Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Willa Cather’s “picture writing”

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

The image of the plough against the sinking sun has long made me think of a Chinese ideogram conspicuous in Ezra Pound’s poetics: 東 dōng, “east,” made of 木 (tree) and 日 (sun); thus, as Pound explains, “sun tangled in the tree’s branches, as at sunrise, meaning now the East.” Chinese ideograms only rarely function as pictures, but Pound’s wholesale misunderstanding of the language confirmed his sense of poetry as a matter of vivid, sharp, direct presentation of images: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Cather’s “picture writing” suggests so much: painterly selection and arrangement of colors and forms; the ancestral labor of tool-making and agriculture; the human trace, or more than trace, on the landscape, with the plough “heroic in size,” made larger, at least for a moment, by the light; the smallness and impermanence of human traces, all going into the darkness; the preservation of those traces in memory and art. The “forgotten plough” is not, after all, forgotten, or not yet.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

[The traditional ideogram 東 figures in Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) and Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1936), edited by Pound from Fenollosa’s notes. Pound shared Fenollosa’s misunderstanding of Chinese. The poem quoted is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”]

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