Khaled Mattawa
Khaled Mattawa
Skyping with Saadi, Channeling Li Po

Khaled Mattawa


Skyping with Saadi, Channeling Li Po


Every now and then I have the chance to chat with the great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. We exchange news, talk poetry and more often than not commiserate on the bad shape of our homelands. Also, while Saadi is speaking I often find myself listening to an unwritten chapter of modern Arabic poetry, as if a time portal has opened up to a wondrous and intriguing past I knew nothing of. This time I skyped with Saadi to query him about lines in poems of his that I was translating. When we were finished I asked him what he was working on.

To be sure, Saadi is always writing poems, sometimes several poems a day. But he’s also always working on something else, perhaps assembling a new diwan from among his most recent poems. This time, he told me he’s translating the great Chinese poet Li Po (702-762 AD), also known as Li Bai.

I was very fascinated. I teach Li Po in a comparative poetics class at Michigan. In fact, it was Li Po who led me to discover earlier Chinese texts such as the Book of Songs (Shi Jing) and the Songs of the South (Chu Si), both are works of astounding beauty.

Saadi asked me if I was familiar with “The River Merchant’s Wife”, Ezra Pound’s translation of a poem by Li Po. I said I knew the poem and the story of how Pound stumbled upon Japanese versions of Chinese poetic masterpieces among the notebooks of the Japan scholar Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908). From these translations Pound published the collection Cathay in 1915. The volume includes “River Merchant’s Wife”, but is attributed to Rihaku not to Li Po – Rihaku being Li Po’s Japanese name.

As we talked, I looked for Cathay. Pound, as turned out, titled the book Cathay, Translations by Ezra Pound: For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. Nonetheless, the poems were attributed to Pound as their author, and remain so today. “River Merchant’s Wife” is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language and is always included among Pound’s compositions. In college I encountered the poem as belonging to Ezra Pound, no questions asked.

Saadi then told me that was the impression the great Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926–1964) had when he translated “The River Merchant’s Wife”. Al-Sayyab included it in Qasa’id mukhtara min al-shi’r al-‘alami al-hadith (A Selection of International Modern Poems), an anthology he published in 1955. According to Saadi, Al-Sayyab’s translation of the poem, which I have not been able to locate, was in metrical Arabic verse, or taf’ila, the new poetic form that he and the other great Iraqi poet of the period, Nazik Al-Malaika, had pioneered.

Li Po’s “A River Merchant’s Wife” in Sayyab’s resonant Arabic based on Pound’s English verse is doubtlessly a remarkable poem emblematic of modern poetry in the twentieth century, where translation played an essential role in freeing languages all over the world and the poets working in them from inherited conventions that seemed to stifle creativity. Pound felt this need to bust loose from the prosody and diction of English poetry written in the late 19th century that was choking his voice, as did other writers at the time. Modernist critic Hugh Kenner reports that in 1912 Pound visited Ford Maddox Ford, a writer Pound greatly admired, and showed him his poems. Ford reacted by rolling on the floor in mock agony in response to Pound’s overwrought poetic language. It is no secret that Pound’s discovery of Asian poetry, and his translations of Chinese, freed him tremendously and gave him a sense of lyricism he would not have discovered otherwise. Plenty of evidence also shows that T S Eliot also benefited from translation. Translating French Symbolist poets helped him adhere to Pound’s advice to seek poetic beauty by composing “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”.

As such, Li Po’s “A River Merchant’s Wife” as it reached young Saadi Youssef in 1955 (via Sayyab via Pound) was a powerful poetic cocktail that mixed Chinese classicism with Anglophone and Arabic modernist poetics. And complicated as the poem’s genealogy may have been it was doubtlessly a seamless lyric due to its clear images and its understated expressions of emotion. Saadi went on to say that “Risalah min zawjat tajer al-nahr” (A Letter from the River Merchant’s Wife), attributed to Ezra Pound, inspired him in 1956 to write a poem of his own, titled “Ilhah” (Insistence).

I knew “Insistence” quite well as I myself translated it some time in the late 1990s. In “Insistence” Saadi offers the persona of a young river merchant who is filled with longing for his wife, matching that of Li Po’s female speaker. Saadi’s poet speaker implores the captain, Salim Marzouq, to take him on his ship:

Salim Marzouq, take me       on a ship 

on a ship. Take my eyes for ransom . . .  I’ll do what you wish

except what women are supposed to.

Salim Marzouq          my sad wife

is a prisoner in her father’s house

in a village near Sihan, arid without palms.


Saadi takes the modernist appropriation of Li Po to its logical conclusion. He localizes the tender feelings of Li Po’s female speaker and responds to them with a local male voice rising from the marshlands of Basra.

Decades after writing “Insistence” Saadi discovered that the poem that inspired him to write “Insistence” and other poems of the period actually belonged to Li Po, not Ezra Pound. And now six decades after “Insistence”, Saadi is hard at work on a translation of poems by the great master Li Po, based on English translation. “Li Po’s poetry is rooted in modern poetry, even in Arabic poetry,” he explained. Indeed! And when I said earlier that Saadi is always working on something, this time it delights me no end to see one of the masters of modern Arabic poetry renewing his voice by rediscovering his complicated poetic roots.

Saadi’s new poems echo this intricately braided inheritance, intersecting his subtle voice with Li Po’s acute sensitivity to nature. We also have the solace of drink, the pangs of solitude and the self-deprecating tone that made Li Po’s poetry so endearing and moving, and so modern. But unlike Li Po, who tends to ease us off his painful moments at the end of his poems, Saadi sometimes works his imagistic impressions into intense dramatic conclusions as in the poems “Woodpecker” and “Morning Scene”.

Imaging Saadi as the Li Po of our modern times, I see his poems as combinations of brush strokes that dip inward into emotion and outward into nature, and from this intense exchange of image and disclosure emerge poignant renderings of an extraordinary inner life, rich in empathy and resonant with transcendence.


Published in Banipal 51 - Celebrating Saadi Youssef 

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