Ezra Pound – Towards the Ideogramic Method

Imagism, Vorticism and Cathay

Ezra Pound Cathay coverEzra Pound’s Ideogramic Method, as formulated in Guide to Kulchur and in practice in The Cantos, arose out of a continuous evolution of the Luminous Detail principles he set down in 1911, in conjunction with the principles of Imagism and their expansion into Vorticism. It is the fusing and interplay of these elements in his poetry that became the system of thought through which the guiding principles of The Cantos were developed. The name itself and an acceleration in its formulation is instigated by Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Method for Poetry”, which Pound received in 1915, by which time all the separate elements of the Ideogramic Method were already present in his work.

Here I’ll attempt to chronicle Pound’s continual evolving theories of poetry during the years 1911 to 1915 and will support these theories by finding evidence of his ideas in action in his poetry of these years. Special attention will be given to Cathay, as it seems that Pound’s interest in China, its thought, history and language, as well as its poetry, becomes central to an understanding of the later poetry. I will begin with the presentation of a concrete and self-contained image:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

This is the final line of Pound’s 1913 poem ‘Liu Ch’e’ and in the poem it is separated from the preceding five-lined strophe to both emphasise its concluding nature and to imbue it with weight as a single enclosed image. The previous five lines economically present a deserted courtyard with the wind blowing leaves around it. The absences of sounds that a loved one had made, “The rustling of silk is discontinued…”, “There is no sound of foot-fall…”, are emphasised by the amount of space given to such effects to highlight her absence. This concise presentation of the situation concludes with a colon, then a space, then the new image disembodied from the poem; “A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.” However, it is not totally disembodied from the text. Grammatically, the conjunction ‘that’ links it to the poem as an object in search of a subject. The subject is noticeable by her absence. The word ‘leaf linguistically links to the “leaves/ Scurry into heaps…” of the centre of the poem. The colon acts more than the words ‘is like’. This image is more than a paired-down simile or a minimally presented metaphor. The colon is more akin to the mathematical `=’ in an algebra formula. A rough paraphrase of the poem would read: The absence of my lover = A wet leaf that clings…. The active verb ‘clings’ holds a key to an interpretation of this formula. In his reading of literary history, Pound had already noted the power and resonance of the ‘picturesque verb’. “… [T]he [poet] makes his picture, neither by simile nor by metaphor, but in the language beyond metaphor, by the use of the picturesque verb with an exact meaning.”¹ In ‘Liu Ch’e’ the use of the picturesque verb transforms the inactive leaf into an agent of some force. To return to my paraphrase of the poem, we can now add an additional layer to the formula: the memory of the absent loved one still clings to the speaker’s consciousness. This is implicit in the poem but the use of the image equivalence evokes an emotional response in the reader beyond the emotional resonance contained in the linguistic value of the words alone. It is as though Pound has discovered a direct route to subjective emotions through the deployment of an objective image equivalence.

`Liu Ch’e’ is both an example of an Imagist poem and an example of a Poundian translation, or to be more precise, the re-working of a pre-existent translation. That these separate notions are combined in the same poem is an example of Pound’s search to find poems that followed and illustrated the ‘Doctrine of the Image’ in other periods and other cultures. The poem also marks the first example of an overt Chinese influence in his work, as opposed to the influence of the Japanese haiku that is apparent in the contemporaneous sequence of short Imagist poems.² His introduction to Chinese poetry came via Herbert Allen Giles’ A History of Chinese Literature, which contained many models for the enriching of his Imagist theories, including the untitled poem by the sixth Han dynasty emperor, Liu Ch’e that Pound re-fashioned.

To follow the development of these theories is to follow a continually evolving series of statements. Even Pound admitted that his “thoughts about [Imagism] will not remain absolutely stationary.”³ The initial Imagist ‘manifesto’, printed in March 1913, is more of a practical guide than theoretical and gives three fundamental rules for the writing of Imagist verse:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.[4]

All three directives are present in ‘Liu Ch’e’ and they are present in the original. Pound had called Liu Ch’e a “presenter of the Image”[5], redefining Imagism, not as some new and innovative movement, but as a method of poetic composition that had already been utilised by a great literary tradition.

