian observes that the aesthetic and philosophical implications of Sze’s book “appeared akin to [Moore’s] own modernist poetics” (62). In her lecture, Moore continuously emphasised the need to abandon a sense of self in order to enter a realm of Taoist emptiness. After giving the lecture, Moore began to correspond with Sze, calling the Chinese painter a “friend of the dragon-symbol” (75). Their correspondence lasted for twelve years. Qian indicates that Sze had indeed inspired Moore’s composition of her last book of verse, O to Be a Dragon (1959). “The Arctic Ox (or Goat),” “Saint Nicholas,” “Combat Cultural” and “Leonardo da Vinci’s” all reflect the meditative modes evoked by Taoist philosophy. (These poems are discussed more comprehensively in Qian’s earlier work, The Modernist Response to Chinese Art (2003).) Like Williams’ poetry, Moore’s late oeuvre demonstrates a return to minimalistic and lucid designs. The poetry, infused with Chinese philosophical overtones, addresses the harmony between humanity and nature.

Qian’s final two chapters take up some of Pound’s poetry and answer questions that have long troubled scholars about the last fragments of The Cantos. Many have assumed that Joseph Rock’s works were the only sources that introduced Pound to the culture of the Naxi tribes and the tranquil landscape of Lijiang in remote southwest China. In fact, Pound received extensive assistance from a Naxi native, Pao Hsien Fang 方寶賢 (1922-2011), who taught the poet “how to write and pronounce Naxi pictographs” (118). The detailed correspondence between Pound and Fang is also featured in the last chapter of Qian’s Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends (2008). Qian’s diligent archival work is itself an impressive story. Many archivists have confused Pao Hsien Fang with Achilles Fang (1910-95) through a careless conflation of the two writers’ documents and materials, all held at the Beinecke Library (93). Qian painstakingly tracked down Pao Hsien Fang and even conducted personal interviews with him to confirm Fang’s experience of teaching Pound. Qian travelled to Lijiang to trace the footsteps of the Naxi tribes (documented in MIN 1.2 September 2014). Qian’s anthropological fieldwork was worthwhile in proving that Fang was instrumental in enabling Pound to understand the culture of the Naxi tribes.

The result of Fang’s language lessons on Pound became apparent in Drafts and Fragments where Pound reproduced two Naxi Dongba pictographs, the winnowing tray, tray,” and the moon, “moon” (Canto 112/785). The Naxi tribe’s ancient script displays a close connection with various objects in nature. This harmonious beauty is also noted by Carroll Terrell, who is right to suggest that Lijiang is an “archetypical holy city,” a paradisiacal counterpoint to the purgatory of Pisa (117). Qian included Fang’s letters to Pound in which Fang remarked that Lijiang was immortalised in the lyricism of the poet’s last works: “I wish more cantos from you will resurrect 麗江 [Lijiang]” (91). By evoking non-Han cultures, Pound also seemed to be undergoing a profound shift in tone and turn away from Confucianism. The Ancient Chinese philosophy that Pound continuously advocated did not appear anywhere in the final sequence of The Cantos. Pound’s references to the Naxi tribe thus reflects a possibility of paradiso terrestre, located at the far reaches of the world.

China for Williams, Moore and Pound was strictly an intellectual idea. Their interests in Chinese literature and art informed an imaginary they used to mediate their own aesthetic, historical, philosophical and political agendas. Qian’s book helps to correct the assumption that their only understanding of China came from museums and books. Without asserting any sense of Western superiority, these modernist poets maintained intimate personal contacts with Chinese natives who provided the Western poets with crucial knowledge about China.

Despite its contribution to a scholarly understanding of Williams, Moore and Pound’s engagement with Chinese aesthetic and historical traditions, The East - West Exchange and Late Modernism should be read alongside Qian’s previous volumes, Orientalism and Modernism (1995), The Modernist Response to Chinese Art (2003), Ezra Pound and China (2003), Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends (2008) and Modernism and the Orient (2013). Together, they create a fuller picture, one that comprehensively highlights the development of the cross-cultural endeavours between modernist poets and their Chinese companions. Though certain ideas and archival materials from previous research resurface in this new book, it nonetheless makes an indispensable contribution to the literary studies of East/West comparative and transpacific modernism.




Ch’iu-ti Judy Liu. The Complete Ci-Poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation, by Jiaosheng Wang, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 13 (December 1991): 151-154.

Moore, Marianne. New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore. London: Faber and Faber, 2017.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Qian, Zhaoming. Ezra Pound and China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

—. Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

—. Modernism and the Orient. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2013.

—. Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

—. The Modernist Response to Chinese Art: Pound, Moore, Stevens. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2003.

—. “The World of the Na-Khi.” Make It New, 1.2 (September 2014): 33-37. Web.

Terrell, Carroll. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Williams, Carlos William. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962. New York: New Directions, 1991.

Sean Pryor. Poetry, Modernism, and an Imperfect World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.  ISBN 978-1-107-18440-4


review by Barry Ahearn



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Perusers of Make It New, eager for new light on Ezra Pound will be disappointed if they seek it here.  Ezra flits in and out of the narrative, seldom lingering.  Sometimes, though, he stays put long enough to serve as a channel marker or buoy.  Then he proves useful for gauging how five poets (Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, and Joseph Gordon Macleod) do or do not share his political and aesthetic preoccupations. 

Pryor examines representative works the quintet produced between 1914 and 1930.  He is particularly interested in how their poems respond to utopian visions.  He sees them as reacting against a widely held belief that poetry should point to a world of perfection, whether in terms of aesthetics, imagination, or politics.  That last category looms large.  Pryor insists that the creation of important modernist poems “would involve aesthetic work in politics” (6).  Thus there is no tower, whether at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Thoor Ballylee, or elsewhere to which the poet can safely retreat.  They and their poems are caught in the entangling mesh of other people’s needs and concerns.  As a result, their poetry reflects an anxiety about how they and their poems are mired in a flawed, fallen world.  In the course of rejecting the possibility of perfection, Pryor says, the poems reveal conflict on several fronts.  He comments, “the antagonism between individuals and society, between desire and repression, recurs as antagonism between individuals” (46).

As Pryor tells us at the end of his book, “These modernist poems say they had to be no better than they are, in their present.  They take upon themselves the contradictions of complicity and bliss” (197). The first poem under consideration, Ford’s “On Heaven,” demonstrates that “Modernity had fallen from the possibility of an ideal or transcendent heaven, and poetry seemed to have fallen with it” (24).  In the chapter on Ford, and in subsequent chapters, Pryor takes great pains to show how plans for perfection consistently disintegrate when such perfection remains elusive.  As he points out with respect to the title, “On Heaven,”  “the title’s preposition suggests an examination, an account of the need to imagine a heaven, rather that a representation, for which a simple ‘Heaven’ would have sufficed” (42).

The local attention to particular poems and particular lines is often exhilarating.  For example, the close attention to lines from The Waste Land and other Eliot poems are full of original insights.  His account of how conversation and lineation operate in the first half of “A Game of Chess” could not be bettered.  Pryor demonstrates that the way the lines of verse negate each other mirrors the conflict between the man and the woman.  “The drive of these lines depends as much on the fact of the line, a thing determined by external and internal difference, as on the scene to which the lines refer, a scene between a man and a woman.  The lines frequently refer to each other as lines; the verse turns on itself, self-consciously” (66). 

Pryor’s account of Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose contends, “the force of Loy’s phonemic play turns on poetry itself, because the very pleasure proves complicit in the state of things” (93).  He emphasizes how her manipulation of sound, or rather, as he puts it, “relatively senseless sounds” constitutes her “most radical rebellion” (117) against poetic tradition.  When Loy uses rhyme, she does not simply adopt a well-worn technical procedure, but parodies it.  And what sounds like an attempt to create mellifluous sounds is often “witless, earnest in its own isolation, or better, its indifference” (121).  Thus Loy is self-consciously pushing the sonic distinctions of poetry to excess.  Yet it does seem to be the case that Loy makes room in her poems for “real gold.”  The difficulty with this form of gold, however, is that it resides in a crystalline aesthetic sphere that stands apart from “the bliss of the world” (126).  Perfection is possible, but not in the world of everyday activity.

When Pryor turns to Stevens, he questions the proposition held by various other critics that Stevens created poems in which everything is carefully, deliberately, and necessarily intended.  Thus in his poetry we find little or nothing merely contingent, merely accidental. In Harmonium, however, Pryor finds this is not the case. Rather, “his imperatives reject the state of things, but they are also anxious about the possibility of change, and so about an alternative order of happening” (145). Where some critics see Stevens as constructing or at least pointing to an aesthetic realm where perfection may be attained, Pryor insists that the poems of Harmonium indicate in various ways that the poet ends up creating verbal artifacts that partake of the chaotic, lapsed, imperfect world around them.  As he remarks of “Banal Sojourn,” “poetry’s unfolding in time, the happening of the poem itself, participates in this general malady” (147).

