#229. FINDING THE CHINESE POETS. One of my very favorites of Red Pine’s earlier books was In Such Hard Times, his translation of the T’ang poet Wei Ying-wu. Pine here does what most translators dream of: he restores to sight an indisputably first-rank poet who has somehow fallen through the historic cracks. The combat zone in Wei Ying-wu’s poetry is at once thoroughly Chinese and universal: the Confucian impulse to public service versus the Taoist/Buddhist impulse to introspection: the office versus the retreat, sociability versus solitude. Wei lived through one of the tumultuous events of Chinese history, the fall of Hsuan-tsung and the An Lu-shan Rebellion, and his life as a minor official was in a time of disorder and upheaval. The call to conscientious public service must have been overwhelming, but this was also a glory period in the long Chinese tradition of monastic reclusion, and the tension between the two is the great source of Wei’s poetry. Wei’s poems are written to cousins and friends who are off in the distance of postings, promotions, exile or military service, or to the monks and priests he admired and befriended, out of sight in their mountain huts. These themes, so large a part of Chinese poetry, might threaten to seem conventional, and the simplicity and quietude of Wei’s style allowed his work to drop out of notice to English translators. But the poems are full of conviction and emotion, of moods superbly conveyed, and, in Pine’s’s renderings, very live indeed.
In Finding Them Gone, his essays on visiting the sites of China’s classic poets, one chapter details Pine’s failed attempts to locate the grave of the T’ang writer Liu Tsung-Yuan; the moment proved seminal, as it led him to the texts of of Liu’s poems, which he has now translated, along with a good helping of Liu’s prose: Written in Exile (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). Here again, as with Wei Ying-Wu, he has brought across one of the really grand and accessible Chinese poets, who for some reason has been all but unknown to Westerners. The central theme, again, is that of so much Chinese verse: Liu was one of those innumerable educated men who ran afoul of the Emperor on a political matter, and was banished to the hinterlands, sidelined by thousand of miles’ distance and prostrated by boredom, homesickness, loneliness and want of duties. Shades of Ovid hover over him, but unlike Ovid, and all those poems of his sent with Romanian postage due to his own emperor, hoping to wheedle a ticket back, Liu seems to have had some sense that the door was closed, and that it was for him to make the best of things; but who was haunted with memories of a family and landscape left behind. The feeling of estrangement—relegated to life among the unfamiliar ethnic minorities and the rough of rural poverty—is never made operatic, never melodramatized, but rendered with directness and quotidian detail that makes the verse all the more piercing. The renderings are vivid and believable—Pine has brought the man across some twelve hundred years and helped him speak again. He missed finding Liu’s grave but found his voice.
And now (2023) we have Choosing To Be Simple, his superb translation of the poems of Tao Yuanming, aka T’ao Ch’ien. These fifth-century poems are the originals from which so much Chinese poetry derives; few poets ever, not even Petrarch, can claim so many direct and reverent descendants. Tao is the original of the Chinese gentleman-poet, drawn by a sense of duty to service—he took posts several times at court, only to find himself serving venial and barbarous men. “Unwittingly I fell into the world of red dust / I was trapped for thirty years” (red dust being the traditional phrase for worldly temptations). He retired to a farm near Lushan, where his weapons against the world’s entrapments were reclusion, poetry, friends, and, hopefully, a steady supply of rice wine. Despite the physical demands of farming and the recurring dangers of starvation, Tao’s better sense won out. From this farm he wrote:
I retired to a farm and lead a simple life
my property includes more than three acres
my thatch hut is maybe nine mats wide
elms and willows shade the garden in back
peach trees and plum trees spread across the front
the nearest village is off in the haze
smoke hangs above the earthen walls
in a distant lane I hear a dog bark
a rooster crows from a mulberry tree
there’s no dirt or trash in my yard
my house is empty but filled with peace
no longer imprisoned in a cage
I’m back again and I’m free
Pine writes: “He could have had more than enough of everything had he wanted. But he would have given up so much if he had.”
Note in the translation the mastery of the syntactic unit that is the Chinese poetic line, and the natural breath of the English, regular but varied, an achieved simplicity ideal to the task of rendering Tao’s verses. Pine wrote me of Tao once that for some years he’d “been trying to build up the courage to invite him onto the dance floor”; he didn’t need to worry. And perhaps the translations arrive as we are in special need of them. We live at greater and greater distance and distraction from the rhythms of rivers and seasons; we spend hour upon hour now at our computers and phones and androids and social media, devouring the world. Watchful and human-hearted, Tao’s poems, in the fresh guise of Pine’s translations, are a signal lesson in how to keep the world from devouring us.
By Red Pine:
--In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu. Copper Canyon Press, 2009.
--Written In Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan. Copper Canyon Press, 2019.
--Choosing to Be Simple: The Poetry of Tao Yuanming. Copper Canyon Press, 2023.
--Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past. Copper Canyon Press, 2016.