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The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa
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review of
Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry
as edited by Ezra Pound
- by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - May 3, 2016

I have an ongoing fascination w/ language in multitudinous forms. I've made a braille piece (1980), 2 in American Sign Language (1986) ( http://youtu.be/l7H8DJ0CYJE ), etc.. The current manifestation of this interest is my 'opera': "Endangered Languages, Endangered Culture, Endangered Ideas". This led to my reading The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry - not b/c I consider Chinese to be endangered but b/c I want to work more w/ Chinese written language as a stimulus for Concrete & Visual Poetry to be animated w/in "Endangered"'s context.

The 2nd paragraph of the back cover blurb says this: "The old theory as to the nature of the Chinese written character (which Pound and Fenollosa followed) is that the written character is ideogrammic — a stylized picture of the thing or concept it represents. The opposing theory (which prevails today among scholars) is that the character may have had pictorial origins in prehistoric times but that they have been obscured in all but a very few simple cases, and that in any case native writers don't have the original pictorial meaning in mind as they write."

I wasn't in the least bit convinced by Fenollosa's assertions but I did find them wonderful stimulus for the animation ideas that prompted my reading this bk in the 1st place.

"Man sees horse.

"It is clear that three joints, or words, are only three phonetic symbols, which stand for the three terms of a natural process. But we could quite as easily denote these three stages of our thought by symbols equally arbitrary, which had no basis in sound; for example, by three Chinese characters:" - p 8

At this point 3 Chinese characters are shown the 1st identified as meaning "Man", the 2nd as "Sees", & the 3rd as "Horse". I use this example in a short movie that I made called "Fenollosa's Chinese" that I posted on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/164504907 . In my simple animation, I show each of the Chinese characters preceded by Fenollosa's claim for their pictorial origins. The initial representational image is then cross-faded into the Chinese written character. I tried to be respectful of Fenollosa's claim but, IMO, the representational images are too far away from the written character to be believable as the origin.

"If we knew what division of this mental horse-picture each of these signs stood for, we could communicate continuous thought to one another as easily by drawing them as by speaking words. We habitually employ the visible language of gesture in much the same manner." - p 8

"as easily as drawing them as by speaking words": drawing is not usually as easy as speaking insofar as it involves external implements not always handy - a pencil & paper, eg. Even if one were to imagine drawing thru gesture there wd be problems of facing another person directly & reversing perspective from one's own left-right to the viewer's left-right. Sound is more omni-directional & doesn't depend on fixed perceiver position for comprehensibility.

"But Chinese notation is something much more than arbitrary symbols. It is based upon a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature. In the algebraic figure and in the spoken word there is no natural connection between thing and sign : all depends upon sheer convention. But the Chinese method follows natural suggestion. First stand the man on his two legs."

Now, the actual Chinese symbol is like an inverted "y". This might be seen as a man in an unnaturally spread-legged position who has no arms & no head & whose torso is as thick as one of his legs but it cd more accurately be seen as many other things such as a wall that's falling over buttressed up by a board. In other words, Fenollosa's claim makes it seem like this symbol is obviously based on the depiction of a standing man when the actual visual connection is feeble, to say the least.

"Second, his eye moves through space : a bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified picture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs, but unforgettable once you have seen it." - p 8

Again, check out my very short movie in order to understand this better. I created an image of an eye over running legs in silhouette in an attempt to replicate Fenollosa's description accurately & then cross-faded it into the Chinese symbol so that the viewer can make the comparison for themselves. What Fenollosa refers to an an "eye" might be simply described as a not completely parallelogram box w/ 4 horizontal lines & 2 vertical ones. It looks more like shelves than an eye to me. The running legs I can see a little better.

"Third stands the horse on his four legs." - p 8

Ok, if the horse is standing on his 4 legs it also has an unnaturally long tail that it might be standing on AND a rider. Fenollosa omits the rider altogether even tho that seems extremely obvious. Again, see my movie.

