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#236: FINDING THE CHINESE POETS—II.   Translating the classic Chinese poetry into the idiom of contemporary English tends to disguise its relative antiquity.  Unless you’re looking at dates, it’s easy to forget that the great T’ang poets Wang Wei and Li Po, for instance, were born in 701 CE—this being a scant twenty years after the death of Caedmon, the Northumbrian lay monastic whose hymn to the creator represents the first attempted steps of the Old English language to move in verse.  By the eighth century, T’ang poets were drawing on a tradition already very ancient: the oldest pieces in the Shih Ching (the Book of Songs, or Classic of Poetry) date back to the eleventh century BCE.  The poet who became the recognizable ancestor of so much later verse, T’ao Yuan-Ming, wrote in the very early fifth century CE. 

      For a contemporary reader of Mandarin to master the distance in idiom and dialect of the T’ang master poet Du Fu, the scholar Stephen Owen suggested to me, would be like an English person today attempting to read the sixteenth-century Scots poet William Dunbar—work required, but it could be done.  But one of the hallmarks of the verse of Du Fu was the way in which it expanded not just the permissible subject matter but the emotional range of Chinese verse—specifically, from the melancholy to the outright tragic.  The reunion of Du Fu with his wife and children, a passage in his long poem “The Journey North,” is still one of the most desolating scenes in Chinese literature—and it was a note whose intensity had not been heard before.

      This is the note, David Hinton suggests, that Meng Chiao ran with in his later life.  In the preface to his collection The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, Hinton says that the earlier poems of Meng, in his days both as a poet-recluse and as a government official, were conventional, uninteresting, and lopsided by a kink for the odd and outlandish detail.  Meng came of age in the days just after the An Lu-shan rebellion—that baleful, scarring moment in Chinese history—and lived through the time (he died in 814) when the dynasty was careening towards its final and complete collapse in 907.  These late poem-sequences aren’t much like anything else in Chinese verse: subjective, often surreal and yet stubbornly accessible to anyone familiar with modern poetry.  They are tumultuous, freezing cold, and yet enormously moving; more than the work of any other Chinese poet, haunted and haunting.  He is alone, without wife or child; he is impoverished, and he is in the midst of raging natural and political storms.  It gave him, as Hinton writes, “a language capable of articulating that murderous furnace at the heart of change.”

      I’ve had my quibbles with others of Hinton’s translations: the language gets bunched up in odd ways, curt when I want it to flow, with awkward enjambments, in part because Hinton insists, as much as the poet-publisher James Laughlin ever did, on lines of equal length. Part of this is no doubt his dealing with the traditional end-stopped Chinese line.  But with Meng Chiao I felt Hinton’s manner was precisely right, exact to the poem’s moods.  This is my favorite of his books.

      Meng’s innovations didn’t catch on.  The quiet and pensive beauties of the Sung, the next great period of Chinese poetry, closed over the terrors of the collapsing T’ang and its poetic extravagances like flesh knitting over a wound.  This was perhaps understandable, but Meng still stares out at us, in our own disordered and violent times, with a familiar strangeness.  We know him as one of our own.



      Another late T’ang figure, Li He.   A child prodigy attracting attention and patrons from an early age, he was plagued from youth with a debilitating illness (some likely combination of tuberculosis and dissipation) and sidelined from public service by a grotesque taboo (a homophone in his father’s name with the title of his imperial exam).  He lived barely as long as Keats, beset with poverty.  This was all long centuries before the French made the poète maudit a recognized sub-genre of literary creature; Li He’s troubles isolated him, leaving him an outlier in misery.  His poems were brilliant with bright colors and Blakean storms, clotted with literary reference that challenged even his contemporaries, amalgams of the early shamanic Chinese verse and the contortions of Yogacara Buddhism.  So it’s particularly fortunate that J.D. Frodsham’s edition, The Collected Poems of Li He, with his careful translation, wise and informed introduction and commentary, has been reprinted by New York Review Books; all of its scholarly paraphernalia is necessary to keep from being lost in the maze.  Li He is not the most easily accessible of poets, but give him a bit of effort and what Frodsham calls “the unearthly pallor” of the poems begins to take hold of you and lingers in memory like some night-blooming flower.



