Cathay, Poems After Li Po, by Ezra Pound, Limited Editions Club

One of the more interesting selections of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) in its later years was the publication of Cathay, Poems After Li Po, by Ezra Pound.  Pound is extremely controversial (as you will read about below), so this was clearly a case of valuing the art despite the artist. There is no questioning the literary merits of this work. Though Pound knew no Chinese, his 1915 translations of eighteen medieval poems, mainly by Li Po (701-762), are unquestionably masterpieces, though should not be thought of as being extremely accurate in terms of the translation (Pound worked from notes by Ernest Fenollosa, a great American scholar of Oriental literature and art).

Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) was an American born poet who was a significant contributor to the modernist movement in poetry. He played a significant role in developing Imagism, which favored clear, sharp language, as opposed to the more flowery and sentimental language often used in Romanticism (I personally long for the days of Romanticism!). Though some of Pound’s works are reasonably well known, such as Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), and his unfinished The Cantos, his greatest influence comes from the role he played in discovering, assisting and promoting fellow writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway.

Pound is also famous for being indicted for treason in 1943.  Having moved to Italy in 1924, he was a proponent of Fascism, supporting Mussolini and even speaking positively of Hitler. During WWII, he was paid by the Italian government to give hundreds of broadcasts criticizing the United States. Once arrested in 1945, he was deemed unfit to stand trial and instead sent to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for over 12 years. When released, he moved back to Italy and remained there the rest of his life. I personally find Pound a singularly detestable man, especially in the realm of anti-semitism,  within a field (intellectuals) that often competes mightily for detestable thought and behavior. His works are not well read, though I would admit, probably should be.

Italian born Francesco Clemente (b. 1952) is a contemporary artist, who I find difficult to place in any particular stylistic area, other than experimental modernism.  Not being a fan of such nonsense, I do admit to struggling with his works in this edition. Having said that, he has had exhibitions in major art galleries all around the world, so he is a somewhat major modern artist, and those that appreciate the style would probably really like his work in this edition. He currently spends most of his time between the United States and India.

As you can tell from this review, I am not a huge fan of Pound the person (though do appreciate the quality of his work), nor of the artistic style of Francesco Clemente.  Having said that, this LEC edition, like most of the late LEC editions, cuts no corners in overall presentation and styling.  The materials used, especially the paper, is a wonder to behold. Certainly fans of Cathay, or of Pound or Clemente, would do no better for their collection that to have this contained within it.

{Ed. Note:  My understanding is that Limited Editions Club does have a few copies of Cathay still available to order. You can call Jeanne Shiff at 212-737-7600 or 800-701-8870 to inquire about price and to order, if interested.}

About the Edition

  • Designed by Dan Carr
  • Printed by Arthur Larson at Horton Tank Graphics in Hadley, Massachusetts
  • Seven color woodcuts by Francesco Clemente
  • Illustrations cut into wood blocks (by Michael Berdan at Evans Editions, Inc., New York, New York) and printed on hand made Ogawashi paper from Japan
  • The text is printed on hand made Ogawashi paper, on one side only, with each page carefully folded over by hand so that the blank sides remain invisible
  • Set in Monotype Lutecia by Julia Ferrari and Dan Carr at Golgonooza Letter Foundry, Ashuelot Village, New Hampshire
  • Hand bound with pale blue linen from Japan
  • Set into a suede lined box also with pale blue linen from Japan
  • 8″ x 12″
  • Limited to 300 copies
  • Signed by Francesco Clemente

Pictures

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Cathay, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Cathay, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Cathay, Limited Editions Club, Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
Cathay, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
Cathay, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

3 thoughts on “Cathay, Poems After Li Po, by Ezra Pound, Limited Editions Club

  1. LI Po, a.k.a. Li Bo or Li Bay – is very well known in China. His poetry reminds me figures in the haze. I read all Pound’s translations (interpretations), I read many other verses. I read him in Russian, as it is my native language. The interest to Li Bay was ignited by the translations written by my childhood classmate and old friend, and now – a very famous Russian poet, Boris Khersonsky. The illustrations of Francesco Clemente became very appropriate to the content, but only when you read more than Cathay. May I assume that before making the illustrations FC read way more than Cathay, trying to understand and feel the great Chinese poet deeper – after reading only Cathay it is not clear if this poet is THAT great!

    After spending hours with Li Bai’s poetry, different translations, description of his life – I have no controversy with Clemente’s pictures, they seem to my quite matching and appropriate. I cherish this book.

    1. Thanks for that insight, I think it is extremely useful in understanding (or trying to understand) the imagery. I think this of a lot of Shiff later works, and even some Arion works….people look at the illustrations (usually modern) in a vacuum and decide they do not like them…but given context and a deeper appreciation of the work itself, the illustrations become meaningful and often great.

  2. Unfortunately, this is another spectacular private press book that is marred by commissioning a world renowned artist to produce illustrations or artwork that bear no relationship to the book. I blame both Sidney Shiff and the artist equally. The recent Arion Press publication of Sappho’s poetry is also guilty of this and it detracts considerably from the book.

    I cannot understand why an artist who is asked to illustrate a book cannot put his or her ego aside and make an attempt to produce art that enhances and illuminates the book for the publisher and intended reader. An example of a world class artist who did just this is Kiki Smith who produced an extraordinary set of original art for the Arion Press collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems entitled ‘Sampler’.

    Wikipedia succinctly describes her as an “American artist classified as a feminist artist….her Body Art is imbued with political significance, undermining the traditional erotic representations of women by male artists, and often exposes the inner biological systems of females as a metaphor for hidden social issues”. However, rather than bringing this into her work for the collection of Dickinson poems Ms. Smith used her talent and ingenuity as an artist to produce a highly original AND appropriate series of illustrations. Specifically, she decided to make images in the manner of samplers, something Emily Dickinson would have been quite familiar with and a skill that was prized in New England in the 19th century. In preparation, Ms. Smith studied examples in the collections of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her illustrations imitate the stitchery of samplers with a series of precise short straight and slightly curved lines using subtle patterns of cross-stitches and hatchings.

    The result? Highly original art that illuminates each poem yet has absolutely nothing to do with her primary interests as a radical feminist artist, something only a supremely confident artist would feel comfortable doing. Simply put, it CAN be done by a world class artist and the abstract, irrelevant art in this LEC volume is an opportunity missed.

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