"The thought-picture is not only called up by these signs as well as by words, but far more vividly and concretely : they are alive. The group holds something of the quality of a continuous moving picture." - pp 8-9

While I completely disagree w/ Fenollosa's assertion of the obviousness of the pictorial connection to the written symbol I do find his claim that Chinese is all verbs to be very interesting. He seems to be saying that the pictorial observations that the characters are allegedly based on aren't just NOUNS but VERBS. As he says: "they are alive". What the author claims as a drawing of running legs in the ideogram for "sees" does indeed have a line that cd be seen as a leg bent at the knee. Proportionally, it wd be too distorted for the claim to be very strong but, still, it's an interesting point. In an interview w/ Joel Biroco, of KAOS magazine, that I conducted in 1988, he stressed the art of Chinese Calligraphy as revolving around energy flow.

"But examination shows that a large number of the primitive Chinese characters, even the so-called radicals, are shorthand pictures of actions or processes." - p 9

"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. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one : things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them." - p 10

This theory of his especially interests me b/c of my own analysis of my high school yrbk & the self-descriptions that people wrote for it (see: http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/W1969.Y... ). When looking at the yrbk shortly after it came out in 1970 I noticed that there were very few verbs used. Even as a 16 yr old this struck me as indicative of a cultural byproduct, a result of a society that stressed a passive robopathic relationship to citizenship. I felt like the teaching I'd rc'vd had a subtext stressing that I be more of a noun, a chesspiece for 'authorities'. This was at a time when the Vietnam War was still in progress & all males turning 18 yrs old were required to register for the draft. Resistance ACTIVISM was threatened w/ long federal prison sentences. W/ that analysis in mind, I find Fenollosa's contention of the "things in motion, motion in things" of Chinese to be significant far beyond its value for poetry.

"Valid scientific thought consists in following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things. Thought deals with no bloodless concepts but watches things move under its microscope.

"The sentence form was forced upon primitive men by nature itself. It was not we who made it; it was a reflection of the temporal order of causation. All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power. The type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning. It passes between two terms, a cloud and the earth." - p 12

Oh, well. While we're on the subject of the sentence why not quote Ron Silliman's essay, "The New Sentence", from his bk The New Sentence?:

"What Stein means about paragraphs being emotional and sentences not is precisely the point made by Emile Beneviste: that linguistic units integrate only up to the level of the sentence, but higher orders of meaning—such as emotion—integrate at higher levels than the sentence and occur only in the presence of either many sentences or, at least Stein's example suggests this, in the presence of certain complex sentences in which dependent clauses integrate with independent ones. The sentence is the horizon, the border between these two fundamentally distinct types of integration." - p 87, The New Sentence

I realize that I haven't used the proximity of Fenollosa & Silliman to exactly generate lightning but, still, if "The sentence is the horizon, the border between these two fundamentally distinct types of integration" might we at least have some fun calling a cloud one type of integration & the earth another? Back to Fenollosa:

"' Is ' comes from the Aryan root as, to breathe. ' Be ' is from bhu, to grow.

"In Chinese the chief verb for ' is ' not only means actively ' to have ' but shows by its derivation that it expresses something even more concrete, namely ' to snatch from the moon with the hand. '"

Here, he shows the relevant Chinese character. In my "Fenollosa's Chinese" movie it's the 4th Chinese character shown.

"Here the baldest symbol of prosaic analysis is transformed by magic into a splendid flash of concrete poetry," - p 15

This bk, written by Fenollosa before his death in 1908, 1st published in 1920, & published in the minimally edited Pound edition in 1935, contains the 1st use of the expression "concrete poetry" that I've run across. Whether Fenollosa meant it in the sense of Concrete Poetry later elucidated is debatable. Take these quotes:

"Ideas to renew grammatical structures are bound to emerge if you make comparisons with foreign languages, with Chinese, for instance, with its classless words and meaning derived from word order"


