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.
Paris Review – “Exile’s Letter” , Edmund White. Do please click through to read Pound’s moving version of Li Po’s poem.