Wes Iwasaki

Classical Chinese Poetics in the Work of Ezra Pound and Gary Snyder

Published in: 15. The Heart of Things

Western poets have found inspiration in the writings of antiquity for centuries, although until recently this tradition was primarily limited to works from various Western civilizations. Beginning in the early 20th century, a significant role in expanding Western literature’s world-view was played by Ezra Pound (1885-1972), through his interpretations of ancient Chinese poetry (especially from the T’ang period, with its rich cultural legacy). Although Chinese verse had been translated into English before by specialists in Oriental culture, the poems were for the first time in the hands of a master poet of the Modern period.

The concept of the Chinese ideograph and its use in classic examples of Chinese poetry particularly captured Pound’s imagination, and following intense study of the subject, he began to incorporate elements of this tradition into his own work. The contemporary poet Gary Snyder (born 1930), influenced by Pound’s explorations, has also made Oriental literature tradition an essential part of his poetic style. Having lived for many years in Japan, he, unlike Pound, has had much personal contact with Asian culture. Although Pound and Snyder share many aesthetic aims regarding the use of Chinese elements in their own poetry, Snyder ultimately finds a more natural place for this than does Pound.

Both poets entered the world of Chinese poetics with the help of existing translations. Pound had earlier become acquainted with translations from the Chinese by H.A. Giles. Then, in 1913, he was given access to several volumes of manuscripts containing notes on Chinese poetry made by the Oriental scholar Ernest Fenollosa in Japan. The notebooks included characters, literal translations and explications for numerous ancient Chinese poems. Guided by Fenollosa’s observations, Pound made his own translations on their basis, leading to the appearance of a collection of poems titled “Cathay”. Scholars of Chinese have repeatedly criticized Pound for gross errors in translation, and yet no previously existing translations have managed to establish themselves so firmly on their own merits as pure poetry.

Gary Snyder represents the subsequent generation of poets who initially contacted the world of Chinese poetry foremost through Pound’s translations. The same qualities in traditional Chinese poetry that had inspired Pound in turn caused Snyder to feel a similar desire to immerse himself in studying the language, preparing himself to attempt his own translations, which would transcend the literal sense of the ideographs to convey the poetic content in English.

The unique ideographic nature of Chinese script awakened Pound’s imagination and led him to begin investigating Chinese literature and poetry. A Chinese ideograph, unlike an English word, represents a monosyllabic word or concept, expressed not on a phonetic basis, but pictorially. Drawing on Fenollosa’s theory, Pound felt (as many before and after him) that such signs can trigger far more visceral feelings and associations than any single English word. As an example, the ideogram “an”, meaning roughly “peace” or “contentment”, combines in one image (安) a stylized depiction of a woman and the symbol of a roof. This sign, then, presents a concrete metaphor — woman under a roof — for the abstract concept of “peace” or “contentment”. It should be noted that only a small part of Chinese characters can serve as such a neat textbook example of the ideographic system. The structure of most characters utilizes a system joining elements based on sound and approximate meaning. In such characters, the joining of elements doesn’t create any logical metaphor for the represented object or idea. Still, the associative pictorial concept operates to some degree in all Chinese characters.

Chinese poetry draws much of its richness from the depth of meaning which these individual ideographs can carry. A classical Chinese poem usually has five or seven hieroglyphs per line, with each line creating a self-contained thought or image. This highly compact form eliminates most grammatical connecting words (and, but, like, as) which the English language typically uses to clarify the relationship between thoughts and images. Two lines by the well-known T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-954) poet Li Po, whose works formed the greater part of the material for Pound’s translations, offer a good illustration of this characteristic:
梨 花 白 雪 香
柳 色 黄 金 嫩
Pear blossom(s) white snow fragrant
willow twig(s) yellow gold tender

The lack of punctuation and conjunctions creates intentional ambiguities. Are the pear blossoms on the snow? What does “tender” relate to? The willow twigs?

