The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter


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Reading Peter Ackroyd’s little book on Ezra Pound has sent me back to looking at poems I have loved all my life and finding new ones. Pound has a reputation as an insane traitor to the USA  who embraced Mussolini’s Fascism and supported Hitler. .

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He also was instrumental in promoting the talents and work of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, both writers I treasure.

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I have temporarily interrupted my reading of his Cantos to read Ackroyd. He describes Pound’s publication of Cathay.

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It purports to be a “translation” of Chinese poets. This aspect of Pound’s work has always baffled me, since it’s not clear that he had mastery of the Chinese language. Ackroyd helped me by pointing out that Cathay “represents (a) firmness of image and hardness of outline” it “achieves a quite new thing in English poetry. Its eloquence comes from the clarity of its statements… it pins down precisely, with a kind of brutal lyricism, the nature of anxiety, loss and regret…. description rather than association…. direct images rather than analogy.”

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Published in 1915 Cathay was actually an “imagist” work which “a movement derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry” (Wikipedia)

This articulated something I have vaguely felt about some of Pound’s poems I love. Poems like

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The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

by Rihaku

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