Translation for Poets and Other Monolinguals

Heard this one? A Chinese poet, a shadow and the moon walk into a bar, and they order wine from a translator…Oh, that was last time, and Le Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon.”  Well I promised I’d say a little bit more about translation in another post, as yesterday’s was already long enough.

I’ve translated some poems for this project that have few or no translations I can obtain. After all, this project is a strange mix of poems few have heard about and then “poetry’s greatest hits.” There’s a real need for translations of poems that have been overlooked, but I do feel like I’m driving my translation SUV on thin lake ice when I do them. You see, I don’t speak any language other than English. My only academic exposure to languages was high school French, and most of what I learned then was that my mouth and vocal cords couldn’t pronounce French words correctly. Whatever knowledge of French vocabulary, much less verb tenses and syntax, has faded over the decades since. About all that’s left is recognizing a French word that I would have wrestled with as a teenager, sort as if one might recognize someone at a class reunion as someone you used to know even while their name now escapes you.

So, what do I rely on since I’m monolingual? Machine translation, such as Microsoft and Google translate is helpful. When I’d translate French poems in the 1970s before any such computer/network things, I’d be thumbing back and forth in French-English dictionaries for an afternoon just to get that far, and now in a second I can get something that is a helpful start. With Chinese poems, Chinese-poems.com provides literal/one-for-one translations for the Chinese characters of a number of poems.

But these two ways are just a start. For example, here is the literal from Chinese-poems.com for a poem by Du Fu about Li Bai:

Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo

And here is Google Translate’s rendering of yesterday’s Li Bai poem:

A pot of wine among the flowers
No blind date alone
Toast to the bright moon
Opposite shadows into three people
The moon is neither free to drink
The shadow disciple with me
Temporarily accompanied by the shadow of the moon
Fun must be in spring
I linger about song moon
My dance shadows are messy
Make friends when you wake up
Disperse after drunk
Endlessly relentlessly travel,
Phase Miao Yunhan

Unless one enjoys the most abstract kind of language poetry, neither is much of a poem, and neither will impress a casual reader with the need to read them or an experience to be savored. What can one, seeking to make an effective English poem, grab hold from these literals?

I almost always start with the images. What is the poet seeing or sensing? As I get some working sense of that, I’m mixing in the question of how these images relate. My primary job as a translator then is to take those things and make them vivid and comprehensible to a modern English speaker. If I fail at that, the translation will fail utterly. If I succeed at that, the result will have some value (assuming your source is a good, effective poem) even if it’s not yet a strong piece of poetry.

Poetry Translation for Dummies

I’ve always admired folks who mastered several languages, though I’m not one of them. But, with an open heart and inquiring mind, aided by modern Internet dictionary and research tools, a poet can expand their view of poetry by the process of translating others.

 

As I polish my translation, I pay attention to what I began to feel are key words. I have spent an hour or two on one word,* and not having any panel of native speakers to refer to, I’ll do Internet searches looking at actual usage of the word in other writing and using online dictionaries to appreciate more about the specifics of meaning.

What about the word-music? Master poet Robert Frost famously said “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” But Frost was a stoic, maybe even something of a fatalist, so this observation from him doesn’t mean to not try translation—it just means to accept a certain amount of failure is inevitable and to continue. If you are translating a rhyming poem from another language to English should you rhyme it, maybe even try to use the original language’s rhyming scheme? My answer to this was no—or it was, until I ran into Rimbaud’s “Eternity”  and found it too bare without the reinforcement of the ringing of the rhymes. But to mess too much with a poem’s matter of images and juxtapositions to make rhyme is a mistake in my mind. Similarly, scholars tell me that Li Bai was a formalist poet: his poetry exactly followed the existing rules of Chinese prosody that I have almost no understanding of. Even if I understood them and had a plan to represent them in English, how much can I afford to sacrifice for that? Even though the original poet had to make tough choices during creation within their language to fit the form or make the rhyme, I as a translator have taken on an additional, difficult task and will say I cannot cripple the poem to retain some shadow of its original music.

Still, poetry is  musical speech. I do try to make the resulting translation have a music in English. It just may not be much of a copy of the original poet’s word-music. In the Parlando Project I often have fun matching poets and poems to musical settings that seem, at least at first, to be inappropriate. Any word-music device that adds to the poem’s vividness can be chosen anew during the re-creation that is translation.

In yesterday’s Li Bai, I added a refrain, a repeated line that wasn’t a set line, and so it has an intoxicated repetition effect. This device wasn’t used by Li Bai. My reading of his poem was that it wants to represent the experience of intoxication progressing to the point of being quite drunk, and this musical device reinforced that.