"Having used the word concrete in these contexts, I have related it more to concrete music than to art concretism in its narrow meaning. In addition the concrete working poet is, of course, related to formalities and language-kneaders of all times, the Greeks, Rabelais, Gertrude Stein, Schwitters, Artaud and many others. And he considers as venerated portal figures not only the Owl in Winnie the Pooh but also Carrol's Humpty Dumpty who considers every question a riddle and dictates impenetrable meanings to the words." - "Manifesto for Concrete Poetry" (1952-55) by Öyvind Fahlström (Sweden), translated by Karen Loevgren & Mary Ellen Solt - http://www.ubu.com/papers/fahlstrom01...


"concrete poetry: a manifesto

"- concrete poetry begins by assuming a total responsibility before language: accepting the premise of the historical idiom as the indispensable nucleus of communiation, it refuses to absorb words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality without history - tabu-tombs in which convention insist on burying the idea.

"- the concrete poet does not turn away from words, he does not glance at them obliquely: he goes directly to their center, in order to live and vivify their facticity."


"- mallarmé (un coup de dés - 1897), joyce (finnegans wake), pound (cantos, ideogram), cummings, and on a secondary plane, apollinaire (calligrammes) and the experimental attempts of the futurists-dadaists are at the root of the new poetic procedure which tends to impose itself on a conventional organization whose formal unity is the verse (even free-).

"- the concrete poem or ideogram becomes a relational field of funcions." - "Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto" (1956) by Augusto de Campos (Brazil), translated by John Tolman - http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampo...

Whether one believes that Fenollosa deserves credit for using the expression "concrete poetry" in a way that's predictive of the later "Concrete Poetry" or not, it's worth noting that Pound, who was influenced by Fenollosa, is listed as one of the roots "of the new poetic procedure" by de Campos & that, furthermore, de Campos conflates "concrete poem" & "ideogram" together.

That said, I find Fenollosa's explanation of the pictorial content of the Chinese character for "is" to be quite dubious.. but lovely nonetheless.

"Nature herself has no grammar. Fancy picking up a man and telling him that he is a noun, a dead thing rather than a bundle of functions!" - p 16

"The Chinese have one word, ming or mei. Its ideograph is the sign of the sun together with the sign of the moon. It serves as verb, noun, adjective. Thus you write literally, ' the sun and moon of the cup ' for ' the cup's brightness. ' Placed as a verb, you write ' the cup sun-and-moons, ' actually ' cup sun-and-moon, ' or in a weakened thought, ' is like sun, ' i.e. shines. ' Sun-and-moon cup ' is naturally a bright cup. There is no possible confusion of the real meaning, though a stupid scholar may spend a week trying to decide what ' part of speech ' he should use in translating a very simple and direct thought from Chinese to English." - p 18

Again, I find this interesting but since the sun is a generator of light & the moon is a reflector of it & since candles or fireflies, eg, cd also be sources of light if one were to be more exacting a "'Sun-and-moon cup'" wd only be a cup somehow interacting either w/ direct sunlight or indirect sunlight reflected from the moon. As such, in my reading of it, it's not necessarily a "bright cup".

"I have mentioned the tyranny of mediaeval logic. According to this European logic thought is a kind of brickyard. It is baked into little hard units or concepts. These are piled in rows according to size and then labeled with words for future use. Their use consists in picking out a few bricks, each by its convenient label, and sticking them together into a sort of wall called a sentence by the use either of white mortar for the positive copula ' is, ' or of black mortar for the negative copula ' is not. ' In this way we produce such admirable propositions as ' A ring-tailed baboon is not a constitutional assembly.'" - pp 25-26

Fenollosa is, of course, making fun here but I find his concluding mockery to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the bk so far - not for its mockery but for its imagery.

"In diction and in grammatical form science is utterly opposed to logic. Primitive men who created language agree with science and not with logic. Logic has abused the language which they left to her mercy.

"Poetry agrees with science and not with logic.

