The Ancient Roots of "Make It New"
August 21, 2017 6:43 AM   Subscribe

The Making of “Make It New” by Michael North is an exploration of the ancient Chinese origins of Ezra Pound's phrase "make it new". At first obscure, the phrase became well known when Pound became seen as the central figure of early English-language Modernism. In the latest issue of Translatlantica Clément Oudart puts North's article in context with recent scholarship in an introduction to a thematic issue on American modernism. In recent years Pound's centrality has been challenged, and his fascism has been recognized as fundamental to his poetry, as laid out in The Pound Error by Louis Menand. The phrase survives as a challenge to authors, and in 2014 Pankaj Mishra and Benjamin Moser discussed whether writers can still "make it new".
posted by Kattullus (4 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
In fact, it seems safe to say that no particular significance was attached to Make It New until 1950, when Hugh Kenner called attention to its reappearance in a new translation that Pound had prepared of the Da Xue (Ta Hio), which he now called The Great Digest. When Kenner notices “the ‘Make It New’ injunction in the Great Digest,” not only does he pick this phrase out of the welter of Pound’s prose for the first time, but he also nominates it for the role it was later to play. Even here, though, Kenner refers to the “injunction” not as Pound’s but as belonging to the Great Digest; and when he glosses the injunction, he links it not to imagism or free verse or insurrectionary art in general but to “Pound’s translating activities.” Thus the emphasis is not on novelty at all but rather on “the sense of historical recurrence that informs the Cantos.” Even at this stage, though it had at last been recognized as an “injunction” of sorts, Make It New had not acquired either the meaning or the status that now seems inevitable.
So, much as Pound took what he wanted from the Chinese original to get 'Make it new' from an ancient Chinese wash basin inscription that likely meant 'renovate' or 'refresh', later critics, starting with Kenner, grabbed ahold of 'make it new' to create a shorthand slogan for Modernism. Fascinating. Thanks for the links!
posted by notyou at 7:33 AM on August 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

One of Pound's insights is that newness usually comes through translation or adaptation from other languages-- in the case of English-language poetry, this has often meant "steals from the French." Many of Pound's own innovations were rewritings of translations from Chinese and Japanese. So it might help to bring in some scholarship by people who read Chinese and Japanese and can assess what Pound was doing to (and through) his sources:
Cathay (republication, 2016)
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (critical edition, 2008)
"Cathay at 100" (2016)
posted by homerica at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

That first link is terrific—anyone curious but not wanting to dive too deep can safely stick to North's essay. At first I thought smugly "Ha, I'm an old Poundian, I know where he got it," but it turned out I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did (and I didn't realize it was Hugh Kenner who called attention to it). And of course fais-le de nouveau means "do it again," not "make it new," so, as happened so often with Pound's slapdash scholarship, an error sheds brilliant light. Here's a nice bit from the essay:
The most significant fact to emerge from this history, though, is also the most obvious: Make It New was not itself new, nor was it ever meant to be. Given the nature of the novelty implied by the slogan, it is appropriate that it is itself the result of historical recycling. This was a fact that Pound himself always tried to keep in the forefront by using the original Chinese characters and letting his own translation tag along as a perpetual footnote. The complex nature of the new—its debt, even as revolution, to the past, and the way in which new works are often just recombinations of traditional elements—is not just confessed by this practice but insisted on. This is what makes the slogan exemplary of the larger modernist project, that by insisting on the new it brings to the surface all the latent difficulties in what seems such a simple and simplifying concept.
I wrote about a similar phenomenon, also involving Pound and ancient Chinese literature, here.

The Oudart piece is long, and the part about Pound is just restating North; "The Pound Error" is a review of a bio of Pound and is kind of annoying (as Menand often is, though I like him overall); I haven't read Mishra & Moser because life is short and I have to get back to work. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Taking a break from reading the very interesting first link to solicit contributions for the silver bullet that will send Wade-Giles romanization straight to Hell.

"Ch'eng"...wait, is that "cheng" or "zheng," and "T'ung" that "dong" or "tong" or "deng" or...?

posted by the sobsister at 10:37 AM on August 21, 2017

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