"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-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 Cho-fu-Sa.

Li Bai (701-762), translated by Ezra Pound
From Cathay (1915)

In my early twenties, I didn't know many poems outside the Anglo-American tradition. I had studied Latin for six years but didn't see how the Aeneid or any other verse from a foreign language could help my writing in the 1970s. Then I read Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and learned how Ezra Pound had found, in ancient Chinese poems, a model for using imagery in modern poetry. 

In 1913 Ezra Pound was a 28-year-old freelance writer living in Church Walk, Kensington. He'd been reading Confucius and grew interested in Chinese poetry after discovering the stilted but evocative translations of Herbert Giles, a Cambridge University sinologist.

Church Walk, Kensington, as it is  in today's London

By an extraordinary piece of luck, Pound met Mary Neil Fenollosa at a London party. She was the widow of the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa, who had spent years studying Chinese verse. Impressed by Pound's earnestness and by his poetry, she entrusted the young man with her husband's research notes.

Working from them, Pound translated 17 poems by Li Bai (sometimes called Li Po or Rihaku) and several other Chinese poets, and in 1915 he published them as a collection titled Cathay. Many of the poems dealt with separation and loss, and, in the second year of The First World War, they resonated strongly with readers.

I've loved this poem since the first time I read it. The woman's voice is convincing: the handful of details it offers brings a whole world to life but without any unnecessary embellishments. If you've ever been parted from the person you love, I think Li Bai's poem, brought over into English with such care and affection by Pound, will touch you.

In February 1915 Pound checked the proofs for Cathay in this Sussex cottage he shared with W.B. Yeats (Photo: Nigel Purdey)

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