The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter

What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?

The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”  is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay.  It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.

Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.*  One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.

If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.

Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Le Bai,**  the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.***  The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.

But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.****  His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.”   But, But But—what!   There’s another letter!  Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.

Partch-Li Bai-Pound

Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Le Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor

 

In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?

I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.

My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter”  is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.

 

 

 

 

*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?

**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.

***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.

****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse.  Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay  he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.

Huazi Ridge (after Wang Wei)

It’s been awhile since I last presented one of my fresh translations of a poem from another language here. Today I’m going to sing a version of a poem by classical Chinese poet Wang Wei, but first a few words about translation.

I’ve grown to love doing translations from other languages here. I view it as an extension of the Parlando Project where we combine various words, usually poetry, almost always by other people, with music we compose and play. That means that most everything here is a translation of a kind, as the author probably didn’t intend for their words to be combined with music, nor are they available to tell Dave or I how to read and present their words.

Translation from another language to English is an additional layer of the author’s work being filtered through what I see and react to in it. Sometimes the Dadaist in me comes around, and I supply music that isn’t conventionally appropriate for the text. This doesn’t bother me.*  But in translating their text, the words someone else wrote, I do  worry about being accurate, being a good steward of their cultural contribution. And I should  worry. I speak no foreign languages. I had High School French. A grandmother and my mother spoke German as a child, but not as an adult with us. I live in a neighborhood with many Spanish speakers. None of this adds up to any fluency. That makes translation a difficult process and my efforts are no guarantee against misunderstanding of the author’s work in their native language. Now add to this the time and cultural gap to Wang Wei, the 8th century Chinese poet—a greater degree of distance than Rimbaud, Rilke, or Neruda.

There is some help in the shortness of this poem. It leaves you fewer lines to recode. Wang Wei was not as slight as his poem is though. Indeed, he was quite the hyphenate. He was a painter, a musician, a poet, and a functionary in various positions in a Chinese government which was facing a serious rebellion in his time, which led to a period in which he was a political prisoner. He was said to be a Buddhist. I know little about the background of this individual poem of his. I first came upon it in another English translation by poet Robert Okaji, who long-time readers here have already been introduced to. Here’s a link to his translation. Okaji has a good tactic for dealing with the extraordinary difficulties in translating a poet so far from us as Wang Wei. His translations are taken, as my Chinese translations are, from a supplied literal transliteration into English. He titles his as “After….,” an indication that he only claims to be sending forth his impression and inspiration from the original author’s poem. Good idea. I chose to do the same today.

Here’s the literal transcription he and I used as our entry into this poem:

Fly bird go no limit
Join mountain again autumn colour
Up down Huazi Ridge
Melancholy feeling what extreme

My guess is that Okaji was struck by the visual imagery in Wang Wei’s poem, and more than I eventually did, Okaji well-portrayed that aspect. As an accomplished painter, Wang Wei was unsurprisingly known for the corresponding strength in his concise portrayal of natural scenes in his poetry. Though I didn’t go that way with “Huazi Ridge,” I often chose this route in translations: finding a way to make vivid the imagery the poet presented in my modern English.

I instead chose to go with two other aspects. The first that struck me was a strongly implied parallelism in this tiny poem: the birds who “go no limit” in the first line and the “Melancholy…what extreme” in the final line. The birds can fly, their possible course seems infinite. Even a mountain is no barrier to them. Sadness, suffering, dissatisfaction, and humanity’s attachment to that, is at the core of Buddha’s teachings. So, in trying to get at the meaningful linkage between those two lines I chose to see the birds as choosing to return to this mountain, this massively material earthly obstacle (perhaps as a migration or habitat) even though they could fly seemingly anywhere.

Here’s what I came up with in English:

Look these birds can fly without limits
Yet they return to this mountain in red autumn
All up and down Huazi Ridge
What then are the limits of sadness

A central fact in this poem remained unsettled as I worked on my translation. Where is Huazi Ridge and the associated mountain?** What is the landscape, why would Wang Wei choose it in particular? There some extra degrees of difficulty in a web search on Huazi. The western alphabet I’d search on is an approximation, and place names everywhere change with regionalism and time.

Web searches on Huazi often led to a Chinese Mount Hua. Here’s a somewhat irreverent but illustrative video of what it’s like to climb up and down it.

