Literature is the time-travel tourists’ Baedeker, an excellent way to visit the experience and outlooks of those no longer alive. Setting the Wayback Machine now…
The 4th century B.C.E. was a pretty busy time for philosophy. Over in Greece Aristotle was homeschooling some teenager who’d become Alexander the Great. For some reason I had teachers back in my teenaged years who were Thomists—so I myself got a limited dose of Aristotle back in those only slightly less-ancient years.
Not enough to conquer the world apparently.
In some other reality, perhaps I’d have been exposed to the Chinese classics. And from what I understand another 4th century worthy, Zhuang Zhou,* is a pretty big deal there, not only in philosophy but in Chinese literature and arts.** His collected teachings, the Zhuangzi, is a core Taoist text alongside Taoism’s founder Lao Tzu’s.
Anyway, I’ve just started searching for an available English translation of Zhuangzi, and I may have found one a couple of days ago, but just as I am no scholar of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, I at this point know little about Zhuang’s writing. One thing that the overviews of it let me know is that he used humor extensively.
Picture of two butterflies dreaming of Zhuang Zhou, or…
A picture taken today at the shore edge of Lake Superior. Zhuang also wrote: “They cling to their position…sure that they are holding onto victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle…they drown in what they do.”
Musically, I had a couple of itches to scratch with today’s piece. One? I’ve been listening again recently to some modern disciples of a school of acoustic guitar playing that is sometimes called “American Primitive Guitar.” I don’t care much for that label, even if it was coined by John Fahey, it’s chief progenitor. It traditionally uses flat-top, steel-strung, acoustic guitars (a design variation perfected in the United States before WWII) and it’s informed by some of the tunings and techniques of early 20th century Afro-American Blues musicians, mixed with an appreciation for a variety of Asian musics and some Modernist “classical” composers. The other personal desire? I’ve been missing playing bass in the mode that makes it a lyrical equal to the rest of an ensemble. As a composer, I know the value of the simple bass line too, but sometimes I want it to sing away.
The player gadget to hear my recounting of Zhuang Zhou’s “The Butterfly Dream” should be below. If you don’t see it (some blog readers and reader view options don’t show it) you can use this highlighted link to play it. I apologize to any Chinese speakers for my attempt at pronunciation of Zhuang’s name. I did my best on that, though I’m likely wrong.
*OK, you probably know the drill if you’ve followed along with this project’s presentation of other classical Chinese authors. Zhuang’s name is also rendered as Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tse, and Chuang Chou. And he also was referred to as Zhuangzi, which seems to be the more settled name for the book of his parables and teachings. The shorter part of his name is an honorific, meaning “master,” but given the difficulties with spelling out Chinese names in the western alphabet, I’ve decided not to call him Jam Master Zhuang.
**The later master poet Li Bai would be one example of a writer highly influenced by the Zhuangzi. How far can Zhuang and Taoism’s influence be found? Martin Buber referenced him, and Wikipedia says that Taoist thought has been claimed by anarchists as foundational to their political philosophy.
In the 8th century, in China, there was a poem written by a man whose name we now write in our alphabet as Du Fu.* It’s a short poem, 8 lines, and in it Du Fu addresses a friend, another Chinese poet of his time, Li Bai. Du Fu was able to compress a lot into those few lines about their shared task of writing. I’ve seen the poem’s title translated as “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End.”
Here’s a literal gloss of the original Chinese ideogramic text translated into English:
Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo
I’ve been carrying this gloss around in the background since August, thinking about how to render it when I chose to translate a poem by Li Bai instead. Then this November I was taking time out from the Parlando Project for a task I complete each month: to write up my reactions to a small group of poems from a circle of poets I’ve known for over 40 years. I try do do my best at this. The members of this group are generally accomplished, two of them markedly more so than I. In-between responding to their work, I continued to consider the Du Fu poem.
This project that you meet me at here has allowed me to explore intensively how I respond to poetry, poetry that is often of widely different styles. This only makes me more worried as I respond to this circle’s new work. I’ve seen varied ways poems can work, but I’ve seen the varied ways they can fail with an audience too. I try to respond authentically to the circle’s work, with an open heart, just as I do with the poems I present here, but in the end, what do I know for sure about what works or makes something work better or less well? What then to tell other poets, perhaps ones better than you?
