The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter

What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?

The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”  is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay.  It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.

Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.*  One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.

If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.

Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Le Bai,**  the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.***  The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.

But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.****  His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.”   But, But But—what!   There’s another letter!  Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.

Partch-Li Bai-Pound

Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Le Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor


In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?

I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.

My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter”  is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.





*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?

**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.

***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.

****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse.  Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay  he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake.  When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.

Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.

When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things.  Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.



The Angel by William Blake

In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.



6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas.  Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem Adlestrop  on a visit to England.

Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.


Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges


5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu.  I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.

There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.

During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.

I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.

That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife or South Folk in Cold Country  are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”  isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect”  played back faithfully either.


Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

South Folk in Cold Country

Here’s one more piece from Ezra Pound’s 1915 breakthrough collection “Cathay,”  a war story he called “South Folk in Cold Country.”

At the time Pound was working from Ernest Fenollosa’s, and Fenollosa’s Japanese teachers,’ notes to translate classic Chinese poetry, World War I had broken out, and England, where Pound was living, had mobilized to fight this war. Like William Butler Yeats (with whom Pound was staying for part of this time) Pound did not want to take a side in the war. Not only skeptical of the war’s patriotic rationales, Pound also wanted to continue to focus on his modernist artistic revolution.

Earlier in the Parlando Project, we’ve seen how Yeats responded at the beginning of the war. His On Being Asked For a War Poem”  cloaked his disdain for statesmen’s’ rhetoric while seeming to take a aesthete’s stance of artistic superiority and inferiority.

Pounds Directions to Yeats House

Robert Frost needed to get to W. B. Yeats house,
so a helpful  Ezra Pound drew him this map.


Pound felt similarly. He may not have been sure, at first, of the what he would eventually call lies by the politicians by the end of the war, but his poetic BS meter was immediately sure that the patriotic verse being produced to ennoble the war was false ethically and artistically. But Pound also recognized that any poetry he would write in such a charged environment would be inescapably seen in the context of the war.

Still, he was wary of writing about war as a civilian who had never fought in battle. At one point, he reported he had tried to enlist, but was turned down due to his (then neutral) American citizenship. At another point, he wrote a review critical of Rupert Brooke’s war poetry, only to have Brooke, who was serving in the British armed forces, die while in service, leading Pound to qualify that he was only criticizing the poetry, not the citizenship.

So as Pound created and promoted Imagism, his vision of new modernist poetry by recreating classical Chinese poetry in English, he came upon a solution. He would use the Chinese poets, both as the model for his new kind of verse and as a way to comment on the war.

Today’s audio piece is an example of how Pound went about those two things, once again translating and transforming the work of 9th Century Chinese poet Li Bai.

“South Folk in Cold Country”  is an account by Li Bai of a military campaign in the north of China that had occurred almost a thousand years before he wrote. Pound, taking this for his modernism, has the soldiers who speak of their war experience say nothing of what they are feeling. There is not a word of them saying they are tired, confused, frustrated, or suffering, but their world is described by them as the image of all these things. While Li Bai/Pound’s “River Merchant’s Wife”  reads musically off the page, despite being “free verse” in English, “South Folk in a Cold Country”  has a more abrupt and doubtful music. Pound was trusting Li Bai and his own artistic sensibilities so that he might get some of the war experience right.

When I first read “South Folk in Cold Country”  this year I thought: this sounds like a bag of fortune cookies mixed in with Ernest Hemingway. Either or both of those comparisons may sound dismissive to you, but I suspect the best fortune cookie aphorisms have some relationship, however strained, to the concision of classic Chinese poetry, and Hemingway, however familiar he may seem to us now, was using Pound’s ideas as part of what was to be Hemingway’s revolution in prose. Thanks to Hemingway, and in turn, to Pound who directly influenced and taught him, we now are not surprised by representations of war, violence, and death that assume concise description and charged observation can be truer than superfluous remarks by the author.

Hemingway in uniform

Hemingway, who did serve in WWI, sought out Ezra Pound to shape his writing about it

I did wonder about the General Rishogu mentioned at the end the piece. His Chinese name (remember, Pound was working from notes of Japanese scholars, not Chinese ones) was Li Guang, and his story is here. I like this as an ending. I’m not sure if Li Bai’s soldiers who speak in this piece are using Rishogu/Guang as an example of the hard fate of soldiers; or if they are saying, after what we’ve been through, making all those rapid marches to make Rishogu/Guang’s name, who among them will care about the general’s death. On the odds, I’ll take the later.

Musically I used some relentless vibes over electric piano and bass to stand for the rapid marches that the “swift moving” general kept ordering, and then some neighing winds from a synthesizer patch. To hear me perform “South Folk in Cold Country”  with that music, use the player gadget below.



The River Merchants Wife

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”— though he’s often listed as the author.
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters as Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.

One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture. Early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D.  Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.

Ernest FenollosaLi Bai

Ernest Fenollosa, deeply attracted to fur; and Li Bai, more into silk

Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,”  and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though “The River Merchant’s Wife’s”  source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.

Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)

I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from her village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?

To hear my performance of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  use the player gadget at the bottom here. Since this post is already long, I’m not going to talk much about the music today. The higher-pitched string instrument you’ll hear is my approximation of the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute. There are many moving recitations of this poem available online, but to see an entirely light-hearted modern translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife” after listening to mine, view this one.