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“Exile’s Letter” is stuck in Edmund White’s head
We’ve written about the Paris Review’s “The Poem Stuck in My Head” series before (here and here). But that’s because we like it so much. In the latest installment, Edmund White reflects on “Exile’s Letter,” a poem by Li Po, translated by Ezra Pound:
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.
White also provides some nice context for the original poem, explaining that 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” and then moving to new parts of the empire. So long periods of separation and dislocation weren’t unusual. White writes:
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.