Pound’s definition of the Image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”[6] It is the instantaneous transmission of this Image resonating against and incorporating the previous lines of the poem in the reader’s mind that creates the Imagist effect, or ‘complex’. The instantaneous transmission of this perception played a large part in Pound’s shift towards the development of Vorticist ideas, in which he attempts to displace the time-based act of reading onto the plane occupied by the un-time-bound plastic arts of sculpture and painting. In his Vorticist writings, Pound concentrates on this analogy between the plastic arts and poetry, describing his work as a “sort of poetry where painting or sculpture seems as if it were `just coming over into speech. ‘”[7] What appealed to him about Chinese poetry was a reflection of the principles he found in his own work; their strong, concrete images, their syntactical minimalism, a reduced grammar devoid of embroidered figuration, as if indeed they were “just coming over into speech”. In these writings the idea of the Image is developed away from its singular, static nature into “a vortex or cluster of fused ideas… endowed with energy.”[8] This theoretical work is always informed by his poetry. The genesis of a classic Imagist poem, ‘In A Station Of The Metro’, is used to demonstrate the Vorticist principles of reduction and intensification to at once contain and transmit the energy produced “when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”[9] His theoretical work from the Vorticist period is furnished with a diction borrowed from the discourse of physics; a diction of forces, energies, and dynamisms and patterned units. While basically rarefying his ideas of the Image, the Vorticist writings serve to highlight the increased complexity of the effect of a multitude of Images in relation to each other within a single poem. It is this belief in the complex fusing of Images, extending the short, concentrated units of his first sequence of Imagist poems, that is seen in practice in the longer poems of Cathay.

ernest-fenollosaSo it is seen that Pound was already deeply interested in Chinese poetry before Mary Fenollosa gave him her husband’s notebooks. It was probably because of this very interest allied with the fact that his own work had deep affinities to the spirit of Chinese poetry that she selected him to be the literary executor of her husband’s manuscripts. Previously, Pound had fashioned his Chinese poems from others translations; now he had access to the original Chinese ideograms, the Japanese professors’, Mori and Ariga, phonetic transcription, Professor Ernest Fenollosa’s translation of each ideogram into English, and also his prose translation of each line. This triple-layer process of translation, Chinese into Japanese into English, appealed to Pound’s method of creative translation and it is one he would use again after Cathay.[10]

The super-imposition of culminating images in a poem like ‘Taking Leave of A Friend’ generates dynamic inter-relationships of images that form a unified whole. It must be said that this culminating image effect is present in the originals, but that is precisely why Pound selected the eighteen poems in Cathay out of the one hundred and fifty in the Fenollosa notebooks.[11] Here is the more intricate advance on the single-image poem:

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other as we are departing.

The first quatrain shares similarities with ‘Liu Ch’e’ in that it presents the situation in four self-contained, one-line units. This one-line unit is the dominant mode of Cathay. The vivid scene-setting parallelism of the first couplet is echoed in the more subjective and emotional couplet of the second quatrain, binding both together. In the third line Pound uses the active verb ‘make’, as opposed to ‘separate’, generating an effect that both distances the language from a regular speech, highlighting its foreignness, and forces an emotional current into the friends’ compulsory leave-taking. A return to the external natural image of the sheer size and scope of the landscape the two protagonists are engulfed by in the fourth line directly contrasts to the delicate emotional note struck in the preceding line. This harsh contrast of the internal and the external is continued into the downbeat note of the line ending ‘dead grass’, which, in its negativity, reflects back on the previous line-ending ‘separation’.