After all, the same thing that seems to succeed in one poem seems to fail in another. I often think of how many musicians and writers have said that if they had the maps and mechanisms to make their art work each and every time, they would go to that place and never leave.
Similarly, if we knew as readers and listeners how to always pay the proper attention, would more poems, songs, or tunes succeed or fail?
This year I’ve begun writing a series of sonnets about my inability to come to grips with a number of simultaneous crises: a viral pandemic, a wider and painful realization of our racial caste system and its costs, the climate change frog-potboiling, and a government in proud, foolish, and willful disarray regarding these things and the judgement of voters. Round and round I go trying to find out what I don’t know. Trying to figure out what’s best to do. No next thing I read or watch will answer that, and some of what I come upon will dismay or anger me. That syndrome has been given a name: “doomscrolling,” and perhaps you have found yourself falling into it too. In honor of the obsessive nature of us little people trying to make sense of these senseless things and manage some mitigating protection for ourselves, friends, and family, I’m calling my series The Doomscrolling Sonnets. We try to puzzle these things out, just as we continue to try to make poetry or other art work.
I think that may be what Du Fu wants to tell fellow poet Li Bai he understands in his poem.**
In my roundabout way, I came to a decision about how to present Du Fu’s poem. I decided to use it as a rough framework, an inspiration, as the kind of translation as starting point that is most accurately described as “After Du Fu” rather than an attempt at a faithful translation.*** This poem isn’t going to be written to Li Bai, it’s going to be to my friends, and to you if you too read, write, speak, or listen to poetry in this troubled time when our rudder is stuck hard to one side and we circle endlessly.
I love dividing the 14 lines of a sonnet in various ways. Instead of an octet and sestet, this one is two 7-line stanzas with the turn/volta in the middle, and a closing couplet. Rather than end-rhyme, I decided to use a variety of internal rhymes, repeated words, and near-rhymes. The effect I’m aiming for here is a constant but irregular little chime occurring rather than a fixed rhyme that has the reader settling into an expectation.
I open the poem trying to render Du Fu’s autumn setting with some extra elaboration, though I translated it to my colder Minnesota clime. I think of the geese here as our occasional encounter with our muses and sometimes the song we hear from them isn’t as sublime as we’d like. And late autumn reminds us of what we must, and have, finished, what we’ve written down: the dried, settled ink and frozen surfaces of pages.
Chinesepoems.com, the source of the gloss above, gives us a helpful hint at what Du Fu is getting at with his closing line. Qu Yuan is a poet who, in a time of despair, threw himself into the Miluo river and drowned. In tribute, poets would come later and throw poems into the Miluo at the site of Qu Yuan’s death. Here again, I had my own localization to apply. I used to walk every day over a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, that mighty stream that runs through the middle of the Twin Cities and the rest of our country. A couple of years before I came to the Twin Cities, John Berryman, a poet and professor had copied Qu Yuan (or Hart Crane) and jumped from that bridge, a direct downward path taken presumably in giving up his own doomscrolling life and literary problems. I knew nothing of Qu Yuan or Du Fu back then when that was my daily walk, but I too once dropped a poem over the side of the bridge. Maybe Du Fu spoke to me before I knew his name? Muses will do that.
This poem’s two best lines I think are my attempt to directly translate Du Fu:
True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and
It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!”
You can stick that one by your keyboard or in your notebook. I think it’s better to listen to muses than demons, even if the muses lead us on, because muses tell us to write poems which we may throw in the water rather than throwing ourselves. I say that, even though I have reminded you here over the years: “All artists fail.” And so, we, poets, will fail. We fail mostly.
* Du Fu is also spelled out as Tu Fu, and Li Bai as Li Po. The poet Ch’un Yuan referred to at the end of Du Fu’s poem can also be spelled Qu Yuan. It all has to do with the problem of taking Chinese language and portraying the names with the Western alphabet.
** Du Fu’s poem was written in a troubled time. The government of China was in turmoil, the country divided in civil conflict. Both Du Fu and Li Bai were imprisoned during this conflict, and Li Bai eventually had a death sentence handed down against him. Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile. The two friends were separated for the rest of their lives.
It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.
10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke. Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.
Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.
My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.
9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).
I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.
The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.
If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.
8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.
His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.
*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.
Heard this one? A Chinese poet, a shadow and the moon walk into a bar, and they order wine from a translator…Oh, that was last time, and Le Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon.” Well I promised I’d say a little bit more about translation in another post, as yesterday’s was already long enough.