Turns out there are easily a dozen videos out there of what it’s like to climb the path up Mount Hua, but I still like this one.

 

The translation I came up with—my impression, however mistaken, yet (I hope) worthwhile—of Wang Wei’s poem sought to portray an earthbound, flightless human noting the birds who could easily fly over the mountain and anywhere else they would choose, but instead they return, captured perhaps by the autumn beauty or the immense thereness of the mountain. Ah, notices the poem’s speaker—“Look!” he urges, see this too: even the flight-blessed birds who do not need to trudge up and down at great peril and effort choose not to step off the wheel of return. What then are the limits of suffering, sadness, unsatisfaction? You climb the mountain once, twice, how many times? The noble truths of the Buddha’s teachings says that you will return, as the birds do, until you can choose to see all that is not the mountain.

What’s the other thing I sought to put in my English impression? I rendered it in metrical verse. And since it is said that Wang Wei played and composed for the pipa, the Chinese lute, my music today uses my attempt to portray a little of that instrument using the MIDI interface on my guitar along with a more Western drums, bass, and electric guitar ensemble. The player to hear my performance of “Huazi Ridge”  is below.

 

 

 

*Bother me? Hell no, it’s great fun—and unusual juxtapositions sometimes demonstrate something that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed in a work we perform. Since we use material in the public domain, there are no rights issues with authors preferences.

**I couldn’t even find a pronunciation for “Huazi,” and my fear is that this performance’s guess could be risibly bad by Chinese standards. I know I have some Chinese readers. Is Huazi mountain and/or ridge a well-known place that would be meaningful to a Chinese reader?

Reading Du Fu in the Ruins (with hope)

I’m still unable to think of completing new content here, but let me quickly follow up to say that we seem to have passed through the worst nights featuring the burn and bust cadres on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Which leaves only the sorrow and injustice, more than enough to tamp down my muses.

If plagues, oppression, and fires seem Biblical, then we get miracles too. Take the scene of the semi-truck coming down the freeway with thousands sitting on the pavement in focused protest just past a gentle curve. I have surely slighted the murmurations of crowds in a recent post, because they parted in an instant of flight seen in the video that looped over and over in coverage last week. Moses and Aaron never saw the like—not a single significant injury. Knowing America bristles with guns governmental and otherwise is not a comforting thought any night for me, but also the guns barking hardly at all* (so far) seems nearly as miraculous.

 

Plagues and miracles: additional phone video showed some of the first to the cab stopped retribution being taken on the driver. 

 

I continue to be amazed and gratified at the racial diversity of the protests here. That shouldn’t be a miracle, but it’s noticeably different than the earliest BLM protests. This may be a result of the clear casual atrocity of the George Floyd killing or some “Great Awokening” kind of evolution. Call them the Prince Rogers Nelson brigade. Afro-Americans seem to be leading the protests and observances now and focusing on the issues and pain. When people jumped on the still crawling forward semi-truck and yanked the driver from his controls in the furious moment when several tons had just missed killing and maiming hundreds, it was Afro-Americans in the crowd who stayed the blows.

There’s been much chatter in the neighborhoods/local social media and in some mainstream media articles about who the smash and burn cadres are, and if they are in some organized sense. From watching hour after hour of coverage and trying to use what rusty “radar” I have from old activist days, I suspect at least some small-group organization aided by modern cell-phone tech and automotive mobility is a factor. When I talked to alternate Parlando voice and keyboard mainstay Dave Moore last week I said “Give me 50 agile young people with some hand tools and fire accelerants and I could create all the significant destruction of the past week.” Five teams of ten, even if they aren’t together, would work just as well. Largely unconfirmed reports have these as anything from leftish anarchists, to younger right-wing militia types who hate the police too, to drug seeking gangs.**

Multi-racial neighborhood people seem to be on edge about this. It’s not just some rehash of the old “outside agitators stirring up our good local Negroes” trope. As the protests become more focused and organized, they also seem more effective at recognizing adventurist acting out and curbing it.

When I spoke recently about the Gloomy Gus progressives, the ones who will sagely tell us how nothing ever gets better, and how this or that supposed progressive advance was an illusion or failure, I perhaps should have made clear I was talking to an element in myself too. My nature and life says the human condition is limited, even though it can store immense amounts of hate and love, creativity and indifference.

