The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter Introduction
In A Nutshell
Until the publication of Cathay in 1915, Ezra Pound was not really known for his poetry. His early work was poorly received and was a bit preoccupied with an outdated Victorian style. But he was a known in the art world as a vibrant personality and radical thinker. Pound's eye for emerging talent put poets like Robert Frost and, later, T.S. Eliot on the literary map.
Pound was—to steal a foreign phrase—avant-garde. Avant-garde artists are radical and forward-thinking folks, leading the rest of the world into new styles and techniques. Also, his influence on short-lived modernist, avant-garde art movements like Vorticism, as well as his editing of magazines like BLAST, seemed to overshadow his developing poetic talent. But Cathay gained him critical recognition as a poet.
In part, the book was the result of Pound's collaboration with a dead guy. While based in London in 1912, Pound struck up a friendship with the widow Mary Fenollosa, whose dead husband, Ernest, had been a well-respected scholar of East Asian literature and history. Pound never met Ernest Fenollosa, but Mary nevertheless made Pound the executor (a.k.a. caretaker) of Fenollosa's notes on translations of ancient Chinese poems. Although Pound himself did not speak a word of Chinese, he blended Fenollosa's notes, conversations with the Mrs. Fenollosa, and "visual translations" of Chinese characters. Pound would study the character as if it were a drawing, and "translate" from there—even though Chinese characters in no way correspond to what they may or may not look like.
The technique of the Cathay poems layers multiple voices (Pound's, Mr. Fenollosa's, Mrs. Fenollosa's, and the anonymous Chinese poet's) and is characterized by sparser lines, pared down imagery, and a bolder tone than Pound's earlier work. "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," one of the poems in Cathay, is the words of a fictional woman in eighth-century China, writing to her husband while he's away on a six-month business trip. Throughout this piece, the wife recalls memories of how their love progressed and how she longs for her husband's return. More than mere letter in verse, though, this poem represented a bold, first step in the career of one of most influential poets of all time.
Why Should I Care?
Even bob your head to some hip hop? Maybe when nobody was looking? Sure you have, just admit it. While you were shaking your groove thing, though, you may not have realized that what you were listening to was actually a pretty revolutionary form of music.
Now, by revolutionary, we don't mean barricades in the streets or anything like that (though there is a strong element in hip hop that does sympathize with such a notion). Really, we mean that the form of the music is pushing the envelope. How? Well, mainly by sampling. That's the method by which the DJ mixes beats and hooks from multiple songs and transforms them into a brand new musical experience (for a great example, check out The Gray Album, by Danger Mouse).
Of course, that kind of artistic impulse—to pull together existing forms into a brand new experience—was in place long before The Sugar Hill Gang even made the scene. In a way, Ezra Pound was the Grandmaster Flash of his day. And, like a lot of hip hop artists, Pound occasioned more than his fair share of controversy. One of the great kerfuffles about the Cathay poems is that they aren't really "translations." That's not to say that he ever called them translations—but they're neither quite his own work, nor quite someone else's. Plus, in 1915, no one really read Chinese poetry, ancient or contemporary. So when Pound wrote the Cathay poems it really shook up the literary world, which had never considered a country like China (then considered primitive and exotic in many ways) capable of great poetry.
As a result, all of the poems in Cathay—especially "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," which is considered one of the best—have been and remain hugely controversial. Still, that kind of shock was precisely what Pound was all about. His famous credo—"Make it new"—was something he tried to live by in all of his work. He wasn't interested in writing stuff that would fit neatly into the "Poetry" shelf at your local bookstore. He wanted to shake things up, to get the world to think about poetry from a new perspective.
So, if you like predicable, cookie-cutter art that doesn't try to do anything but sit there lamely and yawn, then Pound is not for you. But, if you've ever wanted to push the envelope, experience radical and new ideas, and to just break free from the way things have always been done, then this poem will definitely float your boat. You may even give Pound his props when your joint drops on the scene.