In the second parallelism, unlike ‘Liu Ch’e’ and the earlier Imagist poems, Pound surprisingly adds the words ‘like a’ and ‘like the’, opting for a simile for the completion of the Imagist unit instead of the oft-used colon or semi-colon. Fenollosa’s word-for-ideogram translation reads more like an Imagist line “just coming over into speech”: “Floating cloud wanderer mind/ Falling (Setting) sun old acquaintance emotion”.[12] But ‘Taking Leave Of A Friend’ is not a one-image poem. It is as if Pound has decided that the use of the colon would be too harsh in this context, or at this stage of the poem. The amount of images in the poem seems to govern its internal workings, dictating how each one is to be presented in relation to the whole. The seventh line presents a still image of the heavy silence between the two friends, a silence that can only be acknowledged with their wordless gesture of farewell. This silence is broken in the next line by the pathetic fallacy of the horses’ neighing. It is in the concluding half-line that the effect Pound achieved in the one-image poems is now produced and intensified. He breaks the line unit to end on the words “as we are departing.” Broken of and isolated from the preceding lines, its effect is dynamic. The images in the poem vigorously flicker between the objective world of nature and the subjective world of the two friends’ mood. The broken last line fuses these objective and subjective worlds together; the horses embodying nature bound together with the subjective sorrow implicit in the words “as we are departing.” The dynamic forces of the poem lie in this flux “when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” It is a strange dichotomy that Pound’s Vorticist theories expressed in the diction of physics, with its “…clusters of fused ideas, endowed with energy… “,[13] when put into practice, as in this poem, produce something of a beautiful stillness, latent with an authentic, unforced and unsentimental, human emotion.

`Exile’s Letter’, the centre-piece of Cathay, and the poem in the collection that meant the most to Pound,[14] is in the familiar Poundian genre of extended monologue. The letter writer reflects on his life with an air of pathos and resignation. He conjures up episodes of his life in concentrated, but vivid form, revelling in this act of telling, keeping these memories alive. The memories of happier times, of true camaraderie with the recipient of the letter, of the travelling of vast distances, moments of ecstasy and wonder, moments of leave-taking and recollections of personal failure flood over him. One by one, he lets them go until the final lines present the portrait of this solitary aged man in his present life.

The poem economically displays many moods and timbres, reflecting them in modulations in tone of voice and rhythm. One such example is the conclusion of one set of ecstatic memories: “And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens…” This soaring elation is instantly followed by “And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.” This sudden, enforced departure, told matter-of-factly, creates a deflating effect after the musical rhythms of the preceding lines. And yet these very different moods are bound together by the collocation of ‘heavens’ and ‘stars’ in the consecutive lines; bound together as a “radiant node or cluster.” Another sudden shift in tone is introduced with the short, understated line “And what a reception.” This introduces the poem’s climaxing section, which deals with the day of the two friends’ reunion. The letter-writer proceeds to list the exotic elements of this meeting, describing the scenes of euphoric merriment around them. This series of external images is the equivalence of their jubilant inner mood. The continual rush of opulent images of “…ripples like dragon scales, going grass green on the water…”, “…courtesans, going and coming…”, “…willow flakes falling like snow…”, “…vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset…”, “…the water, a hundred feet deep …”, builds a dense, accumulating pattern-effect of sumptuous one-line units. This effect intensifies with the focussing on the “…girls singing…”

Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song,
and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.

This intensification comes with the sheer sense of movement in these lines, heightening the excess of the scene to almost Bacchanalian proportions. The events are depicted like an intense ecstatic vision, with the constant repetitive “And” acting as a mantra and the verbs in the present continuous both helping to keep all elements instantaneous and in play at once. With no image superseding another, all are present at once in a dizzying swirl of motion. All are present until the sudden

And all this comes to an end.
And is not again to be met with.

and it is as if the carpet has been pulled from under our feet. The flurry of levitating, swirling images falls to the ground in a heap, and the poem shifts into the darker toned and reflective final lines of failure and parting. The dramatic contrast of the vision sequence to the quiet introspection of the closing lines holds up the two major modes of the poem in relief; nostalgia and lament. It is the play of these in relation, held in the reader’s mind simultaneously by Vorticist means, that is finally condensed and resonating within the final word of the poem. It is this that imbues the understated last line “And send it a thousand miles, thinking…” with a force that instantaneously communicates the letter writer’s sense of sorrow and grievance and that leaves the reader with a reverberating after-image of a sense of loss.