      Mike O’Connor’s book When I Find You Again It Will Be In The Mountains (Wisdom Publications, 2000) is a selection and translation of the T’ang poet Chia Tao (or Jia Dao); like his older friends Meng Chiao and Li He, lived a life some distance from social or professional success.  For some years he was a monk, and then left the monastery and became one more hard-up courtier in Ch’ang-an; he was eventually sent off to Szechuan, China’s then-version of Hicksville.  Not much of this is visible in the verses; his deepest connections were with the eremitic monks whose huts dotted the Chung-nan Mountains, the descendants of whom are so ably painted in Bill Porter’s book Road to Heaven(Counterpoint, 2009).  Chia Tao’s poems, so often farewells or briefly festive pieces marking his visits with friends, are like nothing so much as the famous Chinese ink paintings of a lone man fishing in a boat, a few strokes intimating a landscape, and a large sky of empty canvas.  His natural voice is hushed, but without self-consciousness; sad, perhaps, but without loud plaint.  Read them one or two at a time.  When I Find You Again is currently out of print and not available easily or cheaply, which is dreadful: it’s worth hunting up.  The last piece in the book, “Poem Just Jotted Down”:


                        In the middle of the night,

                        I suddenly rise;


                        draw water

                        from the deep well.


                        White dew

                        covers the woods;


                        morning stars

                        dot the clear sky.



      There were, against many obstacles, women poets during the T’ang, many of whom survive only in the odd poem or two quoted in compendious anthologies, still fewer of whom have had book-length translations of their work into English.  In reading Jeanne Larsen’s Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the T’ang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao(Princeton, 1987) and David Young and Jiann I. Lin’s The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xianji  (Wesleyan, 1998), part of the pleasure is that the poems stand both as individual and memorable works within the long Chinese tradition, as well as original observations from a distinctive and fascinating female viewpoint.  Xue Tao’s Yongwu poems, for instance, bring to everyday objects—bamboo, cicadas, the wind, peonies—a variety of complex emotional responses; Yu Xuanji’s poem “Spring Thoughts Sent Affectionately to Zian” seems, instead, to project her emotions outward onto the reflecting peaks and ravines that separate her from her husband.  Yu’s poem on watching a game of polo is as slyly subversive as any contemporary woman’s poem is expected to be, but you catch it out of the corner of your eye; you can’t quite pin down the innocence or the mockery.  And amidst the insouciance and wit we hear, inevitably, in Guan Panpan’s phrase, the “quiet blaze of grief.”  These poets inhabited the lives allowed to women at the time--concubine, courtesan, Taoist nun, roles for which our English words, David Young points out, are a bit misleading.  Their poems speak so well that we hear not the roles, the assigned social identities, but the individual voices, the inimitable moment, speaking, as all poetry does, person to person.

      Jeanne Larsen has also assembled an excellent anthology, Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China (BOA Editions, 2013), rendering some forty-four of those poets whose work barely survives.  Only four poems of Zhang Wenji, for instance, remain; of Liu Yao, only three; of Liu Shourou, a single piece; no dates are known of any of the three poets. Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon has the special pleasure of reading ancient poetry: it’s like being inside one of those movies where a telepathic character moves through a crowd, knowing their thoughts and bearing their emotions. These women are gone, but their ghosts still speak.




       Li Ch’ing-chao (or, in pinyin, Li Qingzhao), in turn, is always cited as the great woman poet of China.  She’s later, born in 1084, which puts her into the latter part of the Sung Dynasty, when neo-Confucian orthodoxy had constricted even some of the few freedoms women enjoyed during the T’ang.  But Li had been born into an educated and literate family, and in her marriage shared with her husband a passion for poetry and collecting, so she seems to have enjoyed a private freedom when public freedoms were less available.  In insisting on her femininity, you are describing rather than condescending to Li’s poetry; she worked within the ranges of subjects traditionally female, but did them surpassingly well; even in her handful of political poems, her poems of exile, her poems that adapt the mystical language of Ch’u Yuan or Taoist trance-dreams, her stance is visibly female.  Kenneth Rexroth, working with the Chinese poet Ling Chung, has translated her Collected Poems (New Directions, 1979), and captured beautifully the silken, quiet movement of the verse.  And here again, the “quiet blaze of grief”—the melancholy of separation, exile, loss, that Li shares with so many of the Chinese poets.  “My quilts were cold, the incense dissipated / And my dreams interrupted. / I was forced to get up / And face my unending sorrow.”  “I awake / In the empty night / Face to face with a / Guttering red candle.”  Li uses the clarity, the directness of the great Sung poets to speak of the sorrows we all face.  Few have done it better.



