My copy of the New York Review of Books
arrived today and I whiled away a dismal bus journey reading an article about James Laughlin, whose enviable life combined the roles of rich playboy, ace skier and founder of New Directions
, publisher of many of the most interesting twentieth century writers. A complete list of these would be lengthy, but would include: Pound, cummings, Bishop, H.D., Zukofsky, Levertov, Snyder, Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Lorca, Neruda, Borges, Rilke, Ungaretti, Nabokov and Sebald. As many of these had other publishers in England, I don't have many New Directions books on my shelves, but looking just now I realised those I do have are particularly choice items it would be hard to imagine appearing from a publishing house not bankrolled by someone like Laughlin (or benefitting from the profits New Directions earned on Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha
). I think my favourite is Henri Michaux's Ideograms in China
, a slim volume originally written in 1971 that shares many of the preoccupations of Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry
(a seminal text for Ezra Pound and some post-Poundian poets).
Michaux, like Fenollosa and Pound, sees in the origins of Chinese script a direct response to nature. The idea of natural signs (which of course also figures in Western thought, e.g. Plato's Cratylus
) seems to offer the possibility of presenting and combining actual elements of landscape, rather than simply evoking a scene in a succession of abstract signs. Michaux (translated by Gustaf Sobin) describes the recovery of ancient Chinese writing (c. 120 CE) by scholars who compiled a 'dictionary of orginal signs', so that a written page could be full of 'everything to be found in the world': 'full of water falling, drop by drop, out of clouds / of ferryboats crossing from one side to another / full of earth embankments / of furnaces... scenes that lend themselves to reflection / scenes of all sorts... clustered that they might end in ideas / or unravel as poetry.'
Despite these efforts, the subsequent development of Chinese writing led further and further from nature, towards abstraction. However, as Richard Sieburth says in his afterword: 'if calligraphy enables the material body of the sign to be transfigured into pure spirit, the very activity of this scriptura scribens
nonetheless plunges us back (by a kind of dialectical reversal) into the immanent energies of a natura naturans
. Freed from imitating nature, signs may now signify it...' And so writing itself can become a kind of habitable landscape. Michaux ends his poetic essay with a final observation on Chinese writing: 'Calligraphy around which - quite simply - one might abide as next to a tree, or a rock, or a source.'