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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.