Friday, March 15, 2013

Robert Hegel on Pound's translation of the Confucian Odes

Poetry Scores has embarked on a project with ten of the Confucian Odes translated by Ezra Pound. Washington University scholar Robert Hegel graciously contributed liner notes to our project, which we publish here so the many musicians getting involved can learn something about the material.

Love is love, even in translation

By Robert Hegel

Despite the much lauded 4000 years of recorded Chinese history, the songs of the early Chinese are long gone from memory, like those of every other culture. But starting around 3000 years ago, songs came to be written down. At first it was for strictly political ends: the oldest poems all praise the rulers, praise the state, laud their ability to make order out of the chaos that is nature – and human society, when it lacks proper guidance. Through the centuries an ever broader range of poems came to be written down: songs of the hunt, drinking songs, songs of soldiers far from home, the laments of abandoned wives and lovers, and even the songs of courtship. Then around 600 BCE – reportedly by Confucius himself – three hundred of these songs were selected for an anthology that has not changed much since, except to accumulate many layers of commentary. That anthology is known variously in English as The Book of Songs, The Book of Odes, The Classic of Poetry, or as Pound would have it, The Confucian Odes.

By the time of the mighty Han dynasty, from around 200 BCE to 200 of the Common Era, scholars were finding political messages in every song, no matter how racy. It was only the philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) who finally declared that some of these political robes really concealed only bare human emotions. Since then readers have easily projected their own hopes and desires into these ancient writings, making them ever fresh and meaningful. Ezra Pound merely followed along the path well tread by earlier readers, to interpret these poems as songs for his own time.

This set comes from the section of the great anthology called "Airs of the States," meaning the feudal principalities of the early Zhou period. These are the "Airs of Wei," a state closely connected to the Zhou royal house, north of the Yellow River (the Huang He) as it flows eastward around the Shandong peninsula, Confucius's home area. Wei was divided by the River Qi, which is mentioned several times in these poems. Several are written in the voices of young people engaged in courtship and came to be viewed as too frankly physical by some of the more prudish readers. Pound follows this trend with several of his translations, reads admiration for one's body and dress as if it were praise for a man's uprightness and abilities. With others, Pound renders hesitation, desire, and impatience just as they seem to have been meant to be. Politics may change, but love is still love even in translation.

As with lyric poetry of all times and places, these poems have clear rhythms, rhyme schemes; they use complex imagery, repetition for emphasis, may be a lyric followed by a refrain. Pound emphasizes the rhymes to make these translations musical: they sing like no other renditions in English.



Thanks to Robert Hegel, New Directions and the Ezra Pound Estate for their cooperation.

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