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Ezra Pound and Writing the Orient: “As far as Chō-fū-Sa”

By Shijung Kim

"Ezra Pound 2" by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)

“Ezra Pound 2” by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)

The Other, or the other (the capitalization depends on the context and preference), in the sense of irreducible difference, has been a catchphrase in the humanities for several decades now. The term has an almost risibly fatalistic note to it and is often very hazily defined, if defined at all, albeit out of necessity: the not-I, the not-us, the radically unknowable and unreachable other… Little else can be said to describe the notion itself; but, somewhat paradoxically, it can be explored in contexts that are as various as its definition vague. A few months ago I shared an essay on the phenomenological other, that is, the other as this person who appears before us and who by his or her agency reveals the presence of a consciousness that’s forever inaccessible to us. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the other can be, among many things, the unconscious, or the system of language every member of a society must be inserted into. The other, of course, can also be understood politically or culturally or both. In the first case, the other is the excluded, the oppressed, whose voice falls on deaf ears because it’s dismissed as belonging to the realm of not-me, not-us. The ultimate cultural other (political as well), especially from the Western point of view, is the Orient. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is essentially a study of otherness on a global and historical scale: the West reinforces its assumed identity as the civilization of rationality and progress by constructing images of its other, the sensual and the decadent Orient.

I can go on and on about the other, all the while emphasizing I know nothing about it, which is, admittedly, ironic. That said, claiming to know the other is wholly different from exploring respectful ways of approaching it, if only a step closer. To that end I’d like to examine an instance of writing – and perhaps thereby approaching – otherness. Here in its entirety is Ezra Pound’s 1915 poem “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 Chōkan:

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-tō-en, 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 Chō-fū-Sa.

The text is in English and hence geared toward an anglophone readership, but the speaker and the setting are Chinese. As a result, the most conspicuous other in the poem is the Orient. (To be clear, I call China the Orient only to highlight its status as the other in this context. Normally I wouldn’t, not for semblance of political correctness, but to avoid the problematic nature inherent in the idea of Orient, as explained by, for instance, Said.) As a matter of fact, “The River-Merchant’s Wife” derives from a translation of a Chinese poem. The source text is Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai’s (701-762) “Two Letters from Chang-kan.” Ernest Fenollosa, turn-of-the-century scholar of Sino-Japanese cultures, had produced a partial English translation of the original, from which Pound authored the present version. Though doubly mediated, the otherness of the Chinese language remains visible through the awkwardness of certain expressions, verb tenses, and a handful of proper nouns.

What moves me most about the poem is the speaker’s unassuming voice that mantles her poignant emotional maturity. She relates her marriage to the merchant in a plain chronological order, with every stanza starting with a temporal signal: “While my hair was still cut across my forehead,” “At fourteen,” “At fifteen,” “At sixteen.” The haircut mentioned at the head of the first stanza probably refers to an age-group, most likely that of young, unmarried girls; the rest is explicitly a list of ages. This progression, so simple and forthright, borders on artlessness, in all senses of the word. To this also contribute the speaker’s unadorned vocabulary and recycled sentence structures, particularly in the rest of the first stanza.

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 Chōkan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

Note the repetition of the verb “to play” and the abundance of lines ending with a participal phrase. The sentences, always beginning with a subject immediately followed by an active verb, give the impression that these are simple statements of facts. Such linguistic patterns combined with the imagery of flowers, a bamboo stick horse, and blue plums, create an idyllic backdrop and psychology. Lastly, the soon-to-be merchant and his wife are two small people – an interesting choice of adjective that points to not only their youth but also their naïveté, their lack of “dislike or suspicion” which enables them to receive the world in all its largeness. The idea is beautiful, but in this homogeneously bucolic stanza, maybe too pleasantly so.

As the poem continues, time passes, and as it does, the speaker’s sentiments grow deeper, more complex, even a bit troubling. The definitive transition occurs at the powerful third stanza, where the speaker falls in love with her husband. It starts, “At fifteen I stopped scowling, / I desired my dust to be mingled with yours[.]” Fifteen is the age she resolves her discontent and ceases to scowl like a child. Yet the impression of childishness lingers onto the rather macabre next line which evokes sexuality and mortality. She doesn’t hope or wish but desires, not her body but her dust to be mingled with her husband’s. “Forever and forever and forever” she adds, giving the preceding line libidinal momentum as well as the touching impact of her innocent longing for everlasting union. Then suddenly, the stanza concludes with an ambiguous rhetorical question: “Why should I climb the look out?” No longer feeling entrapped in the marriage, the speaker doesn’t need to climb the watchtower to ocularly escape the domestic space. This highlights an assuagement of suffering more than her recent discovery of love, almost as if the former constituted all that the latter offered, and places a veil of equivocality over her earlier, more passionate declarations. The stanza as a whole is a strange amalgam of childishness, adult desire and innocence, peculiar near-nonchalance. The rest of the poem continues in this vein.

