Editorial / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Make It New

"MAKE IT NEW," Ezra Pound wrote, "Day by day make it new." The lines are so often quoted as the modernist credo that it's easy to forget Pound framed it against an ancient Chinese source text:

Tching prayed on the mountain and
              wrote MAKE IT NEW
on his bath tub
               Day by day make it new
cut underbrush,
pile the logs
keep it growing.

Beside these characters, Pound had printed 新日日新, the characters king Tang 湯 of the Shang had inscribed on his washbasin in the seventeenth century BCE, and which make up the phrase Victorian sinologist and translator James Legge rendered as "If you can one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day. Yea, let there be daily renovation."

Reminded of this, it's easy to see that Pound was himself doing what he exhorted his readers to do: "cut underbrush, / pile the logs / keep it growing" are the "ideogrammic" components he saw in the character 新, "new": "an axe" 斤, "logs" 木 and "growth" 立. Pound not only renovated—updated—made new—Legge's translation, he also hacked out a new understanding of the Chinese language and from it a new method for composing poetry.

We can criticise Pound for his misreadings, which do not in fact end with Pound's notion of the Chinese character: twentieth-century poet, archaeologist, ideologue and president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Guo Moruo 郭沫若 would later argue that the phrase meant not "make it new" but rather referred only to dedications to three ancestors, Elder Brother Day Xin, Grandfather Day Xin and Father Day Xin. Of course, centuries' worth of Chinese education had defined the phrase to refer to daily renewal, which must have been what Sun Yat-sen had in mind when at seventeen he took it as his baptismal name, or the name with which he renewed himself (in Cantonese 日新 sounds like 逸仙, from which we get "Yat-sen").

The point is not to mark the works of poets and translators with red ink but to understand how ancient Asia has provided imaginative fodder for writers and intellectuals to create newness in their writings and in their lives. Pound is a famous, even infamous case. But the phenomenon extends to other languages: Tant de pinceaux élégants s'appliquent à calquer formules & formes, as Victor Segalen wrote in Stèles, his own version of replicating, even calquing, Asian formulas and forms. And Bertolt Brecht would not have invented the same ethic or aesthetic for his theatre without having seen Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 perform in Moscow, nor would Jorge Luis Borges have been able to conceive his forking paths without his encyclopedic readings in things Chinese. Nor is China the only source of inspiration: Kenneth Rexroth's and Gary Snyder's years in Japan counterbalanced their translations of Chinese with Japanese poetry and enabled Rexroth to write The Love Poems of Marichiko. Henri Michaux's travels in India were no less formative than his travels in Japan and China and from T. S. Eliot's Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata ("give, sympathise, control") and

Shantih     shantih     shantih

to E. M. Forster's Passage to India (or Snyder's Passage Through India with Allen Ginsberg), the place of India in the literary imagination is also undeniable. Octavio Paz, too, served as both Mexico's ambassador to India and, through his poetry and prose, one of Indian culture's greatest ambassadors to the world.

Certainly, Western literature in the twentieth century would be very different without the input and inspiration from Asia. But as with Guo Moruo mentioned above, it is important not to forget that the imagination of the Asian past is not only something done by Westerners, however broadly conceived. Chinese poet Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 ends "The Organisation of Distance" 距離的組織, one of his best poems,

好累呵!我的盆舟沒有人戲弄嗎?So tired! Did nobody play with my skiff in the basin?
友人帶來了雪意和五點鐘。              A friend brings over five o'clock and a sense of snow.

The reference to the skiff in the basin is to a story told in Strange Tales of Liaozhai 聊齋志異 by Pu Songling 蒲松齡 from the late seventeenth century. Bian's friend, He Qifang 何其芳, retells the story in his essays, published here in Canaan Morse's excellent, and excellently lively, translation. Likewise, we have translations of poetry by contemporary poets Xi Chuan 西川, Xiao Kaiyu 肖开愚 and Shamim Reza, meditating on the Asian past, as well as translations of classical Chinese (Du Mu 杜牧, Li Shangyin 李商隱, Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修…), Japanese (Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶) and Tamil (as translated by A. K. Ramanujan); we have writing by Asian writers in English from Sharmistha Mohanty to Arjun Rajendran to Khanh Ha whose work resonates both with echoes of ancient Asia in western writing and echoes of ancient Asia in Asian writing.

But while writers in and from Asia today may be more willing to look at their own past through the lens of the complicated present and see what value remains there—what oldness, what newness—writers in English have seemed to find it hard to see ancient Asia the same way. Whereas an earlier network of writers interested in "making it new" looked at ancient Asia, since the end of the Vietnam War, Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency, those who want to "make it new" in English have looked more to contemporary Asia. A world of difference separates the figure of Asia, for instance, in Gary Snyder's 1970s quote

When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off


Lu Ji's Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. "Essay on Literature"

against, say, that of Bob Perelman's early eighties "China," which begins,

We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.
The people who taught us to count were being very kind.
It's always time to leave.

The increased feasibility of international travel between Asia and English-speaking regions, and the increase of economic wellbeing and power of Asian countries, has facilitated this trend. Fielding's ironic mockery in A Passage to India—that India, "whose only peer was the Holy Roman Empire," shall be a mere nation, and "rank with Guatemala and Belgium"—has come to pass, along with China, Japan and the rest of Asia, too.

And so one of the goals for this special issue of Cha has been to see what new writing on the old topic of ancient Asia we might find. After so many decades of writing in English focusing, when it focuses on Asia, on the present, the modern and postmodern, can we find sufficient quality and quantity in innovative writing on the Asian past? And will such writing sidestep or absorb the insights and innovations of what writing on ancient Asia has gone before, and will it incorporate or shun the views of the Asian present which surrounds us now? This has necessitated at times a very broad definition of "ancient," meaning nearly almost any point up to the twentieth century, but it has delivered: Pound's "make it new" has been renewed and remade by the writing we present here: DeWitt Clinton's rewriting of Rexroth; Jonathan Stalling's new-making of classical Chinese poetry translation; Eliot Weinberger, following up "The Dream of India [c. 1492]," which he wrote in 1984, with "The World [2nd Century BCE]."

And whether in translation or original, the writing here translates that original element of an ancient and Asian experience into what is both immediate and yet, somehow, timeless, too.

Lucas Klein / Guest editor
December 15, 2013

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