What are those limits? What elements will be part of the solution or part of the precipitate? What I think about these things, what I can do about them, is less important that what you and you and you think and do.

So, nothing new today, but here’s Dave Moore and I performing a poem written in a set of wet ruins by the supreme classical Chinese poet Du Fu centuries ago, and translated by myself. Was Du Fu a Gloomy Gus? Maybe, though like Robert Frost when he was lost or downhearted, he knew to press on anyway. Here’s the text if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget for the peformance is below unless you’re reading this with the WordPress IOS app (try using a browser instead to hear the audio piece in that case).

Jade Flower Palace – Du Fu trans. by Frank Hudson

The stream winds, the wind sighs.
Rats are running in the rafters.

The prince who owned this palace–
No one knows his name,
But it stands, abandoned beside these cliffs.

In dark rooms green ghost fires are shinning.
The streams now run over the boulevards.
From the trees I hear flutes? Voices?
Autumn leaves are wet with rain and rattle in the wind.

The young palace ladies,
Once painted on scrolls:
Now yellow dust buried in the earth.
What use now their robes,
their makeup and kohl?
And his gold chariots and the men who drove them?
There is only this carved stone horse.

I sit down on the grass and try to write of this,
But my ink is overcome by rain or tears
There are many paths away from here
How long are any of them?
None of them go on forever.

 

 

 

*One man reported shot and killed in what was sketchily reported as a looter/store-owner confrontation is all I know of. He seems forgotten in the surplus of events.

**One publicized arrest so far is a white guy (from, of all places, Galesburg Illinois, the hometown of Carl Sandburg) who live-streamed himself doing stunt arson and looting for a following that looks smaller than this poetry and music blog. The main argument for gangs is that far away from many of the crowds of protesters that unintentionally provided herd-cover in the early days of this, a large number of drug stores got broken into across the city.

Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman

It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself”  section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.

He could have spoke the same of the world, even if he was a believer in American Exceptionalism. But he wasn’t alone in American beliefs. Artist, printmaker, and poet William Blake thought as much in London even as we struggled here for independence. And in the era Blake wrote his “America, a Prophecy,”  in our America, a young woman, who had been abducted from Africa and enslaved, Phillis Wheatley, filled the next fold of her future by writing her book of poetry.

And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.

In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.

Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.

Confucian Ode to Blake Dickinson and Whitman

Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.

 

The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,*  Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.

If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.

A couple of years back I presented two poems together, one by Carl Sandburg and the other by Ezra Pound that spoke of Dickinson and Whitman. The better educated Pound takes a side-swipe at Whitman who he declares he once merely detested, saying Pound’s time is for carving, though grudgingly, that Whitman “broke the new wood.”

Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,”  editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.

In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.

Trump tower with shadow on name

If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”

 

I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.

Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.

Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman”  is below.

 

 

 

*And so, by way of a footnote, our April-born William Shakespeare’s father made gloves.

And the most liked/listened to piece this fall was…

What makes for a “hit” in the small province of the Internet that is yours and mine?

We started off the countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces here this past fall by talking about the variety of poets and writers that we use for words. Yes, we present well-known poems and poets work, and yes, we like to go further and look at the poets that other poets were influenced by or admired. Sometimes we go yet farther down into the unclaimed storage locker of history, to the obscurities that you likely won’t encounter in school or standard literary surveys.

When looking for words I only ask to find some interest in them and that they are of a length and focus that can work with music, and that they are free for me to use (typically this means pre-1923 work that is in the public domain).

And you, the audience? If you’ve stuck with our efforts here, you’re broadly curious, or at least ready to wait for something to come along that strikes you. I’m so pleased to have you listening and reading, because, like me, you’re ready to have encounters with the unknown or new aspects of the known.

And look at what most captured your attention this fall. Four poems by well-known authors (Sandburg, Cummings, Blake, and Dickinson). Two by influencers/”poet’s poets” (Edward Thomas and Paul Blackburn). Two that are from classical Chinese poets (Du Fu and the unknown author from the Book of Odes).   And one observation I wrote myself (though I also arranged the short quotation from Blackburn and did my own translation of Du Fu).

This past fall’s most popular piece is yet another English translation from the Chinese Confucian Book of Odes.  Even though the words appear to be an inaccurate translation, they’ve gathered their own place in English-speaking culture in the same way that the King James version of the Bible, or FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat,  or Ezra Pound’s own take on classical Chinese poetry have, despite disputed translation accuracy.