This strangeness that develops with the poem – could parts of it be ascribed to the otherness (cultural, historical, linguistic, etc.) of the source text? After the river-merchant’s departure, his wife, forlorn, casts her sadness onto the environment: “The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead,” she says (v.18). For me personally, the monkeys seem a bit out of place in this quintessentially lyric moment. I get reminded of the stereotypical portrayal of monkeys, clever and mischievous, let alone slightly exotic, and perceive a clash between their image and the sorrow they reflect. On the one hand, I think that this mismatch, by the very virtue of its oddness, creates a pathos more powerful than, say, that of tearful willows or wistful sea breeze or the like. On the other, Chinese readers contemporaneous with Li Bai could have been impervious to such an impression. The monkeys could have been a common pastoral sight and fit in just fine with the lyric scenery.[1] A cultural, geographical, or historical otherness could have gotten lost in Fenollosa’s translation and Pound’s rearrangement, appearing instead as a strangeness that heightens the pathos.

To discuss this aspect of the poem on a more linguistic level, we can turn to these lines in the last stanza:

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.

After ruefully depicting her garden with falling leaves and coupled butterflies, the merchant’s wife utters these heart-rending words: “They hurt me. I grow older.” The two verbs in the active present tense are somewhat startling and maybe even unidiomatic, especially in these terse, matter-of-fact sentences contrasted with the lyrical descriptions of the former one. In other words, by saying that the surroundings hurt her and that she grows older (echoing Prufrock who mutters, “I grow old… I grow old…”), the speaker renders, almost to an unwieldy extent, her emotional suffering and maturing into actions, not states of being: the hurting acts on her, and she does the aging. A subtle but potent effect of the verbs. But then again, there is a chance this could all be explained away by the influence of the Chinese language which, without a specific temporal indication, has only the equivalent of the English present tense. So, which one is it – the otherness of the Chinese language or the strangeness proper to the poem?

Li Bai's only surviving manuscript

Li Bai’s only surviving manuscript

The truth is, although we could consult different manuscripts and inquire further, it is better to leave the question unanswered. For the most alluring strength of the poem lies in its blurring of boundaries between cultural otherness and aesthetic strangeness. The closing lines, in that regard, are simply brilliant.

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 Chō-fū-Sa.

The poem ends in anticipation of a future reunion, of unknown time and location, with the river-merchant so longed for. The concluding line in particular embodies the anticipation and the uncertainty. Its blank space of indentation – that is, of anticipation – leads to “As far as Chō-fū-Sa,” a place and phrase full of mysteries. The anglophone reader probably doesn’t know what Chō-fū-Sa signifies: is it supposed to show how far she’s willing to travel for her husband? Does it carry poetic or romantic connotations in Chinese culture? Fused with this foreignness is a strange but aesthetically pleasurable musicality. The final line is entirely comprised of discrete syllables, as though six musical notes were floating in air: “as – far – as – chō – fū – sa.” The accented first two vowels of “Chō-fū-Sa” enhance this music, and that the reader is barred from the meaning of the word throws this musical materiality into relief. There is another layer of linguistic otherness that merges into the aesthetic: the actual Chinese tonal pronunciation of Chō-fū-Sa is left unspecified and uncertain, piquing our musical imagination to wander off yet elsewhere. Chō-fū-Sa is thus a converging point of aesthetic strangeness and cultural otherness. It is a strange materiality offered to the aesthetic perception of the reader, to be caressed by the reading voice and eyes, and at the same time a foreign wall with vain promises of unheard sounds, hiding its meaning somewhere unreachable in Li Bai’s China…

All throughout “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” there are hints of cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that are difficult to pinpoint but still felt. These differences, these various categories of otherness, unsettle, puzzle, and distance the reader, all the while intensifying the pathos and the aesthetic pleasure communicated. With this conflation of otherness and communication, the boundaries separating the other and the self become hazy. How can otherness, which is by definition inaccessible, facilitate communication with the reading self?