I’ve translated some poems for this project that have few or no translations I can obtain. After all, this project is a strange mix of poems few have heard about and then “poetry’s greatest hits.” There’s a real need for translations of poems that have been overlooked, but I do feel like I’m driving my translation SUV on thin lake ice when I do them. You see, I don’t speak any language other than English. My only academic exposure to languages was high school French, and most of what I learned then was that my mouth and vocal cords couldn’t pronounce French words correctly. Whatever knowledge of French vocabulary, much less verb tenses and syntax, has faded over the decades since. About all that’s left is recognizing a French word that I would have wrestled with as a teenager, sort as if one might recognize someone at a class reunion as someone you used to know even while their name now escapes you.
So, what do I rely on since I’m monolingual? Machine translation, such as Microsoft and Google translate is helpful. When I’d translate French poems in the 1970s before any such computer/network things, I’d be thumbing back and forth in French-English dictionaries for an afternoon just to get that far, and now in a second I can get something that is a helpful start. With Chinese poems, Chinese-poems.com provides literal/one-for-one translations for the Chinese characters of a number of poems.
But these two ways are just a start. For example, here is the literal from Chinese-poems.com for a poem by Du Fu about Li Bai:
Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo
And here is Google Translate’s rendering of yesterday’s Li Bai poem:
A pot of wine among the flowers
No blind date alone
Toast to the bright moon
Opposite shadows into three people
The moon is neither free to drink
The shadow disciple with me
Temporarily accompanied by the shadow of the moon
Fun must be in spring
I linger about song moon
My dance shadows are messy
Make friends when you wake up
Disperse after drunk
Endlessly relentlessly travel,
Phase Miao Yunhan
Unless one enjoys the most abstract kind of language poetry, neither is much of a poem, and neither will impress a casual reader with the need to read them or an experience to be savored. What can one, seeking to make an effective English poem, grab hold from these literals?
I almost always start with the images. What is the poet seeing or sensing? As I get some working sense of that, I’m mixing in the question of how these images relate. My primary job as a translator then is to take those things and make them vivid and comprehensible to a modern English speaker. If I fail at that, the translation will fail utterly. If I succeed at that, the result will have some value (assuming your source is a good, effective poem) even if it’s not yet a strong piece of poetry.
I’ve always admired folks who mastered several languages, though I’m not one of them. But, with an open heart and inquiring mind, aided by modern Internet dictionary and research tools, a poet can expand their view of poetry by the process of translating others.
As I polish my translation, I pay attention to what I began to feel are key words. I have spent an hour or two on one word,* and not having any panel of native speakers to refer to, I’ll do Internet searches looking at actual usage of the word in other writing and using online dictionaries to appreciate more about the specifics of meaning.
What about the word-music? Master poet Robert Frost famously said “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” But Frost was a stoic, maybe even something of a fatalist, so this observation from him doesn’t mean to not try translation—it just means to accept a certain amount of failure is inevitable and to continue. If you are translating a rhyming poem from another language to English should you rhyme it, maybe even try to use the original language’s rhyming scheme? My answer to this was no—or it was, until I ran into Rimbaud’s “Eternity” and found it too bare without the reinforcement of the ringing of the rhymes. But to mess too much with a poem’s matter of images and juxtapositions to make rhyme is a mistake in my mind. Similarly, scholars tell me that Li Bai was a formalist poet: his poetry exactly followed the existing rules of Chinese prosody that I have almost no understanding of. Even if I understood them and had a plan to represent them in English, how much can I afford to sacrifice for that? Even though the original poet had to make tough choices during creation within their language to fit the form or make the rhyme, I as a translator have taken on an additional, difficult task and will say I cannot cripple the poem to retain some shadow of its original music.
Still, poetry is musical speech. I do try to make the resulting translation have a music in English. It just may not be much of a copy of the original poet’s word-music. In the Parlando Project I often have fun matching poets and poems to musical settings that seem, at least at first, to be inappropriate. Any word-music device that adds to the poem’s vividness can be chosen anew during the re-creation that is translation.
In yesterday’s Li Bai, I added a refrain, a repeated line that wasn’t a set line, and so it has an intoxicated repetition effect. This device wasn’t used by Li Bai. My reading of his poem was that it wants to represent the experience of intoxication progressing to the point of being quite drunk, and this musical device reinforced that.
