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97: TRACKING DU FU

#97: TRACKING DU FU. My introduction to Du Fu (or Tu Fu, as his name was then transliterated) was in Robert Payne’s charming and still valuable anthology The White Pony (John Day, 1947), a text in my first course in Oriental literature at school in the early seventies; and shortly after I read Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful renderings in his 100 Poems from the Chinese (New Directions). Both books spoke of Du Fu as the great master, not just of the poetic efflorescence of the T’ang Dynasty, but perhaps of Chinese poetry in general. This mountain-peak reputation seems to have been resistant to all changes of taste and style; the loftier levels of his work are reportedly just as resistant to translation, his easy and varied perfection of expression as much the bane of such attempts as the beauties of Racine and Baudelaire. Some of his accomplishments can be enumerated or explained: the new tragically personal note he brought to Chinese verse, the vivid and tough realism, his expansion of Chinese verse into all the peaks and troughs of experience, the vast mastery both of theme and prosody; Du Fu, said one critic, “could do all the things that present-day poets do only singly.” But other qualities, of Du Fu as man and as poet, translators must seek to express within the verse. William Hung wrote that Du Fu “appeared to be a filial son, an affectionate father, a generous brother, a faithful husband, a loyal friend, a dutiful official, and a patriotic subject.” As Rexroth has pointed out, the number of writers who owe their reputation to their personal character are not many. But to experience the truth of Du Fu’s poetic reputation we must be convinced of his goodness as well as his poetic gifts. Tall order.

One of the limitations of anthology choices of Du Fu in English is that we read them without context—isolated jewels. As the presentation of his work in English has grown, we’ve come to know more of Du Fu’s life and of his historic background—the disruptions and dangers of the period of the An-Lu Shan Rebellion in the eighth century. David Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu (Oxford, 1967) is a fine study of the language and technique of the poems. Florence Ayscough’s two-volume work (Houghton Mifflin, 1929) was an ambitious early attempt at both translation and biography and is still worth reading. William Hung’s Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet (Harvard, 1952) is a historical study with prose renderings—not an easy or inexpensive book to get hold of, alas. David Hinton and Burton Watson have both done book-length selections in chronological order and biographical notes. Then, in 2016 an extraordinary step forward in our knowledge of Du Fu took place: a scholarly six volume set, The Poetry of Du Fu, was published by De Gruyter, edited with translations by Stephen Owen, with accompanying Mandarin texts. This will be of course a Du Fu for scholars, though the translation is admirable and lucid; Owen warns, for one thing, that a chunk of Du Fu’s work is taken up with “the business of poetry”—what we would call occasional verse, tied up with his place as a court official. On the other hand, the good news is that you don’t need a university pension to be able to read it: De Gruyter has put the entire work available to download for free (go to https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/319782), one more blessed example of those occasions when the internet (and one scholarly publisher) can make you feel as rich as a king—or in this case, an emperor.

Even to native Mandarin readers there is a distance to cross to get to Du Fu. I asked Stephen Owen how difficult it would be for a contemporary Mandarin speaker to be able to read Du Fu, allowing not only for dialect differences but the revamping of the Chinese character system introduced during the 1950s. His ingenious suggestion was that it would be much like a reader of contemporary English attempting to master the verse of the the early sixteenth century Scots poet William Dunbar—far from impossible, but requiring some effort. As far as being effectively rendered in English, I feel that many of the technical marks of Du Fu’s verse in the original—end-stop lines in particular, strict parallelisms—are particularly resistant to contemporary poetics and may best be approached with a free hand. David Young in his recent Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (Knopf, 2008) says, “I have evolved a kind of middle way, whereby the Chinese line (which is also a complete syntactic unit, comparable to the sentence) is treated as a free verse stanza, usually a couplet, with a minimum of punctuation.” My sense is that Young’s couplets are as successful in this as Merwin’s triadic stanzas are in translating Muso Soseki, and that his versions have given Du Fu his most convincing voice so far in English. The discovery of Du Fu in English will no doubt go on, but here, right now, is candor, sharp observation, the noise of war, the sound of laughter, the lacerating silences of sorrow—all the voices attributed to Du Fu as he has been studied and loved for a thousand years. It’s a lovely book.

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