Drue Heinz Professor of American Literature
St. John's College, Oxford University
"Young Willows" in Pound's Pisan Cantos: "Light as the Branch of Kuanon." Modernism and the Orient. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2013.
Building on the work of 19th-century and early 20th-century art historians Ernest Fenollosa and Laurence Binyon, the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound became fascinated early in his career with the Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan-yin, and in his poetry assimilated her image along with that of the Western image of the Virgin Mary into a composite symbol that attempted to fuse Western and Eastern religious iconography. Pound even attempted to link this image to the writings of Confucius, which he spent many years translating. Unlike his predecessors, however, Pound was less interested in Christianizing Kwan-yin than in appropriating distinctive elements of her religious attributes in his own poetic landscapes. Among these elements the most important were Kwan-yin's traditional iconographic associations with a vessel of pure water, the lotus, the willow branch, and the moon. We see Pound's most powerful renderings of these symbols in the masterpiece he wrote in an American prison camp at the end of World War II, the Pisan Cantos. But they are even clearer in early manuscript versions of the poem (written in Italian and then in English) than they are in the final version of the poem. These still only partially published drafts elaborate the traditional iconography of Kwan-yin into a vision of the feminine qualities of heaven's compassionate intercession and the healing power of nature that is at the same time multi-cultural and deeply personal. This essay is the first to examine Pound's treatment of Kwan-yin in the unpublished drafts of the Pisan Cantos (both in the fragmentary Italian drafts he wrote before the war ended, and in the manuscript draft of the English poem itself), and it uses the drafts to elucidate both Pound's understanding of Kwan-yin and the meaning of some of the most important passages in the poem as it was finally published.
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