Do I look at other English translations, if available? Yes, I do, though my usual practice was to do this after I have finished mine. I’m not sure if this is right, but I have enjoyed the gradual reveal of a poem’s meaning as one labors over the translation, and so I don’t want to unwrap the present beforehand. In case of yesterday’s Li Bai poem there were an extraordinary number of English translations available,** and I collected all I found on the Internet and read them all. I think I may have been asking myself if another translation is even needed here, or thinking there was a possible post on how there can be so many and how they differed.
Remember that “thin ice” feeling I mentioned when one is translating a language that is not one you’ve mastered even to a rudimentary level? Reading another translation can help you check that you haven’t fallen through and trapped your translated poem under the ice where it needs to be rescued or left to die in the white page darkness of your own abandoned project pile.*** Sometimes I double check where I differ, dive deeper into the original language or what I can determine about the author’s intent or knowledge. Other times, I believe I’ve found a co-equal alternative in the poem’s ambiguity. After all, many of the more than 40 translators I found of Li Bai’s poem knew at least some of these other translations. The inarguable fact that there have been many effective portrayals of Hamlet doesn’t mean we should stop performing the play.
Ideally, in matters of culture and language, a poet-translator should work with speakers and scholars of those things. Many translators do, to at least some degree. My age, resources, project deadlines, and personality have kept me from doing this with the translations in this project, and even though collaboration is a component of some effective art, committee work rarely is. Ezra Pound relied on limited Japanese sources for his translations of Tang dynasty Chinese poets. The results were not very accurate, but they produced vivid poetry that bore, however inexactly, the power of their original verse to English language readers.
Currently, there are additional worries about cultural appropriation in such actions, perhaps even in my own. Some of it comes down to a sort of literary Gresham’s law: that less accurate work by those outside a culture will obscure or prevent work by those within it. This is an issue worthy of a few thousand words on its own, but not today. I tell myself at my level, with a small audience (thank you for being that audience!) and a completely non-commercial enterprise for the past four years, that I’d be putting on airs if I thought I was stopping someone else. As an artist, I’ll testify too that bad or incomplete work can be inspiring. I also have enough faith in the accidental and chaotic parts of artistic inspiration that allows mistakes and misinterpretations to produce good art. And while I acknowledge the issues, I have some inner belief that cross-cultural exchange is both unregulatable and desirable.
Speaking of accuracy, of faithfulness to the original poet: I’ve feel a duty to them. Translating someone else’s work can be an intimate experience, an additional level beyond reading a poem, or even deep reading a poem several times, or performing it aloud, or memorizing it. However inaccurately and fantastically, I feel for a few days as if I’m working as an apprentice to this 8th century Chinese master. This year, following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve decided that more of my translations would better be labeled “After…” which is an out if I’ve misinterpreted, and a license to extend what I may have only partially absorbed.
Before I leave the subject of translation, I encourage any of you who write poetry to attempt it. Perhaps pick a poet you’ve liked in translation and double-check the English translation you know by doing your own from the original language. You may be surprised at how freely the translator chose to work, but beyond that: this feeling of co-creation, of apprenticeship and comradeship with another artist, with the choices that need to be made in your language to carry in it what comes from the other’s eyes, heart, and senses—this is a powerful spur to the poetic art. And though the English language can be proud of it’s poets, there’s a world of poetry that was spoken in other tongues. French poetry helped form my early writing, Chinese poetry has expanded the range of my older poetic voice.
No new audio piece today, but here’s a piece about how I eventually came to a theory of how my experience of a song my great-grandfather liked was a “mistranslation” of his experience of it. Oh, and like Li Bai’s poem, intoxicating beverages are involved.
***I’ve been fairly brave or foolhardy given my lack of language facility, but there’s no reason that you have to show anyone your translations, much less perform them as I’ve done here. And while I might be audacious, other people’s work I present here is overwhelmingly in the public domain. I agree that living writers should have a say in the substantial reuse of their work, but your own private translations are not an issue.
Our last audio piece this month had American satirist Mark Twain pointing out incongruities in the longstanding trope of the tortured poetic genius who dashes off “weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, and then gets booming drunk and sleeps in the gutter.”
How far back does that trope go? Well at least to 8th century China, and the authentic poetic genius of Li Bai.* Li Bai and Du Fu are the two most highly regarded poets of the Tang dynasty period, and given that the Tang dynasty can be viewed as the artistic high water mark of an extremely long and wide culture, that makes this pair probably the most esteemed Chinese poets. The metaphor is rough, but unavoidable: either have been called “The Shakespeare of China.” Their lives overlapped, they knew each other, even wrote poems that drop each other’s names.