To see what influence Pound’s and Snyder’s translations from Chinese may have had on each poet’s original work, I propose to compare two examples of poetic translations done by each of them in the early stages of their creative development.

A poem from Ezra Pound’s collection “Cathay” (1915):

The Beautiful Toilet

Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she put forth a slender hand;

And she was a courtesan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.

by Mei Sheng B.C. 140

Next, a poem from Gary Snyder. This is part of his collection “Cold Mountain Poems”, 1956), which includes twenty-three translations done by the poet during his study of Oriental languages at Berkeley in preparation for going to Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain.
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Both of the cited poems demonstrate certain traits of Chinese poetry’s assimilation by Pound and Snyder. As Pound commented after releasing “Cathay”, “…Chinese poetry has certain qualities of vivid presentation; and …certain Chinese poets have been content to set forth their matter without moralizing and without comment…” 1

These traits support principles Pound had advocated in the context of the Imagist movement. We can see them reflected in the poem presented above. Each of lines 1-5 presents a vivid, freestanding image without making explicit its relations to the other lines, to their content. We are required, as in viewing a series of paintings, to discover the emotions contained in these images. The focus here gradually narrows: from the river banks to the close garden, to the mistress within the garden, to her face and, finally, her slender hand. Although the poem asks us to look for a connection between the external landscape and the “internal landscape” of the mistress, the overall tone of despair becomes apparent only in the last four lines. Should we pity, or despise, this woman for having been a courtesan marrying a “sot”? Her situation evokes despair without the taint of judgment. Such detached observation, removing the poet’s “ego” from the poem, reflects a Taoist aesthetic that is present as an influence in Snyder’s and (occasionally) Pound’s work.

Snyder’s poem given here also offers a series of images without interpretive comment. The reader himself must deduce a connecting relationship between the “Cold Mountain trail,” the “long gorge”, the “wide creek,” the slippery moss and so on. In the natural word, all these images simply ARE. From a human perspective, however, we can interpret them in a certain allegorical sense, as obstacles to a journey. The last two lines help to elucidate this view: The obstacles represent the “world’s ties.” The poet has successfully crossed them, and now he entices us to follow.
Some time after making the translations of “Cathay”, Pound began incorporating actual Chinese ideographs into his “Cantos”. Although he himself believed in the archetypal impact of his method, the presence of ideograms in his poetry tends to have the opposite effect. Without extensive knowledge of Chinese, the reader couldn’t possibly grasp the richness of associations in the hieroglyphic symbols, comprehensible only to an expert. An uninitiated reader would face a great struggle to understand the conceptual depth of even one ideogram, let alone its place in Pound’s montage of multicultural and personal references.

Snyder, who in his poem “Axe Handles” credits Pound with being one of those “axes” who shaped his “handle”, obviously made a conscious decision to reject the direct use of Chinese ideograms in his own poetry. His understanding of the nuances of the Chinese language certainly could have allowed him to use them freely, if he chose. Nonetheless, while he strives in his poetry to reveal the Orient’s cultural wealth, Snyder manages to avoid subjecting readers to elitist, unapproachable methods.

As an alternative, he has developed other viable techniques of capturing some of the flavor of ideographic symbols without actually using them in his poetry. In the collection “Regarding Wave”, for example, in part of the poems Snyder abbreviates the -ed endings of words to -t or -d. Thus in “All over the Dry Grasses”, he writes:

once deer kisst, grazed, prancd,
all over

By shearing away inessential vowels, Snyder creates verbs which strike the eye as more rugged, energetic and efficient than their conventional counterparts. These roughened spellings are used to convey an “archaic” quality appropriate to the timeless character of the actions Snyder describes here. Like the Chinese hieroglyphs that have undergone almost no changes over more than two thousand years, Snyder’s original technique works to evoke a sense of connection with the past — of the same language still being used to record basic, unchanging human concerns and interests.
In another series of poems, “Target Practice” (also from “Regarding Wave”), the author places a figure () at the top of each page and between certain stanzas. The symbol clearly evokes a primitive-looking human form, which serves as a strong visual thread tying the poems together. It also creates a sense of the poet’s physical presence as he wanders through the poems’ landscapes. The image of a solitary wanderer far away from home recurs frequently in the Chinese literary tradition, which Snyder’s work follows in this respect.