Wild Plums scroll

A mid 12th century Chinese scroll illustrating another plum poem in the Book of Odes

 

Someone first wrote, and likely sung, this poem nearly 3000 years ago in some southern province of China. Given that it’s another of the Odes  written in the voice of a woman, we may assume it was a woman. English translations I have read generally portray the speaker as a well-born eligible woman who is more or less saying “Hey suitors. I’m a catch. If you want to marry me, get your proposal in quickly.” A minority contrastingly represent the woman as being too picky, rejecting too many suitors, and in that view, she needs to stop fiddling around and choose. Either reading is interesting. At least on the face of it, it’s reflecting some (though likely upper-class) female empowerment in bronze-age China. But these are not the translations I used.

Here’s the text of the translation I used for my performance. It can be found all over the Internet, but more importantly and intimately, it was known by my wife who sent it to me.

ripe plums are falling

now there are only five

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

now there are only three

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

i gather them in a shallow basket

may a fine lover come for me

tell me his name

When I first posted my performance as “Wild Plums”  I didn’t know who did this translation, and despite several hours of reading and searching, I still don’t. Translators generally are attracted to and retain the poem’s litany of plums* decreasing in number, regardless of how they render the situation, but the outlook presented by this version is different. The woman has less agency, or at least in this matter of desire and longing over the course of the poem, she is willing to cede for the moment her power (other than hope). And that is one of the things lyric poetry allows: no one need expect that the moment of emotion or perception in a short lyric is a person’s whole thoughts and feelings on a matter, or themselves. We only ask that it shows us something vital that we wish to have shared between ourselves. As such, this version strikes a chord in our time and our culture.

I still don’t know who this translator is. I have a theory. If that writer didn’t write the translation herself, she popularized it, as I can find no references to this version of the ancient poem before Susan Sandler’s 1985 stage play and then screen play for the 1988 movie Crossing Delancey. Here’s how the poem was used in the movie:

I saw the movie when it came out, and I remember liking it. A different take on the RomCom formula.

 

The woman in this scene (played by Amy Irving) is the movie’s unmarried heroine, and the somewhat smarmy dreamboat across the table (Jeroen Krabbé) captures the heroine’s attention immediately with the personal resonance she feels with this version of the poem.

The person who posted the movie’s poetry scene on YouTube says the translation was by Arthur Waley, but I’ve already found other references to a completely different translation that begins “”Plop fall the plums; but there are still seven” by Waley. So, what’s my mystery translator theory? Could it be by Susan Sandler herself? If anyone knows, please give me info in the comments.

Well after all that, here’s my performance of this piece. If you haven’t heard it yet, the player is below.

 

 

*Poets and writers seem attracted to the plum when choosing their imagery. The wild plum is referenced elsewhere in the Book of Odes, and Horace, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, Mary Oliver, and William Carlos Williams (meme-worthy, if non-wild, plums). I even decided to use wild plum blossoms in my own ode about my son.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Numbers 4-2

4. Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant words by Emily Dickinson. It should be no surprise that Dickinson turns up often here. I’m attracted to short poems that have a word music of sound or thought, and Dickinson has both in abundance in this, another very short text: 41 words.

This poem is often read as Dickinson’s private artistic credo. In summary paraphrase: “I’m going to write about things obliquely, because you people can’t handle the truth.” Still, I think there are other elements here, other harmonic overtones. One is the human tendency to slant the truth. In the poem’s one simile, she likens this slanting to the pleasant myths told to children threatened by lightning, and I don’t believe that’s Dickinson’s goal in her writing.

Another aspect, reflected in another Dickinson poem, There’s a Certain Slant of Light,”  is the Transcendentalist outlook, one that she seems to have been aware of. In that other poem there’s that word “slant” again, but here we are to know it’s nature itself that’s slanting reality. The transcendence in Transcendentalism is the belief that the surface of reality is not all there is, that study and insight and a visionary approach can reveal a deeper reality.

In that harmony, Dickinson isn’t saying “Hey poets, just do what I do! Obscure your real thoughts and insights so the non-hip won’t gather what you’re talking about until someone takes a post-graduate course a hundred years from now.” Rather she’s saying “Reality will seem to tell you children’s-story myths. Get around them. Keep looking, and gradually the blinding surprise will come.”

