Monday, February 12, 2007

Water falling, drop by drop

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.'

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