Ezra Pound’s “Exile’s Letter”


The Poem Stuck in My Head

Li Po chanting a poem, by Liang K’ai (13th century).

I’ve loved Pound since I was a teenager. My first lover, Charles Burch, who was a poet himself, used to read Pound to me and swoon over it. I feel that most of our enthusiasms are imitated from people we admire or are in love with, and so this particular poem I used to read to David Kalstone, the great poetry critic and champion of Elizabeth Bishop, who was also my best friend. He introduced me to so much great modern poetry—Merrill, Bishop, Ammons, Ashbery—so I was happy to introduce him to a poem that had so much resonance for us as two friends.

Ezra Pound’s beautiful translation of a poem by Li Po, from Pound’s great early book Cathay, is a compendium of all his many gifts. Somewhere Pound says that the ideas in poetry should be simple, even banal, and universal and human; he points out that the chorus in Greek tragedies always sticks close to home truths of the sort “All men are born to die.” “Exile’s Letter” has this universal simplicity (“There is no end of things in the heart”). It is about the sadness of parting from dear friends. As someone who was himself often living far from writer-friends, Pound knew all about the exquisite melancholy of leave-taking.

There is also a historical dimension to this poem worth noting: the Chinese had the world’s first civil service and no hereditary nobility. All prominent scholar-bureaucrats could secure positions only by passing rigorous Confucian examinations. Once they obtained these positions, they had to serve somewhere outside of their native district in order to avoid favoritism or nepotism. Each advancement meant a new dislocation. Since the empire was so large and transportation was so bad, friends and lovers and family members were often separated for many decades. Such separation is the subject of this poem. A modern counterpart would be the American academic system, which often splits up couples and divides friends as scholars head to far-flung colleges in search of tenure-track positions.

The pain of repeated parting and the precariousness of the scholar’s life is played out here in a landscape of pellucid pools and beautiful pleasure pavilions filled with dancing girls and gifted musicians. We hear about the “blue jeweled table” and “water clear as blue jade” just as we hear about “vermillioned girls.” Several times we’re told that the participants in these transitory revels are drunk; in traditional China drunkenness was seen as sympathetic, sociable, evidence of sincerity. The most famous Chinese poet of all, Li Po, was said to have drowned while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection when he was drunk. The saying went that someone was a Confucian in office and a Taoist out of office; Taoism was associated with eccentricity, drinking, and writing poetry, while Confucianism was much more staid and official. This poem demonstrates the tension between the two religions—and the two approaches to life.

So-Kin of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
                we paid for the songs and laughter,
And we were drunk for month after month,
                forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
                and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,
                there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
                or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …
                and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
                smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.
And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
                that was the first valley,
And on into ten thousand valleys
                full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
                prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;
And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
                more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.
And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.
And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
                in the cutting wind from the north,
And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
                and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;
And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,
With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,
Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.

                And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.
I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.

And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.
And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
                confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—
There is no end of things in the heart.

I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.

Edmund White’s most recent book is Jack Holmes and His Friend, published last month by Bloomsbury.