"The moment we use the copula, the moment we express subjective inclusions, poetry evaporates." - p 28

"In English grammar, a copula is a verb that joins the subject of a sentence or clause to a subject complement. For example, the word is functions as a copula in the sentences "Jane is my friend" and "Jane is friendly." Adjective: copular. Also known as a copular verb or a linking verb. Contrast with lexical verb and dynamic verb." - http://grammar.about.com/od/c/g/copul...

For many decades now I've called myself an "As Been". One of the reasons for this is that I prefer using "as" instead of "is" as a way of making a non-definitive statement such as "I as a human being." That statement is meant to say that I'm presenting myself as a human being but not restricting myself to being permanently identified as such. It seems that Fenollosa is expressing a similar idea. I was influenced in this direction by something I read by William S. Burroughs.

I also call myself an "As Been" b/c I knew that having once been identified as a 'Somebody" someone was bound to eventually try to tear me down into a 'Nobody', a "Has Been". This, indeed, started happening as early as 1995 if not earlier. I think my self-designation as As Been is much more accurate insofar as there've been times when I've been a 'Somebody" & others when I've been a "Nobody", times when I've been perceived as 'hip' & others when I've been 'uncool'. None of these latter designations have much to do w/ who I actually am.

HOWEVER, I don't find any of that as relevant to 'the evaporation [or not] of poetry'. I cd write:

Jane is friendly,
the bitch
(but from my POV Jack is a real moon-snatching ass).

& it wd still be poetry wdn't it?

"It is true that the pictorial clue of many Chinese ideographs can not now be traced, and even Chinese lexicographers admit that combinations frequently contribute only a phonetic value. But I find it incredible that any such minute subdivision of the idea could have ever existed alone as abstract sound without the concrete character." - p 30

I don't.

"Poetry surpasses prose especially in that the poet selects for juxtaposition those words whose overtones blend into a delicate and lucid harmony." - p 32

Or, at least, so poets say - but how wd it sound if we were to create a variation such as 'Politician-speak surpasses activist-speak in that the politician selects for juxtaposition those words whose meanings are closest to what the public wants to believe.' It sounds a but sillier then, doesn't it?

"How shall we determine the metaphorical overtones of neighboring words? We can avoid flagrant breaches like mixed metaphor." - p 32

But I LIKE "mixed metaphor" as much as I like her cheeks being the roses of a hole-in-one.

On p 33, Fenollosa provides 3 more Chinese characters wch are the last 3 characters that I present in my movie mentioned above. These are sd to mean "Sun Rises (in the) East". The sign for "sun" is only one line away from being the sign for "eye" (if I understand correctly). That ties in to Malay name for the sun being "eye-in-the-sky" or "matahari" of "eye-of-the-day" or some such.

"The sun, the shining, on one side, on the other the sign of the east, which is the sun entangled in the branches of a tree. And in the middle sign, the verb ' rise, ' we have further homology ; the sun is above the horizon, but beyond that the single upright line is like the growing trunk-line of the tree sign. This is but a beginning, but it points a way to the method, and to the method of intelligent reading." - p 33

"Or turn to the Mi'kmaq language. A Harvard-trained law professor named Sake'j Youngblood Henderson — by origin, a member of the Chickasaw and Cheyenne people os Oklahoma — spent many years as constitutional advisor to the Mi'kmaq, an indigenous group found in Atlantic Canada and Maine. He came to know their language well. Its syntax, he once stated, futs a view of reality as existing in a perpetual state of oscillation, matter becoming energy becoming matter once again: "The use of verbs rather than nouny subjects and objects is important; it means that there are very few fixed and rigid objects in the Mi'kmaq worldview."" - p 51, Spoken Here - Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

Hence, we come back to my 'opera': "Endangered Languages, Endangered Culture, Endangered Ideas": my hypothesis is that what's threatened are more fluid worldviews under attack by imperialism that attempts to turn the conquered peoples into objects dominated by the imposition of languages that defines them rather than flows w/ them.
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