Do I look at other English translations, if available? Yes, I do, though my usual practice was to do this after I have finished mine. I’m not sure if this is right, but I have enjoyed the gradual reveal of a poem’s meaning as one labors over the translation, and so I don’t want to unwrap the present beforehand. In case of yesterday’s Li Bai poem there were an extraordinary number of English translations available,**  and I collected all I found on the Internet and read them all. I think I may have been asking myself if another translation is even needed here, or thinking there was a possible post on how there can be so many and how they differed.

Remember that “thin ice” feeling I mentioned when one is translating a language that is not one you’ve mastered even to a rudimentary level? Reading another translation can help you check that you haven’t fallen through and trapped your translated poem under the ice where it needs to be rescued or left to die in the white page darkness of your own abandoned project pile.***  Sometimes I double check where I differ, dive deeper into the original language or what I can determine about the author’s intent or knowledge. Other times, I believe I’ve found a co-equal alternative in the poem’s ambiguity. After all, many of the more than 40 translators I found of Li Bai’s poem knew at least some of these other translations. The inarguable fact that there have been many effective portrayals of Hamlet doesn’t mean we should stop performing the play.

Ideally, in matters of culture and language, a poet-translator should work with speakers and scholars of those things. Many translators do, to at least some degree. My age, resources, project deadlines, and personality have kept me from doing this with the translations in this project, and even though collaboration is a component of some effective art, committee work rarely is. Ezra Pound relied on limited Japanese sources for his translations of Tang dynasty Chinese poets. The results were not very accurate, but they produced vivid poetry that bore, however inexactly, the power of their original verse to English language readers.

Currently, there are additional worries about cultural appropriation in such actions, perhaps even in my own. Some of it comes down to a sort of literary Gresham’s law: that less accurate work by those outside a culture will obscure or prevent work by those within it. This is an issue worthy of a few thousand words on its own, but not today. I tell myself at my level, with a small audience (thank you for being that audience!)  and a completely non-commercial enterprise for the past four years, that I’d be putting on airs if I thought I was stopping someone else. As an artist, I’ll testify too that bad or incomplete work can be inspiring. I also have enough faith in the accidental and chaotic parts of artistic inspiration that allows mistakes and misinterpretations to produce good art. And while I acknowledge the issues, I have some inner belief that cross-cultural exchange is both unregulatable and desirable.

Speaking of accuracy, of faithfulness to the original poet: I’ve feel a duty to them. Translating someone else’s work can be an intimate experience, an additional level beyond reading a poem, or even deep reading a poem several times, or performing it aloud, or memorizing it. However inaccurately and fantastically, I feel for a few days as if I’m working as an apprentice to this 8th century Chinese master. This year, following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve decided that more of my translations would better be labeled “After…” which is an out if I’ve misinterpreted, and a license to extend what I may have only partially absorbed.

Before I leave the subject of translation, I encourage any of you who write poetry to attempt it. Perhaps pick a poet you’ve liked in translation and double-check the English translation you know by doing your own from the original language. You may be surprised at how freely the translator chose to work, but beyond that: this feeling of co-creation, of apprenticeship and comradeship with another artist, with the choices that need to be made in your language to carry in it what comes from the other’s eyes, heart, and senses—this is a powerful spur to the poetic art. And though the English language can be proud of it’s poets, there’s a world of poetry that was spoken in other tongues. French poetry helped form my early writing, Chinese poetry has expanded the range of my older poetic voice.

No new audio piece today, but here’s a piece about how I eventually came to a theory of how my experience of a song my great-grandfather liked was a “mistranslation” of his experience of it. Oh, and like Li Bai’s poem, intoxicating beverages are involved.

 

 

*For example my great puzzle over “Hieronymus” in Rilke’s “Before Summer Rain”  poem here recently.

**One web site alone collected 43 existing English translations of this poem of Li Bai’s! Here’s a link if you’d like to see them all.

***I’ve been fairly brave or foolhardy given my lack of language facility, but there’s no reason that you have to show anyone your translations, much less perform them as I’ve done here. And while I might be audacious, other people’s work I present here is overwhelmingly in the public domain. I agree that living writers should have a say in the substantial reuse of their work, but your own private translations are not an issue.

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

Our last audio piece this month had American satirist Mark Twain pointing out incongruities in the longstanding trope of the tortured poetic genius who dashes off “weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, and then gets booming drunk and sleeps in the gutter.”

How far back does that trope go? Well at least to 8th century China, and the authentic poetic genius of Li Bai.*  Li Bai and Du Fu are the two most highly regarded poets of the Tang dynasty period, and given that the Tang dynasty can be viewed as the artistic high water mark of an extremely long and wide culture, that makes this pair probably the most esteemed Chinese poets. The metaphor is rough, but unavoidable: either have been called “The Shakespeare of China.”  Their lives overlapped, they knew each other, even wrote poems that drop each other’s names.

