Ezra Pound's fascination with Chinese literature, history and culture spanned pretty much his whole poetic career. Even before late 1913 when he received - in the papers of the late Ernest Fenollosa, an American specialist in Japanese art and culture - annotations to classic Chinese poems from which he produced his 1915 collection Cathay, Pound had some knowledge of Chinese poetry. And while writing the later Cantos, more than 50 years later, Pound was still seeking poetic and cultural models from China.
Zhaoming Qian's Ezra Pound's Chinese Friends traces some of the crucial moments in Pound's engagement with China. Qian selects 162 previously unpublished letters exchanged by Pound and various Chinese "friends" between 1914 and 1959, so as to put the record straight over the extent of Pound's knowledge of China.
These letters, alongside Qian's fascinating introductory comments for every chapter (each of which deals with a different correspondent), throw Pound's hunger for knowledge about China into vivid relief. We see Pound in action in these letters: learning, debating and disputing his way to an understanding of what he took to be a key Confucian principle of "the root in justice".
What we see most especially is that if Pound's abilities in the Chinese language were non-existent in 1914, rudimentary in 1941 (and needing a crib, as Pound notes in a letter to Fengchi Yang), then by the early 1950s he was an adept reader of Chinese.
Such knowledge is important. It will surely help deepen understanding of Pound's translations of the Confucian Book of Odes and his use of Chinese in the Rock-Drill and Thrones sections of the Cantos that were written, as were many of the letters in this volume, while he was incarcerated at St Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington DC, after the war.
In short, then, Qian's book helps to deliver new and subtler understandings of Pound's postwar writings by showing us quite how serious were Pound's studies of China and Confucianism.
In many ways, though, this book is also deeply frustrating.
On the one hand, it is unlikely to make anyone not already familiar with the glories of Pound's later poetry turn to it, given the apparently pedantic and obsessive figure that emerges in these pages. Here is a well-known Pound - energetic, curious and fiercely intelligent, certainly, but also irascible, dogmatic and paranoid. So, while the letters between Pound and Achilles Fang show Pound to be every bit the scholar-poet to match Fang's patient determination in making sure Pound gets China right, those between Pound and David Wang reveal Pound's crass and vicious political posturing, his support of eugenics and his nasty anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, because the book presents only, as Qian puts it, a selection from "over two hundred letters and postcards Pound received from his Chinese friends", its value as a research tool feels rather circumscribed.
Nevertheless, the book does provide some extremely valuable new material for Pound studies. Most especially, the two chapters that deal with the correspondence between Pound and Fang document a fascinating and powerful literary friendship, one that certainly refined Pound's poetic (and cultural) sensibilities.
As is often the case with Pound, among all the erudition and bluster, we get a glimpse of him as compassionate and feeling and deliciously surprising. On hearing, in November 1952, that Fang had fallen and broken his heelbone, Pound writes, amid a discussion of the Chinese thinkers Confucius and Mencius: "I got hit on the heel over 50 years ago by a baseball... it takes d /n / long to git over soreness." Such moments bring Pound vividly into focus, and make this book worthwhile.
Ezra Pound's Chinese Friends: Stories in Letters
Edited and annotated by Zhaoming Qian
Oxford University Press
Published 21 February 2008