One possibility is that this otherness we speak of is no otherness after all. We cannot be sure that Fenollosa and Pound, both dead white men, aren’t projecting their own orientalist fantasy of China. Yet I for one think that this specific poem does contain a true otherness, real traces of the source text that have not been erased. Compare it, for example, to this 12th century Chinese poem “Morning” by Chu Shu-chen, translated into English by Kenneth Rexroth:

I get up. I am sick of

Rouging my cheeks. My face in

The mirror disgusts me. My

Thin shoulders are bowed with

Hopelessness. Tears of loneliness

Well up in my eyes. Wearily

I open my toilet table.

I arch and paint my eyebrows

And steam my heavy braids.

My maid is so stupid that she

Offers me plum blossoms for my hair.

Another breathtaking, beautiful poem. In it there is much less emotional ambiguity than in “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” but we can still recognize distinct traits of the Chinese language when translated into English: the apparent simplicity of its vocabulary and the recurrent use of the present active tense produce an eerie (and in the cases of our two poems, poignant) candidness. And also the omnipresent plums of Chinese poetry. These similarities between the two texts might suggest a certain otherness emanating from Chinese culture, including its language.

For all this I do not imply I’ve located the essence of “Chineseness.” Of course there is no such thing, no such essence of China or Chinese language that can be delineated, conceptualized, objectified. What I describe consists of impressions filtered through the English translations and rearrangement, staying within the ultimate sameness of the self’s perception in regard to the other. But the otherness that can be felt despite our selfness is the otherness itself. For the other is also present in our very desire to reach it, in our very struggle and inability to know and have it. Here is poet, critic, and translator Yves Bonnefoy, on the art of translation in an interview with the Paris Review:

I would be the first to say that poetry is untranslatable. But the desire to translate a poem is already participation in it, and perhaps one can recreate something similar in one’s own language.

Bonnefoy begins by acknowledging the irreducible otherness of a foreign language, especially in poetry (though whether he’s the first to say so is debatable). He astutely points out that the translator’s desire to make the otherness known is “already participation in [the original poem] (my emphasis).” With that desire, he continues, a translation might be able to “recreate something similar” to the original. I’d go further and argue that it can not only approximate, but also add something else. The desire for the otherness of the original seeps in throughout, coloring the poem as the object of desire. The self thrusts against the skin of the other, which, in the end, remains impenetrable, but marked. Pound appropriates this aspect of the self’s desire for the other – the friction of it, the desire that brings the self and the other against and toward each other – as the primary material of his poesy. This he makes clear by signing “The River-Merchant’s Wife” solely with his name, despite the fact that the poem could easily be considered a translation or a rearrangement, normally requiring a few dependent nods to other names, such as Li Bai and Fenollosa. But Pound signs his name and his alone. And I’m not tempted to criticize that decision; his approach to the other might make up the most striking parts of the poem. Pound writes otherness, assumes it, and offers us the marked skin of the Orient, the marked skin of the other.

 

[1] It’s an experience similar to reading Bashō’s celebrated haiku: “The old pond – / a frog jumps in, / sound of water” (trans. Robert Hass). The average anglophone reader is probably ill-acquainted with the frog as the poetic animal par excellence, as it is in the Japanese literary tradition, and even with that knowledge, he or she might find the idea a bit humorous (as I do). What I’d like to say is that this kind of otherness, which is always felt intuitively or even instinctively, cannot be compensated by an informative footnote, such as this one.

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5 comments on “Ezra Pound and Writing the Orient: “As far as Chō-fū-Sa”

