I mentioned earlier this spring, that master classical Chinese poet Du Fu wrote in a troubled era that also troubled his life. Both he and his contemporary poet Li Po were exiled or forced to flee at times, and while I know no details of this poem, I get an exile sense from it somehow.
Have I mistaken this poem? It’s possible. To say I’m no expert on Chinese history, culture, and literature, is to greatly understate the concern one should have. On one level it seems to be a nature poem, set in spring with tree blossoms and flowers. The poem’s speaker walks out among them one morning and notes how extravagant their splendor is.
American nature poetry, such as Emily Dickinson’s, is often suffused with Transcendentalism and a sense that the book of nature presents truths to a close observer. It’s in that sense that I read this poem. The speaker (I’ll just call him Du Fu for the rest of this) is letting the wind (nature, fate) carry him on a path. He notes that the peach trees are blossoming, though no one owns them. No boss, no lord, no slave master, has sent the requirements for this work. Du Fu observing them wonders if he should prefer one shade of blossoms to another, and decides choice is beside the point.
Nor is there any need for an accounting and report of the number of petals that cover his path. They are not losses to be put on a balance sheet, for the trees simply have “more blossoms than they can hold.”
The concluding two lines have my greatest leap of faith or invention from the literal English gloss that I worked with. If, as I sense, this may be the poem of someone fleeing trouble or in exile, this beautiful morning presents a bittersweet scene. Should he simply stay and revel like the butterflies? I sense the final line’s “free and unrestrained” oriole bird is a contrast to that. That bird has choice. It, like Du Fu, can leave. That freedom, to flee beauty, is not a simple thing.
Here’s the text for today’s performance that I adapted from Du Fu’s Chinese poem using a literal gloss in English. All I had were two portions (#5 and #6) of what is apparently a longer poem or series:
Here’s what that gloss had:
Huang abbot pagoda before river water east Spring bright lazy sleepy rely on light wind Peach blossom one clump open without owner Lovely deep red love light red
Huangsi girl house flowers fill path Thousand blossom ten thousand blossom press branch low Reluctant to leave play butterfly constantly dance Free and unrestrained lovely oriole cry
The music today features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t harmonically move much with a root note of D. While an actual D minor chord is sounded at times, much of the music stays on suspended chords without a major or minor defining 3rd. At one point I’m fretting an F and F# at the same time which somehow works to my ear in this song’s mood. You can hear the performance with a player that appears below for many of you. Don’t see a player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?
Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.
Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.
In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***
This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.
And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)” version used for today’s performance:
I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.
I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.
The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?
So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.
My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.
*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.
**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.
Wait, before I reveal that, let me take a moment to describe what the Parlando Project does: we take words, most often other peoples’, most often poetry, and combine them with original music and present them to you as audio pieces.
I’ve chosen to use other peoples’ words almost entirely because I’m most comfortable writing about that transaction between a writer and myself as reader, composer, and performer in the midst of passing something on to you as another reader and listener.* The project doesn’t use poetry for every audio piece, but I like pieces with some mystery and ability to create an impact in less than 5 minutes, and poets are the ones that do that.
The music you hear is created for this project. I don’t use library music or borrowed music, and except for computer drums, I don’t use samples or canned loops. For better or worse, most everything you hear was played or scored by a real person.**
I don’t always make these combinations of music and words “songs” in the traditional sense — though our modern sense of song has changed so much in the last few decades that “song” has become a much looser expectation anyway. I try to make my musical settings as varied as I can, which means that I expect some will be more to any single listeners’ taste than others.
Now I’ve caught up any new visitors on the Parlando Project concept, we can complete our Winter ’20-’21 Top Ten Countdown with the most popular piece.
1 End of the Sky by Frank Hudson (after Thinking of Li Po at the End of the Sky by Du Fu). OK, this one used my words, though I based it off a classical Tang Dynasty Chinese poem. Since I wrote it last autumn, the meaning I extracted from Du Fu and attempted to convey in my modern English extension of his poem has only deepened in resonance for me personally. When it was written I was thinking about a small group of poets that I’ve met with every month for more than 40 years to discuss our work. I’m the youngest in that group by a short interval and we had all been writing for more than a decade when we first met.
More than a half-century of writing for each of us, yet I think of myself as less accomplished than the rest of the group — viewed objectively from amount of publication and such this is certainly true — but I wonder too if they ask their own version of the questions I ask myself about what’s valuable to say and what we may construct to justify a readers time and attention. Du Fu seemed to be dealing with some of those feelings in his poem addressed to fellow poet Li Po.
The poem’s statement, my attempt at faithful translation from Du Fu’s Chinese: “True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and/It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!” is one potential answer to those concerns. Poetry may be what we most care about, but the world cares less than that, and in that is a freedom. “How much difference does that make at this late date?” I ask in addition, a line only implied in Du Fu’s poem. And at the age of the poets in my group, “late date” is a general concern.
