by Ezra Pound

Cathay CoverCathay is a collection of old poems––mainly Chinese works from the 8th century––translated by Pound, but it’s a bit more complicated and interesting than that. Pound, who at that time knew little to no Chinese, worked from the notes of the Harvard educated scholar, Ernest Fenollosa, a transcript of which is included in the printing I read. While Pound seemingly maintained a great deal of the spirit of the original poems, changes came due to errors within the notes, from Pound’s misinterpretations, but also purposefully from Pound. This sometimes was as simple as altering the meanings behind specific lines––ramping up the anti-war sentiment in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu,” for for instance––but it often related to a change in structure. While Pound preserved, and prized, the strong, clear descriptions within the works, he largely discarded the somewhat rigid forms and rhyme schemes. (Though, he still experimented with repetition of words and sounds that he adapted to sound more natural when read in English, in “The Beautiful Toilet,” for example.) By focusing on this crisp clarity in his translations without attempting to force the structure, Pound seems to have been instrumental in paving the way for modern poetry.

I will admit that I didn’t love all the poems when I read through. (I will similarly admit that re-reading after traversing Fenollosa’s notes greatly helped both my understanding and enjoyment.) My favourite is probably “Exile’s Letter”––I can’t decide if it’s due to the rich imagery employed throughout or how it so effectively captured a sense of yearning––but I also really liked “Taking Leave of a Friend”––which paints a picture and captures a moment elegantly––and “A Ballad of the Mulberry Road”––which is very simple, but brings a smile to my face whenever I read it. However, “The Seafarer” is a major contrast to the rest of the collection. There’s honestly nothing wrong with the poem, but the sudden change in language and form makes it feel out of place. (And I honestly prefer the clean sparsity of the Chinese poems.)

Even if I wasn’t specifically impressed by each poem individually, however, I can appreciate the importance of Cathay. Without Pound’s innovative translations, the face of literature 20th century would be substantially different.