  1. Evan
    July 16, 2014

    This is an excellent article and has definitely gotten me thinking about the nature of translation (adaptation?) with regards to “otherness.” One thing you might say more about is the way Pound’s imagism (and vorticism?) contributes to the sense of “blurring of boundaries between cultural otherness and aesthetic strangeness,” as well as the mixing of self and other. For example, in “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” he writes “Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement…–if he can disassociate the vocabulary from the cadence.” It seems as if some of the things you note, such as the short, efficient sentences and musicality of the final line (excellent ear!), as well as other “aesthetic strangeness” might be the result of Pound’s aesthetic philosophy, not only the Chinese language.
    Later in the same piece, Pound writes, “Translation is likewise good training, if you find that your original matter ‘wobbles’ when you try to rewrite it. The meaning of the poem to be translated can not ‘wobble.’” Here, Pound codes the meaning of the self’s translation as “wobbly” and presumably, the other’s translation as “stable.” Bonnefoy perhaps picks up on this, pointing out that the translator desires to “recreate” this stability “in one’s own language” (although Pound probably would still demand not only “stability” but also “cadence”). Perhaps this helps illustrate the idea of the “phenomenological other” that you talk about at the beginning, in which this foreign perspective simultaneously makes you aware of the “other” as well as your own otherness. Pound’s aesthetic philosophy indicates that the other is highly desirable (as you pick up on in your own language, which describes the self/other in sexual terms (“thrusting,” anyone?) including its ability to resist understanding, in addition to encouraging it). A more detailed analysis of Pound’s language and poetic principles might indicate what he was practically required to keep (ex: monkeys, due to their concreteness, thereby preserving a sense of “cultural otherness”), and what he may have decided to adapt for his own aesthetic reasons (which you might call a residual “wobble”).

    • Soonest Mended
      July 31, 2014

      Hello Evan, thanks so much for the insightful and informative comment. Having Pound’s own aesthetic philosophy in mind definitely enriches the reading of the poem. Love the term “wobble”. One question though — what do you mean by the self and the other’s translations? Not sure if I understand correctly. Thanks again!

  2. Evan
    August 12, 2014

    Sorry for the lack of clarity. I mean just what you’ve said: that when translating, you (translator, self) become especially aware of your own “otherness,” especially when you translate (the translated “other’s”) poetry poorly.

    While translation could be imagined as an imperialistic endeavor (taking something belonging to another culture and making it your own), the idea of “wobbling” implies a different relationship: that your translation is hardly a conquest (If poetry is “untranslatable,” what does that say about imperialistic activities?). Instead, you (the translator) realize that you are the alien, that your work is secondary, derivative. You love that-which-is-to-be-translated (the other) but no matter how close you try to get, to form a union, your work will always remain “other to the other.” In short, your poem will always wobble, which is what I refer to as a “residual wobble.” (Think of a continuum between “the original,” and meaninglessness. The original is “stability,” while meaninglessness is so “wobbly” that no similarity remains between translated/translation. Ideally, your translation will fall closer to the stability of “the original,” although it can never overlap entirely, hence, residual wobble)

    Thus, the poem assimilates the translator, who ultimately desires conformity rather than conquest (see your lines, below), although the reality of translation, as you point out, is inevitably a combination of conformity/conquest–a “recreation”.

    [[ “With that desire, he continues, a translation might be able to “recreate something similar” to the original. I’d go further and argue that it can not only approximate, but also add something else. The desire for the otherness of the original seeps in throughout, coloring the poem as the object of desire. The self thrusts against the skin of the other, which, in the end, remains impenetrable, but marked. Pound appropriates this aspect of the self’s desire for the other – the friction of it, the desire that brings the self and the other against and toward each other – as the primary material of his poesy.” ]]

    My larger point is that Pound’s desire for concrete images (as an Imagist), almost certainly influenced what he coded as “stable” or “wobbly.” I used your example of a monkey: a relatively concrete/stable symbol. Pound understands that this concrete noun must have a place in the poem, although the precise cultural interpretation may “wobble,” between Western conceptions of “otherness” and whatever the monkey may symbolize to Chinese readers. Pound must then account for this wobble as a translator.

    Hope that helps.

    • Soonest Mended
      December 28, 2014

      Thank you so much Evan for elaborating your thoughts. Immensely interesting. I’ve been looking more into Pound’s writings on translation.

  3. Jonathan Ferguson
    March 16, 2015

    I found your comment fascinating “The term has an almost risibly fatalistic note to it and is often very hazily defined, if defined at all, albeit out of necessity: the not-I, the not-us, the radically unknowable and unreachable other…”

    This does appear (to me) to raise the question of how one can minimise the risk of reinscribing this “mystique” even when using the word in a critical or ironic context…

    I suspect this is a question of the limitations inherent to language or to concepts, rather than an empirical contingency (i.e. “if only x had used the word BETTER…) If I recall correctly, Slavoj Zizek once wrote something similar about unaccountable global institutions; that their flaws were not mere empirical contigencies, but that the flaws were “structural” and not “empirical…”

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