Since I wrote it, how has this poem changed for me? Those general concerns have been promoted in imminence. I’ll say in too-brief: two are dealing with existential illness. Loss can be at any hand for all of us. Will it, or any of us, be patient?
Du Fu’s poem concluded with an understated but devastating conclusion, something I often find in his work. He writes, our creations and our cares about our creation are like a customary gesture that would’ve been known to poets of his time and place: throwing poems as a gift into a river where a Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet from the past had leapt to his death.
They both ran out of patience. Do you see some resemblance? Qu Yuan and John Berryman, “…who was once handsome and tall as you.”
My modern English solution to my poem’s ending echoes Du Fu’s superficially, but differs in detail. This is what I meant to convey in my conclusion: Berryman’s mental illness and chemical dependency — fed by his doubts, feeding his doubts — weren’t his art or some driving force for it, for they understood none of that.
Say that, then, to your doubts: you don’t understand my art! Work instead to make your work more whole for yourself and for some potential audience, no matter how small. All doubt and self-abnegation can do is take away — and life and fate will do that for you anyway, it doesn’t need your help.
The player gadget to hear my performance of “End of the Sky” is below. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play it.
*When I write or talk about myself, and later look at what I said or wrote, I almost always cringe. In only a short remove of time it seems disproportionate, self-involved, and vain. Every artist must have, at least episodically, some level of elevated self-regard, but for me that self-regard is always being chased by another that reminds me of my follies. I’ve lived a long life, and neither of those two have stopped running, an endless chase, which has allowed me to create — but as the pursuer and their prey, I’m often out of breath by the time it comes to talk about or promote it.
**Early Parlando Project pieces were often live band recordings, but with age, change, frailty, and finally the Covid pandemic, they’re increasingly all me multitracking myself. Computer drums are a compromise I’ve perhaps too easily fallen into.
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.
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.
In the first two parts I’ve tried as briefly as I can to outline two things surrounding this issue. In part one, I surveyed how poetry moved from an ancient form performed with music to a modern form most typically associated with printed text on a page. In part two I looked at the surprising result of a political decision made in the 1930s that led to a rich cultural mix being encouraged to compose music for non-commercial purposes linked to folk music. 25 years after this decision, a singular singer-songwriter linked that idea with many of the discoveries of Modernist poetry and revolutionized what song lyrics could do.
These two things, the move of poetry away from music and performance in general and the move of song lyrics to utilize all the elements pioneered by the Modernist poets naturally bring this question of “Are these lyrics poetry?” to the fore.
I’m going to try (again as briefly as I can) to deal with the issues brought up by this question. Before I do, I’ll spoil the suspense: I believe song lyrics are poetry, even though I agree to some level with the objections to that idea. On one level, a matter of definition, it ought to be simple to agree: the argument isn’t really that song lyrics aren’t poetry (or that various kinds of performed poetry aren’t poetry) it’s an argument that those things aren’t (or aren’t very often) any good as poetry. As I argued here a couple of years back, “not so great poetry” isn’t worthless, and I doubt the arguments that not so great poetry harms those poems we feel are greater or more accomplished.
What are those objections?
Without music or when printed silently on the page many song lyrics, even effective ones, seem much less effective. It may be 20th century comedian Steve Allen who originated the gag where a pop music lyric is intoned as if it’s a deathless ode. Laughs ensue. Allen liked to remind us that he was a songwriter and the author of serious books, but here, for the bit’s sake he’s showing us his skills as a performer. The unintended air of seriousness is incongruous to the material, he leans hard on the choral repetitions—which are used in poetry, but are used much more often in sung lyrics—and any infelicities in songwriter Gene Vincent’s words that we might ignore in the flow of Vincent’s performance get a raised eyebrow in Allen’s. A performer could do the same to “The Waste Land” or Emily Dickinson and make it ludicrous. And Bullwinkle J. Moose could present the once worthy Longfellow for laughs too.
“Drink in the simple beauty and the profundity of the sentiment…Skitch…”
Context is important in art. “The Waste Land” gained part of its launch velocity because of the trauma of WWI and because the Modernist movement was primed for a weighty masterpiece. But context is even more important in performed work, “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be heard sung with music.
Allen was taking a jazz-snob swipe at rock’n’roll. Here he is providing appropriate context for Jack Kerouac. “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry.”
