February 2, 2023

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Poetry as Criticism by Timothy Yu

Part of the appeal of poetry as criticism, which I discussed in my last post, is the idea of ​​a poem that can explain itself without the intervention of pesky critics who impose their own interpretations. While the poet’s ideal may be a poem that needs no explanation, a poem whose meaning is somehow self-evident, the next best poem might be one that comes with its own explanatory apparatus – which practically tells us how to read it. So the self-explanatory poem is a kind of meta-poetry; it is a poem that is also about poetry, reflecting the conditions of its own emergence. Such poetry recognizes that the boundaries of a poem extend beyond the words on the page, and suggests critical discourses and the work of other poets hovering just outside the poem’s margins.

I have spoken elsewhere about the poetic parody method I used in my book 100 Chinese Silences. I chose parody not only because it gave me a way to delve into the poetry I was criticizing, but also because it allowed me to initiate a conversation about poetry from within. Criticizing a poem from the outside in prose – something I had done before – felt too safe, too easy given the task I had set myself. This time I wanted to try to criticize the poem from within, to draw myself into the language I was trying to bring to light.

Without a doubt, the poems that I found most difficult to write for this collection were those that drew on revered modernist classics, particularly poems by Ezra Pound, which I read as a source of the American poetic Orientalism that I sought to criticize. The benefit of this was that, unlike some of the contemporary works I parodied in my collection, Pound’s poetry would almost certainly be familiar to readers. But that was also the downside: I wondered how readers would react to my removal of such deeply canonical works.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all was “Chinese Silence No. 92,” my parody of Pound’s “Exile’s Letter,” a translation of a poem by the 8th-century Chinese poet Li Bai. The grant for Pound’s translations from Chinese focused primarily on the accuracy of his English renditions as well as the way Pound used these Chinese influences to develop a distinctly modern voice in English poetry. But the question of fidelity in a centuries-old translation was not exactly what interested me. Instead, I wanted to examine Pound’s influence and historical context, and take a critical look at the poet and his work through Pound’s poem.

Of course, imagining Pound himself as the exile of the poem’s title wasn’t too far-fetched. Like many of his American contemporaries, Pound spent most of his career in Europe and in an early poem lamented the fate of those left in America, “broken against them, /A-straying, lost in the villages”. I imagined Pound as the narrator of my poem, addressing his fellow poet abroad, TS Eliot. Imagination allowed me to bring Pound’s orientalizing gaze back to the scene of Anglo-American modern poetry; Instead of Pound’s Chinese place names, I’ve included pseudo-exotic landmarks like “the bridge on the Thames”, Eliot’s “Desk at Faber-Faber” and the magazine “Po-Etry”. I have also examined this early phase of Pound’s career in terms of his later turn to Fascist politics and his idealization of Mussolini: ‘And there came the ‘real man’ Ben-it-o to impress me, / Playing in the death-mask of Jefferson.”

As we read Pound today, we must deal head-on with the fascism and anti-Semitism he expressed during the World War II radio broadcasts that led to his arrest for treason in 1945. (Pound’s later imprisonment in Pisa is reflected in his own Pisan Cantos.) Pound scholars have often treated Pound’s racist, right-wing ideology as an aberration, relating his bigotry to his later career, and rarely translating that ideology into the refined aesthetics of his earlier “Chinese “ phase read back. Part of what I hoped to do with my poem was to bring “Exile’s Letter” into the filth of Pound’s reality, bringing details from Pound’s captivity in Pisa (“Steel cages, two books on a packing crate table”) into his earlier one pulled in, wistful portrayal of exile.

This kind of poetry-as-criticism gave me tools for criticizing Pound not normally available in scholarly writing. The invented dialogue with Eliot, for example, allowed me to use quotes from Eliot’s work to comment on Pound, from a memoir of The Waste Land’s “Hyacinth Girl” (which Pound was, of course, instrumental in adapting). on Pound’s own response in The Pisan Cantos to Eliot’s famous phrase that the world would end ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’. I also allude to Eliot’s visit with Pound to St. Elizabeth’s, the Washington, DC hospital where Pound was held for 12 years after being found insane at a trial. The point here was not to paint Eliot as Pound’s better man – particularly given Eliot’s own history of anti-Semitism – but to break down Pound’s Orientalist persona and bring it back into the dialogic, often problematic context from which it came.

To encapsulate all these facts in the understated, elegant, elegiac language that Pound understood to be the voice of Chinese poetry—and that he later bequeathed to American poets—was unsettling but also revealing. The process of writing these poems made me see how including China in modern American poetry was not just an aesthetic choice, but was always linked to history and politics. The history of China in modern American poetry is associated with orientalism, imperialism, racism, and war. And it is this historical holdover in the poetic language we still use that my collection of poetry as a critique has attempted to unearth.