     I spoke of the clarity of the Sung style moving away from the commotion and obscurities of Li He or his close contemporary, Li Shang-yin, but it’s not to say that the times settled down as well.  Two poets of this period, Lu Yu and Yang-Wan-li, are specific to the poetry of the Southern Sung, when the imperial government had been driven south by Manchurian tribes, to settle in Hangchow.  Lu Yu was born in 1125, the year of the rout, and his indignation, his pain at northern China being occupied, lasted his entire life: his deathbed poem ends, “On the day the king’s armies march north to take the heartland, / at the family sacrifice don’t forget to let your father know.”  This theme, so stubborn a part of his work, sits oddly side-by-side with another, the laid-back, expansive mood that enjoyed putting his feet up, listening to the rain on the roof, noticing the natural beauty around him, and, of course, having a glass (or several) of wine, all of this making him one more heir to the long happy shadow of T’ao Yuan-ming.  (It’s hard not to get the impression that the Chinese poets were one long parade of cheerful lushes—a lot, a lot of wine gets downed in the in the historic course of Chinese verse).  His eventual literary name, Fang-Weng, translates to “The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases,” which Burton Watson used as the title of his selection and translation of Lu, still happily in print from Columbia University Press.



      Lu’s nearly exact contemporary was Yang Wan-li, and Jonathan Chaves has done a lovely book of his verse, Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow, which has been reprinted by White Pine Press.  Later in life Yang encouraged writers to find their own style, to free themselves from too slavishly imitating the masters; and yet we read him now as part of a style, a time, just as we pick out both the commonalities and personal ticks of, say, the French sonneteers or the English metaphysical poets.  If he reminds me of anyone it’s Su Tung-p’o, for the rich distillation of humanity in his poems, the deepening influence of Ch’an, the entire want of fuss in the verse-making.  An early collection of Yang’s was called Rivers and Lakes, and he spends a lot of time on the water, and we always feel the world vibrant around him—the breeze-cooled pavilions, the scent of plum-blossom, the peaks obscured and revealed by fog.  As he got older, he complained of insomnia, but the final verse in Chaves’s collection suggests that, at last, he took captivity captive:


                        The river is clear and calm;

                                        a fast rain falls on the gorge.

                        At midnight the cold, splashing sound begins,

                        like thousands of pearls spilling onto a glass plate,

                        each drop penetrating the bone.


                        In my dream I scratch my head and get up to listen,

                        I listen and listen, until the dawn.

                        All my life I’ve heard rain.

                                      and I am an old man;

                        but now for the first time I understand

                                      the sound of spring rain

                                                    on the river at night.



     The poet Fan Chengda—a native of Souchou and one of the great names of the Southern Sung Dynasty—had great early success as a diplomat, inevitably stepped on somebody’s royal toes and got shipped out to the hinterlands of Guilin and Chengdu, but, on being invited back to the capital, opted out and retired with his family to a property near Stone Lake, with a great satisfaction still visible in his poems.  Lois Baker has translated an enduring popular sequence of his in Four Seasons of Field and Garden: Sixty Impromptu Poems by Fan Chengda (Passeggiata Press, 1997).  The poems—quatrains rendered as eight-line verses, as with some of Mike O’Connor’s versions of Chia Tao—bear scant resemblance to some of the well-fed, static country estate poems of the British eighteenth century; these are lively, hands-on poems, with plantings and plowings and Festival days, the traffic of birds and bugs, the specifics of crops and weathers, altogether a scene with much busyness going on.  (Silk-making made the fortunes of Suchou, and it’s still thought to be one of the most beautiful garden cities in China.)  It is also, happily, the record of a good season—well-timed rains, good harvests—and Fan makes visible both the expectant watchfulness of Spring and the satisfactions of a good Autumn and Winter.  Baker’s versions are brisk and graceful, her notes succinct and helpful—spiffing good work.