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

My soul’s been Transcendentalized!

 

3. Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out) words by E. E. Cummings. More slanted light here, as Cummings meditates on the arrival of a sensuous night. If the 19th Century American Transcendentalists were the ancestors of the 20th Century American beats and hippies, Cummings here seems to be heralding the Surrealists that would soon emerge within a decade in the dreams of a European night.

With much extravagance of language, Cummings risks ridicule without a care.

I’m quite fond of the music I wrote and played for this one. The acoustic guitar is tuned in “Pelican tuning” which is named after a piece by John Renbourn that used it.

 

Bjork Lipping Flowers

“I will rise after a thousand years lipping flowers.” No, I’m not covering Björk Guðmundsdóttir, I don’t have enough diacritical marks or musical genius.

 

2. Cold Is the North Wind words by unknown. This is a piece taken from the Confucian anthology of ancient Chinese poetry titled variously in English The Book of Odes, The Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs,  or just Poetry.  Since the collection’s poems date from deep antiquity, perhaps as far back as 1000 B. C., authorship is unknown, though not a few of them are written in a woman’s voice, and the subjects of the first section, The Airs of the States, are often everyday people and everyday activities, not Emperors or scholars, not heroes and their great battles.

The reason for collecting the poems and making them required reading is also hard for history to remember. The consensus over time was that in studying these poems an understanding of the Chinese empire’s subjects and concerns would be engendered. In England and its colonies, it was contrastingly once assumed that its future leaders would study ancient Latin and Greek poetry as a core subject.

Weighing something as large as history is hard, and I can’t say if either of these two traditions helped much. Evil and ignorance, mendacity and violence—how far can we range in history without running into lengthy annals and imposing monuments to those things? We can’t avoid these monsters, and yes, and so, we must study them. Yet, yet, what if our leaders were expected to study a song such as this? I can’t believe it would help most. I also believe it would help some.

 

Chinese  flying Teapot

Cold enough that some hot tea would be good, but Gong have flown off with the teapot.

We have just one more number in our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past Fall. We’ll be revealing Number One in our next post.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake.  When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.

Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.

When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things.  Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.

 

 

The Angel by William Blake

In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.

 

 

6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas.  Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem Adlestrop  on a visit to England.

Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.

 

Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges

 

5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu.  I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.

There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.

During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.

I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.

That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife or South Folk in Cold Country  are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”  isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect”  played back faithfully either.

 

Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.

I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.

Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.

Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.

Arthur Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

 

Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.

I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu”  still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.

Cold Is the North Wind, and Why Did Confucius Collect a Book of Songs Anyway?

Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes  or The Book of Songs.

This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last piece, “Wild Plums,”  this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.

When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs,  I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.

With the Confucian Odes,  remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind”  that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind”  you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.

In both cases, the Song of Songs  and “Cold Is the North Wind,”  I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow  isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.

There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.

There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”

Chinese Throne

“So, I’m writing this tweet. What makes the best metaphor: low IQ, sick, ugly, dumb, dog, failing or FAKE? I’m a genius myself, but poetry is an elite WITCH HUNT, and I could use a little help casting this spell. What, you can use poetry to listen, not just to speak good?”

 

 

If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?

The player to listen to my performance of “Cold Is the North Wind”  is below. If you’ve been checking out the archives of over 250 other combinations of various words and original music on the right, you might notice that “Cold Is the North Wind”  appeared here several years back, before the official launch of this blog. With today’s post, it will now be available to those that follow the audio pieces via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or through other podcast services.

 

 

Wild Plums

Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.

I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for literary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.

If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes  (or the Book of Songs  as it is often called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.

Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs  before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.

We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?

Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.

Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?

Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?

Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.

I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, or of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).

Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs  material would be different and inexact in his own way.

Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.

Wild Plums

Wild plums my wife found along the Mesabi Trail, leading me to today’s piece

 

Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes  because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.”  This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, that repetition of the line “the plums are falling ,” and this lured them away from the original meaning.

As best the literal translation I linked above can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.

So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.

And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve even added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece. To listen to the LYL Band’s musical version of this very old poem in it’s more romantic guise, use the player below.

 

*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.

**That my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms, she even found and sent the less romantic literal translation as well.

(footnotes because I love My Year in 1918 using them)