As yet another alternative to using hieroglyphic characters, Snyder often makes use of the visual layout of the lines on the page. This is illustrated well by the first stanza of “FOR WILL PETERSEN THE TIME WE CLIMBED MT. HIEI CROSS-COUNTRY IN THE SNOW” (from Regarding Wave):

No trail
can’t be followed:
wild boar tracks slash
sidehill through bamboo
Where are we the hill
Goes up.

The poem’s right-hand outline, with the layering of “bamboo”, “thicket”, and “hill”, visually captures the rugged quality of the natural terrain where the action occurs. Although such staggering can’t in itself be considered a sign of Chinese influence, the layout does help compensate for the non-ideographic, letter-based nature of the English word. In one traditional Chinese form, a poem may appear on a painting, representing a compositional element in a visual work corresponding to its mood. Snyder’s technique of arranging lines creates a subtle visual etude from word-shapes.

There are significant distinctions in the specific ways that Ezra Pound and Gary Snyder interact with Chinese poetic forms in their original work. In my view, Snyder achieves great success in this than Pound for several reasons. Pound was acquainted with the Chinese language language solely through books and made his translations on this basis, while Snyder devoted himself to practice, immersing himself in the life of a typical Chinese wandering hermit-poet. His spiritual connections with the mountains of the American Pacific Northwest as well as of Japan helped him to recapture the feeling of ancient Chinese poets (whom he saw as the original and “archetypal Beat wanderers”2) Snyder’s diverse personal experiences — whether in the East or in the West — seem equally natural in a poetic framework that stays true to the Chinese aesthetic. His images speak to universal emotions, even when Chinese proper names crop up in his poems. In Pound, however, read knowledge becomes a substitute for real experience. He thus seems to deemphasize the intuitive emotional connections so crucial to the essence of traditional Chinese poetry.


1 Wai-lim Yip, Ezra Pound’s Cathay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 34.
2 Lee Bartlett, “Gary Snyder’s Han-shan,” Sagetrieb (2 Spring 1983) 107.


Bartlett, Lee “Gary Snyder ‘s Han-shan” Sagetrieb 2 Spring 1983. 105-110.
Denny, Rauel “The Portable Pagoda: Asia and America in the Work of Gary Snyder” Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities Ed. Guy Amirthanayagam. London: Macmillan, 1982. 115-136.
Kenner, Hugh The Pound Era Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
McLean, Wm. Scott, ed. The Real Work: Gary Snyder, Interviews and Talks 1964-1979 New York: New Directions Books, 1980.
McLeod, Dan “The Chinese Hermit in the American Wilderness” Tamkang Review 14 Autumn-Summer 1983-84. 165-71.
Nolde, John J. Blossoms from the East: The China Cantos of Ezra Pound Orono, Maine: University of Maine, 1983.
Parkinson, Thomas “The Poetry of Gary Snyder” Sagetrieb 3 Spring 1984. 49-61.
Pound Ezra The Cantos of Ezra Pound New York: New Directions Books, 1972.
Pound, Ezra The Translations of Ezra Pound New York: New Directions Books, 1953.
Shu, Yunzhong “Gary Snyder and Taoism” Tamkang Review 17 Spring 1987. 245-261.
Snyder, Gary Regarding Wave New York: New Directions Books, 1969.
Snyder, Gary Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1969.
Yip, Wai-lim Ezra Pound’s Cathay Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

All contents © Apraksin Blues./Все содержания © Апраксин Блюз.

Speak Your Mind