I am not a fan of Ezra Pound, at least not yet. His elusiveness is something I haven’t “gotten”. However, his translations are something else entirely. “City of Choan” is such a poem. But to understand his genius here, you have to compare him to other translators of the same original poem. I have read three versions, all of which can be found in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: “On Climbing in Nan-King to the Terrace of Pheonixes” by W.H. Bynner and “Climbing Pheonix Terrace at Chin-Ling” are perfectly good further translations of the original poem by Li Po.
Briefly, Li Po (Li Bai/Li Pai) was a poet of the highest degree in ancient China. He served under the emperor before resigning his post and becoming a wanderer. This poem was written after a kind of homecoming of sorts. One night while drunk, he saw the moon’s reflection in a pond, bent down to embrace it, and drowned.
I do not know a lot about Ezra Pound, but I can say he understood poetry is a language of showing. He starts the poem out with a dramatic display of opposites, from the first line to the second.
“The phoenix are at play on their terrace./The phoenix are gone,…”
Pheonix are at first plentiful and playful, and the next thing we know, what happened?
Compare these lines with Bynner’s:
“Pheonixes that played here once, so that the place was named for them,/have abandoned it now…”
It reads like prose, and it’s because of the title that we know where “here” is. (This is a perfectly fine and legal poetric technique, but again, I am reading prose, aren’t I?)
Again, compare the second half of the second line:
“…the river flows on alone” versus “to this desolate river”.
A desolate river is likeable and very poetic, but I can “see” a river flowing on alone. And why is it “alone”? Because the pheonix are gone. Why is the river desolate? Good question.
Pounds third, fourth, and fifth lines are very interesting to read and take in:
“Flowers and grass/Cover over the dark path/where lay the dynastic house of the Go.” (The fifth line is indented.)
“Flowers and grass” is on one short line by itself so that we can see them and not get distracted by whatever comes next. The longer fifth line provides the feeling of climbing along a path. Lee writes, all on one line, “Flourishing flowers of Wu Palace are buried beneath dark trails.” There are several things I can say about this line, but critiquing the comparison poems is beyond the scope of my efforts here; I will mention that I like the flourishing flowers imagery, but I don’t believe it fits within this poem.
However, the next two lines close the stanza and echo the the last three:
The brights cloths and bright caps of Shin Are now the base of old hills.
In the first line of the next stanza we see the cloths and caps by themselves without any distractions, and in the second he puts them into context for us — they blanket the bottom of the hills, almost like litter or trash — remains of a populated place.
And the second stanza starts off with mountains, but what about the mountains?
“Like this green horizon halving Three Peaks” (Bynner)
“The three-peaked mountain half visible under the blue sky,” (Lee)
Both these lines provide a snapshot, that is out of focus at best. How does a horizon halve three peaks? What part of the mountains are visible (I mean after all, the sky is blue)? You still don’t know what to make of it after reading the lines. Oh wait, maybe Pound can give us some answers.
“The three mountains fall through the far heaven”
Ah, yes. Action (mountains falling) and we now have video in perfect focus.
And what about the island?
“The Isle of White Herron/splits the two streams apart.” (Pound)
This is a lot cleaner and easier to see than:
“The two-forked stream separated by White-egret Isle” (Lee).
“A cloud has arisen between the Light Heaven and me” (Bynner) — too fancy
“It’s always the clouds that block the sun” (Lee) — okay, but a little boring
“Now the high clouds cover the sun” (Pound) — the clouds are “high” and they “cover” the sun, plain like Lee, but with more imagery so we can see it.
let’s read how the other poets end their works. Why would I want a cloud “to hide his city from my melancholy heart” (Bynner) or know that “I do not see Ch’ang -an and I grieve”? I know intellectually about these things (grieving, melancholy), but I want it to be immediate, and tangible.
“And I can not see Choan afar/and I am sad.”