Friday, March 10, 2006

The rustling of the silk

Back after a long absence with three versions of a poem from the Chinese, for our edification, followed by a moral quandary.

The first is Ezra Pound’s.

Liu Ch’e

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Much has been written about Pound as a translator or mediator of Chinese poetry into English. He didn’t speak Chinese, so his versions don’t have scholarly pretensions. In the Cathay poems he relied on the notes that Ernest Fenollosa compiled in Tokyo, and was quite happy to use the Japanese designation Rihaku for the Chinese poet Li Po. Arthur Waley, whose own translations of Chinese poetry were hugely influential, objected to many of Pound’s versions, though it’s hard to see how his version of, say, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ improves on Pound’s. Pound’s great gift as a poetic mediator was his superb ear. Compare, for instance, the poem above with Waley’s version below.

Li Fu-Jen
by Arthur Waley

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still,
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
Longing for that lovely lady
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?

Waley’s is undoubtedly truer to the original. It doesn’t have Pound’s imagistic addition (‘A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.’) but as a poem in English Pound’s seems to me far superior. ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’ is infinitely more suggestive than ‘The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.’ And it’s also stranger, less like a poem in English, less like an English-language locution, a typical canny Poundian ‘foreignisation’. Pound’s prowess as an interpreter is, though, complicated by the fact that many of his translations are less relationships with an original than with other translations. He was a pretty ruthless cannibaliser of previous translations, which he rarely acknowledged, and often went to trouble to conceal. Have a look at the poem below, by the Chinese scholar Herbert Giles, published some year’s before Pound’s version. I’ve marked up the similarities with Pound’s version:

by Herbert A. Giles

The sound of rustling silk is stilled,
With dust the marble courtyard filled;
No footfalls echo on the floor,
Fallen leaves in heaps block up the door...
For she, my pride, my lovely one, is lost,
And I am left, in hopeless anguish tossed.

The use of the passive construction, the lexical similarities, indicate that Pound essentially based his translation on Giles’ version. It adapts it freely and, it must be said, improves it substantially as an effective English poem. Do his methods matter then? Should we we fling the book down in disgust at his theft or applaud his resourcefulness? A very large amount of Pound’s translations contain the corpses of other translations, as any detective work will show. There’s a very good account here which shows that his celebrated ‘Seafarer’ came straight from Cook and Tinker’s Translations from Old English Poetry, published by Ginn & Co in 1902. All’s fair in love and modernism, maybe, though this kind of intertextuality isn’t usually what people have in mind. But why should the magpie plundering and pillaging which was so much part of Pound’s aesthetic and genius baulk at delicately re-arranging and re-orchestrating the work of others? To expect anything else is to expect Pound to be a different kind of poet. Everything he did proceeded from the same impulses, and whether texts are presented as originals or translations or a fusion of the two, they are all fictions, they’re all charged with the same transformative energy. The appropriative genius is all in the difference between ‘The sound of rustling silk is stilled’ and ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’.


sean lysaght said...

Fascinating observations, peter. Isn't it the case that some literary temperaments have to have other work to hang from, rip off or bounce off, parasitically or otherwise? I find some of Pound's 'original' work very toneless, ephemeral, most of the Cantos unreadable (the 'famous' Pisan cantos as dire as any), but the Cathay poems superb.

Mark Granier said...

I agree with Peter about Pound's version of Liu Ch'e (from Lustra) and River Merchant's Wife being the superior poems. I had a squabble with someone on another thread who had claimed that Pound had "butchered" Chinese poetry. One of the poems cited was, of course, The River Merchant's Wife. I have read other versions of that poem, including Waley's. Pound's seems, to me far superior, despite his ignorance of Chinese.

Re Pound's theft of others' poems, I think he should have acknowledged this, but in the end, provided the most craftworthy vessel is the one that floats, little else matters. Eliot's Wasteland appeared not long after a poem by a certain Madison Cawain, with the same title (and VERY similar imagery) was published. Cawain's poem was strangely surreal but pretty dire, overwrought and sentimental with nursery metrics and rhymes. Eliot's made much better use of the images and is still gripping, even if the narrative doesn't make much sense (to me anyway). To put it another way, whatever clings to the threshold, holds good.

Sean, I wonder which of Pound's earlier works you consider toneless. Granted, much of the Cantos are unreadable to unscholarly folk such as myself, being saturated with obscure references (and in languages I don't happen to speak). But parts of the Cantos are extraordinary. Glancing at Canto II I find (a description of a boat morphing into a jungle): "Heavy vine on the oarshafts,/And, out of nothing, a breathing, /hot breath on my ankles,/Beasts like shadows in glass,/a furred tail upon nothingness./Lynx-purr, and heathery smell of beasts,/ where tar-smell had been..." And I will never forget these brilliantly cinematic lines (from LXXXI):

"The ant's a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage or made order or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry..."

