Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Li Bai and Ezra Pound's "Jewel Stair's Grievance"'

In 1913, Ezra Pound began working on a new series of poems based on Ernest Fenollosa’s unpublished notes on classical Chinese poetry. 1 These poems would become the core of Cathay, published in 1915. A volume of translations of classical Chinese poems by 李白 Li Bai (sometimes romanized in older literature as Li Po, 701 – 762), and others, Cathay represented a watershed moment in English Modernist poetry.Pound’s use of Li Bai’s Japanese sobriquet, “Rihaku,” points to his double alienation from his source materials. 

He could not access the Chinese-language originals, nor could he understand the Japanese source materials that formed the foundation of Ernest Fenollosa’s (1853-1908) manuscripts. Fenollosa’s translations were created, according to Eric Hayot, “with the help of a Professor Mori and a Mr. Ariga.” Steven Yao offers a slightly different account of how Pound became interested in classical Chinese poetry:
As the story goes, shortly after their initial meeting in London during the early autumn of 1913, Pound received from Mary McNeil Fenollosa a set of manuscripts produced by her late husband,
Ernest, who had died suddenly of a heart attack in 1908 after a distinguished, if not entirely unblemished, trans-Pacific career as a philosopher, cultural reformer, and historian and advocate of “Oriental” art in Japan and the United States. These manuscripts, which have come to be referred to collectively as “the Fenollosa notebooks,” record the efforts Ernest Fenollosa made studying various East Asian literary traditions, including both classical Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh drama, with distinguished Japanese scholars during one of his final visits to Japan in 1898 5

Text by Cynthia Houng