29 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/31

Ch'ang Kan

When the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover her forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the sweetmeats of green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch'ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor suspicion.
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.
I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;
I hung my head, facing the dark wall;
You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn round.
At fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to the bridge-post,
That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-Husband ledge.
When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,
To the Ch'u T'ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock of the Yu River
Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with;
Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.
Your departing footprints are still before the door where I bade you good-bye,
In each has sprung up green moss.
The moss is thick, it cannot be swept away.
The leaves are falling, it is early for the Autumn wind to blow.
It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow,
Two are flying among the plants in the West garden;
Seeing them, my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.
From early morning until late in the evening, you descend the Three Serpent River.
Prepare me first with a letter, bringing me the news of when you will reach home.
I will not go far on the road to meet you,
I will go straight until I reach the Long Wind Sands.

Li T'ai-Po, translated by Amy Lowell

If this translation by Amy Lowell sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because there is another famous translation into English of this same poem, known as The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, by Lowell's friend and compatriot Ezra Pound. Neither American poet worked from the original Chinese of Li Po.* It's interesting to compare the two versions as English poems (I am unfortunately not qualified to speak of them as translations from the Chinese). But Pound and Lowell were very interested in Chinese poetry and published collections of their renditions; both were also modernists, interested in re-making poetic language for the twentieth century, and one way of doing that was opening American poetry to a different, non-European tradition.

Lowell's version nicely preserves a sense of the poem's foreignness, but sometimes I think it's at the cost of sounding sort of quaintly exotic; Pound is more direct and simple. For example, she says "the Eighth Month" and he says "August"; she notes without explanation that during "the Fifth Month" the Whirling Water Rock of the Yu River must not be collided with (is collision OK during the other months?) and he omits the part about avoiding collision and merely refers to "the river of swirling eddies." He will sometimes keep the Chinese place names, which perhaps oddly makes them sound less exotic in English: the river Kiang instead of Three Serpent River and Cho-fu-Sa instead of Long Wind Sands; "the look out" instead of Looking-for-Husband ledge. I especially like Pound's simplicity and directness in what are for me (in his version) perhaps the most haunting lines in the poem; here is Lowell's version again:

. . . my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.

Here is Pound's version:

They hurt me.
I grow older.

Lowell's speaker seems more of a piece; with Pound's speaker I have a sense of a very reticent woman whose longing for her absent husband forces her at times to break out with unusual directness. As with Othello's "the pity of it, Iago, the pity of it" or Cordelia's "Love, and be silent," it's the simplicity within the complicated emotional context that makes these short straightforward lines so powerful. But perhaps familiarity plays some part in how I'm receiving these two poems, since I've only read the Lowell recently and I've known the Pound version for a very long time (longer than the age of the wife in the poem). Lowell's version has its own power and integrity, even compared with Pound's still contemporary-sounding rendition.

This is from Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, edited by Honor Moore, in the Library of America's American Poets Project series.

* Lowell's translation calls him Li T'ai-Po, and Pound's Rihaku, which is a transcription of the Japanese version of the name; he is usually known in English as Li Po or, more currently, Li Bai. I need to look through my books of Chinese poetry to see if I can find a current translation of this poem.

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