Enjoying Flowers Walking Alone

I mentioned earlier this spring, that master classical Chinese poet Du Fu wrote in a troubled era that also troubled his life. Both he and his contemporary poet Li Po were exiled or forced to flee at times, and while I know no details of this poem, I get an exile sense from it somehow.

Have I mistaken this poem? It’s possible. To say I’m no expert on Chinese history, culture, and literature, is to greatly understate the concern one should have. On one level it seems to be a nature poem, set in spring with tree blossoms and flowers. The poem’s speaker walks out among them one morning and notes how extravagant their splendor is.

American nature poetry, such as Emily Dickinson’s, is often suffused with Transcendentalism and a sense that the book of nature presents truths to a close observer. It’s in that sense that I read this poem. The speaker (I’ll just call him Du Fu for the rest of this) is letting the wind (nature, fate) carry him on a path. He notes that the peach trees are blossoming, though no one owns them. No boss, no lord, no slave master, has sent the requirements for this work. Du Fu observing them wonders if he should prefer one shade of blossoms to another, and decides choice is beside the point.

Nor is there any need for an accounting and report of the number of petals that cover his path. They are not losses to be put on a balance sheet, for the trees simply have “more blossoms than they can hold.”

The concluding two lines have my greatest leap of faith or invention from the literal English gloss that I worked with. If, as I sense, this may be the poem of someone fleeing trouble or in exile, this beautiful morning presents a bittersweet scene. Should he simply stay and revel like the butterflies? I sense the final line’s “free and unrestrained” oriole bird is a contrast to that. That bird has choice. It, like Du Fu, can leave. That freedom, to flee beauty, is not a simple thing.

Here’s the text for today’s performance that I adapted from Du Fu’s Chinese poem using a literal gloss in English. All I had were two portions (#5 and #6) of what is apparently a longer poem or series:

Enjoying Flowers Walking Alone

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Here’s what that gloss had:

Huang abbot pagoda before river water east
Spring bright lazy sleepy rely on light wind
Peach blossom one clump open without owner
Lovely deep red love light red

Huangsi girl house flowers fill path
Thousand blossom ten thousand blossom press branch low
Reluctant to leave play butterfly constantly dance
Free and unrestrained lovely oriole cry

The music today features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t harmonically move much with a root note of D. While an actual D minor chord is sounded at times, much of the music stays on suspended chords without a major or minor defining 3rd. At one point I’m fretting an F and F# at the same time which somehow works to my ear in this song’s mood. You can hear the performance with a player that appears below for many of you. Don’t see a player?  This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.


Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)

Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?

Two names surprised me* as I tapped in the poet names that came to my mind that day this month: Edward Thomas and Du Fu. We’ve dealt with Thomas here more recently, so today I’ll speak of Du Fu.**

Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.

Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.

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In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***

Here’s the English gloss of the Chinese I worked from, and for comparison here’s a link to another person’s English language translation.

gloss rain

This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.

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And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)”  version used for today’s performance:

Rain on a Spring Night by Frank Hudson

I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.

I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.

The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?

So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.

My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.

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*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.

**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.

***I was aware of that sort of classification, but it was poet Robert Okaji (who has also produced graceful work in English from classical Chinese poems) who cinched down that tactic for me. Another thing that informed my practice here is my love for “the folk process” transformations that folk music lyrics go through. In that latter example, a tale of an unfortunate British Isles rake easily becomes the tale of a dying cowboy on the streets of Laredo Texas, or a run-of-the-mill elusive bad-boy-robber ballad gets pared down by a colonial subject whose nation has been dehumanized into the tale of a shape-shifting were-fox.

William Blake’s “The Tyger”

It seemed a long time since I last had a new performance to share. I checked, and found it’d only been a week, but since then the moon has had a red eclipse, and in my country there’s been a couple of mass shootings motivated by ignorant ethnic hatreds. Willful ignorance combined with violence is particularly ugly, and presently a state-leader with missiles and bigger guns wants to kill to impress too.

I’ve completed no new pieces. I tried to start two, but so far nothing is developing. So today I thought I’d present this new-to-you performance of William Blake’s “The Tyger,”  mostly because it’s pretty good and I don’t have anything else ready. I made that decision this morning, and then I suddenly realized that “The Tyger,”  a poem first published in 1794 by a mystical Englishman, has turned just about right for this ominous spring and our current year.

Over 40 years ago, I was in bed and my partner asked me how I could account for the presence in the world of evil.*   Strange place and time for that question — for in that moment I was more impressed with beauty and joy. I stumbled for my answer: good was always present in the universe, and always powerful enough to overcome evil — but not always both at the same point. Alas, “not always” is more painful than it sounds to nakedly say.

Visionary poet William Blake asked that question too. Blake was born into a family of religious dissenters and progressed to rebel even further from Christian dogma. He intuited a moral universe where evil was caused by over-justified powers of the creator. Interesting thought that. In “The Tyger”  poet Blake asks a manifestation of terrible predatory power a series of rhetorical questions, meaning to direct our thoughts in the direction of his conclusion.

Now, to get to my performance of Blake’s poem, we need to make a jump cut. Ready?

Year of the Tyger

Year of the Tyger, three times.

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In what’s usually called the Chinese zodiac, years go through a 12 year cycle. I wrote this musical setting for a video of an event in 2010 tied to the Chinese Year of the Tiger. In order to extend the length of performance to the length needed for the video, I refrained Blake’s “Tyger Tyger burning bright” stanza after every verse, a tactic which makes it longer than I’d like it to be today. As it turned out, the video ran longer than planned, and I needed to cross-fade even my lengthened “Tyger”  with another piece then for the final cut of the video. Given how long ago the recording was done, I only have that completed mix from the video’s soundtrack, so “The Tyger”  I present today ends on the start of that cross-fade.

The “Chinese Zodiac” progresses, and as it goes we’ve once again come to the Year of the Tiger in 2022. I think this performance from the previous Year of the Tiger retains its power and so I present it to you now.** There’s an audio player gadget below that will play it for many of you, and where that’s absent, here’s a highlighted link that’s an alternative way to play it.

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*This all seems way too Leonard Cohen doesn’t it? No, it actually happened like that.

**I often find I have one more question as I think I’ve finished a post. This time, I asked myself, what year in the Zodiac cycle was Blake’s 1794? Why, another Year of the Tiger of course.