In the study’s last chapter, which takes up Joseph Gordon Macleod’s The Ecliptic (1930), Pryor scrutinizes it in terms of “modernist poetry’s relation to the future, and in particular to a reconciled society” (160).  The very title of Macleod’s poem suggests a broad range of interest, since the signs of the zodiac serve as framing devices.  The real scope of the poem, however, is not so much astronomical as temporal. “Reading Macleod’s poetry, we need to consider its relation to the recent past, including the poetics of high modernism, in order to understand its relation to the future, especially a revolution or utopia to come” (165).  But, according to Pryor, Macleod is not satisfied to deal with just space and time, but extends his investigation to language itself.  And herein lies the most radical of Macleod’s propositions.  Since language is no one’s personal possession, but is a generally shared instrument, “No single sign, least of all the first-person singular pronoun, is adequate to be owned by a particular individual” (172).  As a consequence, “language forms our divided selves and divides us from others” (176).

Pryor acknowledges that other notable modernists do not seem troubled about imperfection to the same degree.  He advises that his thesis need not apply to “contemporary poems by Lawrence or Williams, Sitwell or Pound. . .” (197).  We are left to our own surmising about how Gertrude Stein, H. D., and Robert Frost would fit into the picture, since they are not mentioned.  Well then, how much importance should we attach to Pryor’s investigation?  He adds in his conclusion that his account of the poems he discusses does not amount to “a criterion for judging modernist poems anew” (197). If so, what profit to the reader?  Pryor winds up by claiming that the conflicted poems produced by Ford, Eliot, Loy, Stevens, and Macleod represent “one of modernism’s most significant aesthetic and political moves” (197).  One wonders how a narrow archipelago of artistic production, populated by so few poems, becomes “most significant.”  I use the word ‘narrow’ advisedly, since in Ford’s case the focus is on one poem (“On Heaven”).  With Eliot we are confined mostly to The Waste Land.  Pryor limits his analysis of Loy to her Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose. When he turns to Macleod, his early long poem, The Ecliptic is the proving ground.  So far as Stevens is concerned, we have more to consider, but the poems examined are from his first collection, Harmonium

Pryor’s contention that these poets were preoccupied with the question of perfection bears examination. He cites A. R. Orage, Max Eastman, Harold Monro, and James Oppenheim as editors whose magazines proclaimed that poets could in some way serve the cultural, social and political revolution that would perfect human institutions. One wonders, however, if Ford, Eliot, et al, paid much attention to these editors. Pryor seems to think his poets did not.  “The little magazines matter because they represent common preoccupations, not because they were decisive influences on or sympathetic forums for these poets” (15).  The little magazines, in short, reflected ideas that were in the air at the time, and it was these ideas to which the poets responded.   It would have been interesting had Pryor examined magazines with a mass circulation, which would have been arguably more representative of the times.  At any rate, Pryor argues that the poets he has selected were unanimously doubtful that perfection was just around the corner. Or at least that is the case with respect to the poems under examination.  One wonders, however, if rebutting pipe dreams about perfection was the primary concern in these poems.  Is it truly the case that Ford’s “On Heaven” “represents a crisis for modern poetry” (51)?  Or does Ford’s demonstration that heaven remains forever beyond our grasp simply place him in a long and extensive poetic tradition?  The belief that we live in an fallen world in which words are irredeemably compromised was not limited to the years between 1914 and 1930.  When Pryor claims that his is a “formalist argument about poems negating themselves” (17), has he neglected to mention earlier poetry of which the same might be said?  One might, for example, point to certain poems by Emily Dickinson whose form subverts their ostensible claims.  Or should we add “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to the list, since its rapt absorption in the perfect world of the urn (or, as William Empson once dubbed it, a “pot”) culminates in a bald platitude?  George Herbert seems to fit the bill, if, as Stanley Fish contended in Self-Consuming Artifacts, “the peculiar force of a Herbert poem . . . depends on our awareness that the terms in which we are being encouraged to formulate a concept are inadequate to it.” 

Perhaps it is inevitably the nature of some arguments on an elaborate scale that the excellent critic will advance along a line of specific exegeses whose sum will be far more enlightening than the thesis they are meant to support.  We do not read works such as The Pound Era in order to master the overall argument.  Whatever the merits of Pryor’s thesis about perfection and imperfection, his analyses of particular lines, passages and poems show him to be as perceptive a reader of poetry as anyone writing today.