Alongside the one hundred and fifty Chinese poems in Fenollosa’s notebooks Pound discovered the essay ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Method for Poetry’, detailing an aesthetic theory of poetry that Pound was already practising. It is this essay that accelerates him towards the formulation of the Ideogramic Method. In the essay, Fenollosa advocated that the Chinese ideogram was closer to the processes of nature than an alphabetical language. He argues that an ideogram is “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”[15] In his detailing of the dynamic “operations of nature” Fenollosa almost sounds like a Vorticist; “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap shots…. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things…” Pound could not help but be attracted to a theory that states that ideograms evoke vivid and concrete “thought pictures” and that a series of them contain “the quality of a continuous moving picture.” It is from Fenollosa’s postulation that when two radical ideograms are compounded together they do not produce a third meaning, “but suggest some fundamental relation between them…” that advanced Pound’s 1911 notions of the Luminous Detail.[16]

As initially laid down, the Luminous Detail was a concentrated literary or historical extract of some particular significance that would be extracted from any source and presented without comment. These Details, although without their original context, would contain an inherent energy that enabled them to illuminate a literary work or a historical period. In this light, the poems of Cathay can be viewed as Luminous Details; transposed from their original context, original period and original culture and being relevant to the Western society of 1915 and today in both terms of content and form. Fenollosa’s essay encouraged Pound to compound these Details together, setting them in relation to each other, rather as he had done with the Image’s development into Vorticism.

The development of the Ideogramic Method in these years incorporates the initial spark of Imagism as it expanded from the static single image into Vorticism’s complexities of the superimposition of Images in motion. Beyond the years I have limited this essay to, Pound’s poetic method would develop into a system of thought that attempted to circumnavigate “the tyranny of medieval logic”,[17] juxtaposing themes and ideas, ideas in relation, which, according to Fenollosa, was “the ideal language of the world.”

Spirit of Romance,p.33.
2 These poems are ‘After Ch’u Yuan’, Tan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord’, `Ts’ai Chi’h’, which appeared in the first Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes (Mar. 1914).
Selected Prose,p.344.
Literary Essays, p.3.
5 Sullivan,p.48.
6 Literary Essays,p.4.
7 Sullivan,p.47.
Selected Prose,p.345.
9 Sullivan,p.54.
10 ‘Canto I’ is from Divus’ Latin translation of Homer.
11 For a detailed analysis of what Pound contributes to the translations (which is not as much as may be supposed) see Yip and Qian.
12 Qian,p.170
13 Selected Prose,p.345. 14 In Umbra (1920) Pound cited this poem alongside `The Seafarer’ and ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ as one of his “major personae.”
15 Fenollosa, Instigations.p.362
16 Examples of Luminous Details from articles first published in The New Age magazine include translations of The Seafarer’, Guido Cavalacanti and Daniel Arnaut
17 Fenollosa, Instigations,p.380.

Alexander, Michael. The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
Davie, Donald. Studies in Ezra Pound: Chronicles and Polemic. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991.
Hesse, Eva, ed. New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound’s Poetry and Ideas. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
The Pound Era. (repr. from 1971 ed.) London: Pimlico, 1991.
Miner, Earl. “Pound, Haiku, and the Image,” Hudson Review, IX (Winter 1956-1957). Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays. Walter Sutton, ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963.
Pound, Ezra. Collected Shorter Poems. (repr. from Personae: Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound. 1949 ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Guide to Kulchur. London: Peter Owen, 1952.
Instigations of Ezra Pound: Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Fenollosa. (Essay Index Reprint Series) (repr. from 1920 ed.) New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1969.
Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. T.S. Eliot, ed. (repr. from 1954 ed.) London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
Selected Prose: 1909 —1965. Cookson, William, ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.
Spirit of Romance. London: Faber and Faber, 1910.
Qian, Zhaoming. Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.
Sullivan, J.P., ed. Ezra Pound: A Critical Anthology. (Penguin Critical Anthologies) Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970.