Neither exact translations nor original poetry, the 19 poems in this 1915 collection are an ingenuous hybrid devised by the young Ezra Pound after he was appointed as the literary executor of the late Japanese scholar – Ernest Fenollosa’s work.
Pound found a working manuscript of notes amongst Fenollosa’s notebooks, on a series of poems primarily written by the Chinese poet Li Bai (Li Po), referred to throughout these translations as Rihaku, the Japanese equivalent of his name. Pound, not knowing any Japanese or Chinese language, devised his own style of translation/interpretation as he had done with other languages before.
The poems in Cathay had a profound influence on 20th Century poetry, spawning, among other things, the Imagist movement, and helped to generate a widespread interest in Asian literature and thought.
“Some translators think of everything, positively of everything, save what the original author was driving at.”
– Ezra Pound
To So-Kin of Rakuyo, ancient friend, Chancellor of Gen.
Now I 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
And we were drunk for month after month, forgetting the kings
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea 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 in common.
And then, when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled 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.
And 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 jeweled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us more Sennin music,
Many instruments, like the sound of young phoenix broods.
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 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
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 jeweled 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 water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales, going glass green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtesans going and coming without
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,
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 Choyo song,
And got no promotion,
and went back to the East Mountains
And once again, later, we met at the South bridgehead.
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 here
To seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.
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