Li Bai both by reputation and through the persona that appears in his poems, has some similarities to Twain’s poetic genius. References to wine** in Chinese poetry are legion, but even against that background Li Bai stands out for the number of poems he wrote about the consumption of wine and examination of intoxicated states. The Li Bai poem I’m performing today, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is one famous example.
I think this poem pulls off a neat trick. Somewhat like Twain’s “Genius,” on the surface it’s comic: Li Bai portraying himself as a sort of Falstaffian character whose meditation practice this evening in nature is to get hammered on some juice. But to my reading this short poem also portrays the progression of his intoxication subtly. The opening has him cleverly figuring out how to bypass any guilt from society’s admonitions regarding solitary drinking. And then he quasi-surprises himself that his plan is only partly working. I love the image of him finding that his shadow is merely a disciple—that Shadow will only follow Li Bai’s own drinking and not spur him on by proposing additional draughts. Then as his hand gets less steady, the moon’s reflection in his wine cup wiggles and dances. He of course doesn’t sense that he’s getting unsteady himself, but that shadow guy, he sure looks shaky. Finally as intoxication becomes deeper, he senses that his senses are going to be blotto, that the disciple Shadow-man, the companion moon, and yes even Li Bai himself are going to be out of it, cast off into some state not in the here and there of his actual moment.
Where does he go, where does his imagination go? The final image is of stars, moving, swimming it seems, movement-blurred. These could be the actual stars if he’s now flat drunk, or even abstract visual stimuli as his consciousness slips away. Footnotes in some translations tell us the idiom Li Bai uses in his ending may be understood as the Milky Way, the visual smear of our own stellar galaxy visible on some clear non-light polluted nights. My reading is that Li Bai may be using that image, but any stars are blurred and multiplied to his character in the poem now.
My new translation of Li Bai for today’s performance.
Oddly, it takes a clear-headed poet to portray drunkenness. Twain may have had some moment of empathy for his dying in rags and dirt “Genius” poet, however foolish he can portray him. Li Bai starts his poem alone—and though he imagines his two drinking partners, he knows that they too, not unlike real companions absent at the start of his poem, will disappear with his consciousness as the wine flows.
In the original Chinese, Li Bai was a meticulous poet, observant of the traditional forms, a fluent user of rhyme and the Chinese version of meter. I can’t tell if any of the poetry Twain’s genius wrote justified the rough and foolish life, but from Li Bai’s esteemed poetry we know that whatever is true of his now legendary life, that his poetry gives us something worth reading. It’s possible the poet Li Bai used the character Li Bai, the dauntless romantic unconcerned for moderation—just as Samuel Clemmons, the ambitious young man who fled west to become a writer, used the character of Mark Twain.
I’ll probably write a follow-up post regarding the process I went through in creating this original English translation of Li Bai’s poem, but in summary, my observation at the start of that task was that most existing translations worked hard to be poetic, and some achieved that to a degree, but at a cost of not vividly embodying the process and character of the poem’s speaker. So, I went another way.
Musically this started out as a rock quartet: two electric guitars, drums and a very saturated overdriven bass guitar that sounds almost like a synth bass. I used some woozy Mellotron strings again, adding a bit of simulated worn tape cartridge wobble. I was going to go with the infamous Mellotron flute (any two or three notes using that, and many will forget what you’re playing and start to go: “Let me take you down, where I’m going to, Strawberry Fields…”) and then I thought: why not a Chinese bamboo flute instead? The last part I played was an approximation of a guzheng, a long scale zither-like Chinese instrument that I thought of since I had recently seen some examples in a museum this summer.
The player gadget to hear my performance of my fresh translation of Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is below.
*The names we type and read in western alphabet for Li Bai’s name are approximations, and the schemes have varied. Li Bai is also rendered as Li Po and Li Bo and if we take the carom shot off the backboard of Japan’s pronunciation (as Ezra Pound did), he can also be called Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku.
**I had to look and see as I worked on this translation what kind of wine was common in 8th century China and would be known to Li Bai. Most Chinese wine in those days was grain-based from millet or rice. There were regions that made fruit wines then, but they were much less common.
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 Li 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.
Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Li 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.