Cathay: A Critical Edition by Ezra Pound
edited by Timothy Billings
Fordham University Press, 2019; 364pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty


In Cathay: A Critical Edition, Timothy Billings has achieved what few scholarly texts have: he created a book that can welcome a beginner and then by providing greater and more nuanced context, linguistic information, and historical detail can facilitate his or her growth.

A reader could open right to the poems. This Critical Edition gathers Pound’s Chinese versions as well as his translation of “The Sea-farer,” from the Anglo-Saxon, published in Cathay (1915), but it also includes the Chinese translations Pound included in Lustra (1916) and two more he published in The Little Review. Reading these on their own may feel anti-climactic to those who have heard the hype about Pound’s little book, originally appearing a century ago. They sound so contemporary. But it is exactly that sense of familiarity that demonstrates just how influential Pound’s early work has been. His tone, diction, and use of imagery became the very sound and texture of American free verse and defined English translations for generations. David Hinton, the premier contemporary translator of ancient Chinese, says that Pound “attempted to clarify and distill language, to make it more precise and immediate” and that Pound and his cadre of imagists “formulated a new idea of poetry based on the concrete image, and in doing this they were very consciously adapting the strategies of Japanese haiku.” Haiku depends on its Chinese roots, which Cathay represents.

A reader familiar with these cultural confluences or who grows more interested could gain a great deal from the front matter to Cathay: A Critical Edition. Three essays put Pound’s enterprise into context, how his book was “a comprehensive refusal of the Edwardian verse” coming into vogue, as Haun Saussy puts it in the “Forward.” Christopher Bush’s “Introduction” traces the tradition of translation from Chinese at the time and analyzes T. S. Eliot’s remarkable comment that Pound was the “inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” (3). Bush’s scholarship leads readers to understand “why Cathay might not best be evaluated as an English-language translation of a Chinese-language text” (10). Not only was Pound separated from the original Chinese because he was working from linguist Ernest Fenollosa’s notes, which were from Japanese translations and commentaries on Chinese root texts. Other texts and traditions were also part of Pound’s sources, so as the layers here peel back, I found myself marveling at the hidden complexities.

And for those who want to geek out even further, there are annotations, more than 250 pages worth, proceeding poem by poem. Through them we see how poetry enacts the ways that culture and individual feeling put pressure on language, and here there are multiple languages and cultures at play in these texts, so the number of choices for a translator are dizzying. Read this way, the individual poems take on greater depth and richness.

Consider “Exile’s Letter” originally by Li Po (or Li Bai). Pound’s version has the lines “What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking. / There is no end of things in the heart.” The poem’s images and deep longing require 12 pages of notes to get the poetic and national history, the literal translation of phrases, Pound process (he originally divided the poem into two), allusions to other Chinese poems, and Pound’s many “mistranslations.” For example, he adds the word “north” to describe “Raku-hoku” but the ending already means “north.” (It’s like when people say “Rio Grande River,” where the Spanish word “rio” already means “river.”) Billings analyzes this saying, “As usual it is impossible to say whether [Pound] ignored the details for aesthetic effect or misread them out of carelessness or ignorance (in this case, ignorance that Chinese puts spatial modifiers after nouns instead of before them as in English), or some combination of the two” (181).

Beginning with the beautifully prepared book itself and the well-written scholarship, there is no end of delight with Cathay: A Critical Edition. It starts with the qualified achievement of Pound’s original works, and only increases through each part of the precise and far-reaching research.