Back to Pound's earlier poems. I wonder if you find the following poems "ephemeral": The Eyes (from Personae, 1908-10), The Seafarer (from Ripostes, 1912), The Garden, Liu Ch'e, In A Station of the Metro, Alba, Coitus, Arides, The Encounter, Tame Cat, L'Art, The Lake Isle and Epitaphs (from Lustra, 1915). Certainly many of the poems in Lustra are short, even shorter than the one Peter quoted. In a Station of the Metro and L'Art are both two-liners. Alba is (barely) three lines. But I believe these are powerful imagist poems, destined for a long, healthy life. To my mind (as you'll know from reading my wee efforts), the shortness of a poem does not affect its 'weight' in the least. There is something enduring about Pound's seemingly throwaway, humorous poems such as The Tea Shop, The Lake Isle or the following, Meditatio:

"When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.

When I carefully consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled."

The following (the epigraph to Lustra) seems as memorable to me as the best of Shakespeare:

"And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass."

or these, out of Pound’s penitence and depression imprisoned in a cage in Pisa:

"When the mind swings by a grass-blade
an ant's forefoot shall save you."

Mark Granier said...

A small but important correction. That should have been Madison Cawein (with an e).

sean lysaght said...

Pound tells us to pull down our vanity... that's a bit rich coming from him. [Thank God for an 'unscholarly person' like yourself Mark, to give us the reality check on Pound.]

Mark Granier said...

Insert Smiley here.

That's a good retort Sean. If there were a vocal audience you'd get a good few belly laughs, mine included. Pound could be an awful high-faulting eejit and his politics were poisonous; all that crap about 'Usury' etc. He acknowledged this himself (at least I assume he did), duly recorded in one of Lowell's sonnets from HISTORY, where he admitted that he had been talking "shit" on "the Rome wireless".

Anyway, re his Canto LXXXI, it certainly WOULD be a bit rich if Pound were actually setting out to lecture us on vanity. Let's take another reality check though.

Firstly, the voice in that canto (like many, perhaps most of the voices in Pound's poetry) is that of a certain persona rather than Pound merely speaking as himself. Sure, there is a rhetorical stance; Pound is allowing the poem's voice a certain high-handedness. But this stance is mitigated (for me anyway) by the startlingly beautiful language. Think of Yeats's THE SECOND COMING; very high and mighty, not Yeats as your man in the street, but in top gear, singing with the angels, and making wonderful music.

Secondly, the voice isn't necessarily telling US anything. If it is addressing a particular person (apart from Pound himself) that would be a certain Paquin; apparently Monsieur and Mademoiselle Paquin were French dress designers (or so I am informed from a few second's worth of googling).

Thirdly, Canto LXXXI being one of the Pisan Cantos, I imagine that Pound is railing against himself before anyone else.

Insert other Smiley here.

sean lysaght said...

I have met only one person in my life whose linguistic competence was equal to the fractured, polyglot world of the cantos. (JF had lived in Italy, Greece and Japan, and read ancient Greek and Latin also.) All this means is that Pound's cultural space is largely his own construct.
When I was getting interested in these things in Limerick about thirty years ago, we had Desmond O'Grady, himself a linguist of some accomplishment, dropping in and out and bequeathing a tantalising sense of that Mediterranean cultural ideal. A photograph of Pound graced the bar at Gleeson's (a literary, but not moral pub), and there was a famous spat when Robert Graves, on a visit to his father's city, gave vent to some annoyance about Ez being honoured in this way. In those days, these minor literary skirmishes from the Front of Major Literature were very exciting to us provincials.
Your engagement with Pound's shorter pieces makes me want to get back to Pound - and I withdraw the term 'toneless' - but there are a few generalities on my mind: it's telling, isn't it, that it is the shorter pieces and the translations we return to: where does that leave the Cantos themselves, a work with such obviously epic claims on us as readers? If Pound's main legacy is as an imagist, why the grandiose, intractable project of the Cantos?
Pound's background was in the American vernacular tradition, one initiated by Whitman and developed by W.C.Williams notably. Put Williams and Pound side by side and you see the difference. Not content with his tradition, Pound had to go off on a mission to restore Europe to Europe. That mission involved him in all sorts of worthy causes, but it drew him into a rhetorical idiom where he drifted away from his root habits as an artist. After an opening Homeric flourish, the Cantos fragment, because they are not able to sustain, historically, the aesthetic premise of a unified culture.

The Cat Flap said...

I'd actually agree with both of you. I'm a highly slective reader of Pound and dip in an out of the Cantos in fascination, bemusement and irritation. But I go back a lot to the shorter pieces and been enjoying the Library of America edition Poems and Translations.I'm hugely interested in the way Pound interacts with other traditions, the way he leans against them with his antennae poised to receive the signals and re-broadcast them in his own making.... said...

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Patent Attorney said...

The aching pain of 'gone' is so well expressed, it really resonated. Thanks for sharing!

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