The ABC of Chinese Poetry

Yunte Huang reviews the latest in the How to Read Chinese Literature series

It was scandalous when T. S. Eliot, circa 1928, called Ezra Pound “the inventor of Chinese poetry.” To be fair, what Eliot meant was that the man he had earlier extolled as “il miglior fabbro” (the better maker) in The Wasteland, had fashioned a version of Chinese poetry for their generation. As Eliot quickly added, “Each generation must translate for itself.”

This is not the place to quibble over Pound’s Chinese invention, a topic that has already generated enough articles, dissertations and monographs to fill a sizable library. Yet the notion that a nation’s poetry can be made elsewhere, virtually reborn in a foreign land and language, is intriguing. A quick glance at the periodic reincarnations of Chinese poetry in English, from James Legge’s Confucian Odes, to Pound’s Cathay, to Gary Snyder’s Cold Mountain, would lend a kernel of truth to Eliot’s otherwise curious claim. As Walter Benjamin famously put it, translation gives literature a new life, an afterlife. And the vital importance of Chinese poetry’s afterlife to Anglo-American literature may be encapsulated in Pound’s proclamation, “A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations; or follows it.”