I was reading ‘My Heroin Christmas’, one of the essays in Terry Castle’s excellent The Professor and Other Writings, and an aside took me to this astonishingly beautiful poem by Ezra Pound, a ‘translation’ from the Chinese of Li Po.
Widely considered the greatest poet of China, Li Po wrote the poem in about 760 AD whilst in exile. It takes the form of a letter to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
Pound knew ittle Chinese himself, and the translation is based on notes on the original poem made by Ernest Fenellosa, an American scholar who studied Chinese poetry while living in Japan.
The poem first appeared in ‘Cathay’, published in 1915, and containing, according to its title page ‘translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.’ However, it is not a good idea to look at the poems as literal translations – in fact, as the prominent Pound scholar Hugh Kenner argued, to do so is to miss the point.
Pound sought to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template
… maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.
Also included in Cathay was Pound’s ‘translation’ of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’, written in roughly the same historical period and, thematically, very similar. In the ABC Of Reading (New Directions, 1960) Pound wrote that he considered ‘Exile’s Letter’ and ‘The Seafarer’ the two greatest poems of the eighth century.
Art Pepper (and/or his wife with whom he wrote the book) used the lines
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.
as the epigraph for his autobiography ‘Straight Life.’