Li Bai both by reputation and through the persona that appears in his poems, has some similarities to Twain’s poetic genius. References to wine** in Chinese poetry are legion, but even against that background Li Bai stands out for the number of poems he wrote about the consumption of wine and examination of intoxicated states. The Li Bai poem I’m performing today, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”  is one famous example.

Li Bai by Jin Guliang crop

Li Bai sleeping off the work of translation from English to Chinese: “The 白色 is the white, the 港口 is the port, the  柠檬 is the lemon, and the 果汁 is the juice. White port lemon juice. White port lemon juice. Ooh! What it’ll  do to you!” 

 

I think this poem pulls off a neat trick. Somewhat like Twain’s “Genius,”  on the surface it’s comic: Li Bai portraying himself as a sort of Falstaffian character whose meditation practice this evening in nature is to get hammered on some juice. But to my reading this short poem also portrays the progression of his intoxication subtly. The opening has him cleverly figuring out how to bypass any guilt from society’s admonitions regarding solitary drinking. And then he quasi-surprises himself that his plan is only partly working. I love the image of him finding that his shadow is merely a disciple—that Shadow will only follow Li Bai’s own drinking and not spur him on by proposing additional draughts. Then as his hand gets less steady, the moon’s reflection in his wine cup wiggles and dances. He of course doesn’t sense that he’s  getting unsteady himself, but that shadow guy, he sure looks shaky.  Finally as intoxication becomes deeper, he senses that his senses are going to be blotto, that the disciple Shadow-man, the companion moon, and yes even Li Bai himself are going to be out of it, cast off into some state not in the here and there of his actual moment.

Where does he go, where does his imagination go? The final image is of stars, moving, swimming it seems, movement-blurred. These could be the actual stars if he’s now flat drunk, or even abstract visual stimuli as his consciousness slips away. Footnotes in some translations tell us the idiom Li Bai uses in his ending may be understood as the Milky Way, the visual smear of our own stellar galaxy visible on some clear non-light polluted nights. My reading is that Li Bai may be using that image, but any stars are blurred and multiplied to his character in the poem now.

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

My new translation of Li Bai for today’s performance.

 

Oddly, it takes a clear-headed poet to portray drunkenness. Twain may have had some moment of empathy for his dying in rags and dirt “Genius”  poet, however foolish he can portray him. Li Bai starts his poem alone—and though he imagines his two drinking partners, he knows that they too, not unlike real companions absent at the start of his poem, will disappear with his consciousness as the wine flows.

In the original Chinese, Li Bai was a meticulous poet, observant of the traditional forms, a fluent user of rhyme and the Chinese version of meter. I can’t tell if any of the poetry Twain’s genius wrote justified the rough and foolish life, but from Li Bai’s esteemed poetry we know that whatever is true of his now legendary life, that his poetry gives us something worth reading. It’s possible the poet Li Bai used the character Li Bai, the dauntless romantic unconcerned for moderation—just as Samuel Clemmons, the ambitious young man who fled west to become a writer, used the character of Mark Twain.

I’ll probably write a follow-up post regarding the process I went through in creating this original English translation of Li Bai’s poem, but in summary, my observation at the start of that task was that most existing translations worked hard to be poetic, and some achieved that to a degree, but at a cost of not vividly embodying the process and character of the poem’s speaker. So, I went another way.

Musically this started out as a rock quartet: two electric guitars, drums and a very saturated overdriven bass guitar that sounds almost like a synth bass. I used some woozy Mellotron strings again, adding a bit of simulated worn tape cartridge wobble. I was going to go with the infamous Mellotron flute (any two or three notes using that, and many will forget what you’re playing and start to go: “Let me take you down, where I’m going to, Strawberry Fields…”) and then I thought: why not a Chinese bamboo flute instead? The last part I played was an approximation of a guzheng, a long scale zither-like Chinese instrument that I thought of since I had recently seen some examples in a museum this summer.

The player gadget to hear my performance of my fresh translation of Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”  is below.

 

 

 

*The names we type and read in western alphabet for Li Bai’s name are approximations, and the schemes have varied. Li Bai is also rendered as Li Po and Li Bo and if we take the carom shot off the backboard of Japan’s pronunciation (as Ezra Pound did), he can also be called Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku.

**I had to look and see as I worked on this translation what kind of wine was common in 8th century China and would be known to Li Bai. Most Chinese wine in those days was grain-based from millet or rice. There were regions that made fruit wines then, but they were much less common.

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 Li 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, Li 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.

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.