     One of the only later Chinese poets to have received much attention in English is Yuan Mei, who was also a gardener, a collector of ghost stories, and a foodie—indeed, he has been referred to as “China’s Brillat-Savarin.”  By later, I mean he was born in 1716, making him an exact contemporary of Thomas Gray, whom he outlived by a quarter century.  At mid life he bowed out of the administrative rat race, and spent the rest of his life—unforgivably, to his peers—making money off of what he wrote.  His poems lighten up the heavy formality of the Mandarin, being almost colloquial; he had and often demonstrated a puckish sense of humor.  He allowed the common people to sit in his garden in Nanking, and he—unforgivably, to his peers—associated with and encouraged women poets.  If they’d been available then, his car would have had the bumper sticker with “I’d rather be reading” on it, as he was one of literature’s prize bookworms.  He was thought of as a shrugger-off of manly responsibilities, probably a libertine, possibly a sower of political malcontent, and no lover of the various religious establishments, Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist—the phrase “goddam hippy” comes to my mind.  In one characteristic poem he writes “In my thousand mile trek to find a Zen master / I stopped off first down in the country / for a gab with some good old friends.”  A poem entitled “Night Thought” is not a moralism on mortality but ends instead, “Tonight’s the frost’s first fall / that’s all, and I / forgot to cover the houseplants.” The poems are, not flights, but country walks through the most amiable humanity of the long, long Chinese poetic tradition, which means that J.P. Seaton, with his feather-light hand and his ear for the easy vernacular, is Yuan’s ideal translator.  He winnowed a hundred or so poems from a much larger selection of ten years’ work to make this book, I Don’t Bow to Buddhas (Copper Canyon, 1996) and it’s an undisguised blessing.



     And last, a genuine one-off, different from the books I have been noting above, that should probably be approached as a bit of Chinese cultural/literary history rather than a collection of poems.  This is Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, by Michele Metail, translated from the French by Jody Gladding (New York Review Books).  In China wild geese were a common metaphor for notes sent to distant friends and lovers; the book covers a little known tradition within Chinese poetry, the reversible poem.  The particular construction of Mandarin, both in ideogram and in grammar, allows poems which may be read forwards and backwards—or indeed, in circular form, and, in one of its most spectacular performances, an embroidered grid by a fourth century woman, Su Hui, from which poems might be constructed forwards, backwards, diagonally, and based on the various colors of the embroidered ideograms.  Their constructions are based in a period cosmological gadget called the armillary sphere, and echo as well the hexagrams of the I Ching.  Metail’s chapter on the poems that may be thus constructed is called “Three Thousand One Hundred and Twenty Poems,” but estimates have run still higher.  Chinese critics have been dickering with this puzzle for centuries, and Metail has thrown her own beautiful stones onto the cairn, and Gladding has spent considerable ingenuity on getting all this into English.  The later chapters deal with later poets who have dabbled in the form, Su Dungpo and Yang Wang-Li and several lesser folk.  It’s a form all but impossible in European languages, so the book is really unlike any other, and all told, it’s a dazzling performance.

      But just perhaps, a little too dazzling?  It’s entirely appropriate that the author, Michele Metail, was part of the Oulipo movement in France, whose best-known accomplishment was a somewhat Houdini-like interest in proposing constraints and then transcending them: one of Georges Perec’s novels, for instance, La Disparition (in English, A Void), a novel in which there is no use of the vowel e, and its sequel, Les Revenents (in English, The Exeter Text) uses e as its only vowel.  The various participants in the movement delighted in lipograms, rhopalisms, palindromes, univocalisms and other standup forms of ingenuity.  I am mildly allergic to most of this kind of thing, and find that the ingenuity tends to bury the poetry; comparably, C.T. Hsia found most of the poems to be found in Su Hui’s grid “turgid and dreary.”  The European work that Su Hui’s most resembles is indeed Raymond Queneau’s Oulipian chef d’oeuvre, Cent mille milliards de poemes* in which ten sonnets, each with fourteen moveable strips of lines, can be made to render, as the title suggests, one hundred million million poems, and whose combinations, Queneau estimated, would take two hundred millions years to read.  Part of me acknowledges the virtuosity and invention that goes into this kind of thing (honestly, it does); another part of me is made tired just by the idea of it and cannot work up any interest whatsoever. But here these people and their works are; I leave it to you in which direction you decide to run. As they say in the old country, a chacun son gout.



*If you’re curious, Cent mille milliards de poemes can be found for free online ( with an easily manipulated text; have fun, for the next two hundred million years.  Oulipo, by the by, stands for Ouvroir de litterature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature (ouvroir, not ouvrir, as mistakenly in Jeffrey Yang’s fine preface to Wild Geese.)  In the Wikipedia essay you can see the word Oulipo written as an ambigram, meaning it can be read right-side-up and upside-down.  I’m going home now.  Please shut off the lights.




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