That if considered as poetry, using the same criteria a critic would apply to poems, many song lyrics fail to meet those criteria. Well, a great many poems that have never heard a note sounded beside them probably fail those criteria too. There are arguments that complex song lyrics fail because they are performed which I deal with below, but I ask: how sure are you your criteria are universal? When folks argue that Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan are bad poetry they are almost never arguing “Well, they just don’t work for me.” Instead they maintain that those who feel they do work have been duped or lack the intelligence and skills to appreciate something they posit as more worthy. How many Modernist, now cannon-resident poems, met the criteria of 19th century poetry? Did the Modernists forget how to be modernists? What part of “Make it new” did we forget?
The more I look at poetry, the more I’m surprised that a great many ways of “making poetry” seem to work. I’m pleased by that discovery, while I suspect the criteria people coming across the same discovery would be somewhere between puzzled and disappointed.
When folks answer this question by pointing out ways that song lyrics (generalized in some way) are different from poetry (generalized as well), I often wonder just how narrow their generalized view of poetry is. Poetry expresses itself in so many different ways even without leaving the page. The differences between how Du Fu’s “Spring View” and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” allow us to feel somewhat similar responses to similar situations are immense, larger than the differences between “The Waste Land” and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Complex poetry cannot be appreciated in performance, much less with the distraction of music. I’ve dealt with this briefly elsewhere in this series, but we also need to ask: is complex, analytic, response always called for? In every other art-form I can think of, we allow for various levels of involvement with the art. Because complex poetry can reward deep examination, must it always be approached in all times and places by all people in that way? Audiences differ in their need to understand immediately. “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be absorbed with immediacy as expression and as a series of pleasing sounds. Donald Glover’s “This Is America” isn’t, and indeed it’s designed to make you question your pleasure in a text that works like “Be Bob a-Lula.” What the Bob Dylan revolution proved (regardless of how you rate Dylan) is that audiences will accept complex and unconventional expression in song lyrics. Not every hit song has complex lyrics, but complex lyrics can be a hit song.
If lyrics were good in the way complex poetry is good, that’s immaterial or it may even detract from the music which is the main thing an audience wants from a song. Yes, audiences come to songs for various reasons. Have you never loved a song for evolving reasons? With page-poetry I have certainly been attracted to a poem because of the way it sounded, and that pleasure indicated I might want to stick with it a bit (or re-experience that sound-pleasure) to see what else it might be expressing.
Sure, the ancients performed poetry with music, but that was a primitive solution. Literacy and mass-distributed printed matter is a better medium for poetry. I’m not sure about this. I agree that printed poetry allows for a different experience of the text. Alternate reader here Dave Moore has reminded me that it’s helpful if I provide access to the text of what is performed here. Good point! But the Parlando Project is in part a big experiment to see what works if various kinds of poetry are performed along with various music in various ways. I expect to fail, and I expect to succeed.
Speaking of success and failure, if you’re still here, I appreciate the time and attention you have given to read this. I’m both apologetic for its length and its brevity. Here’s a short audio piece, my translation (with a slight 21st century American adaptation I couldn’t resist) of that four-stanza poem that Du Fu wrote about the trauma of a broken country in springtime, the “Spring View” I mentioned above. Here’s a more literal translation of the text. The player for my performance is below.
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.
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.
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.
“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”
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 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.
National news and household events continually waylay my attention. Dejected gutters, palace intrigues throwing glances on complicated and duplicitous political alliances, and a middle-schooler with the sniffles—how can one weigh these things against this small but welcomed audience here for music combined with (mostly) poetry?
And so, I found myself short of material as I got ready to record with the LYL Band this week, a problem that the domestic, the national, and the poetic world combined to answer.
My wife had sent me a poem from the Confucian Odes recently, a loving gesture gratefully received, and as beautiful as it was, I wondered about the poem and its English translation because of my work here. As the news sticks its tongue out at me with screen-edge notifications (mutterings about the Emperor and his possible private derangement issuing from the far-off capitol) I read again some of those Confucian Odes, an ancient anthology designed to instruct not just scholars or poets, but politicians and bureaucrats.
What an odd idea. I suppose distributive requirements in American colleges still require some exposure to literature for those who will eventually serve in those roles, but this anthology was considered core material in Imperial China. And the Confucian Odes are not grand works of moral or civic uplift, rather they are compressed, tiny reports of humble activities, decisions, and situations. They sometimes imply or depict correct behavior, but they don’t explicitly end with a moral. Their lesson may be, in the largest part, that the reader must study them and find the lesson in the everyday.
How different would our emperor or his retainers be if this was their schooling?
One collection I read mixed in later classical Chinese poems with some of the Odes. It was here that once more I was pulled in by Du Fu, one of those aspiring bureaucrats who was steeped in those odes, but who lived centuries later at a time his country was in rebellion and upheaval. The Confucian ethos elevates faithful service, but who was to be served was shifting with the tide of rebellion. Reading Du Fu’s poems from the 8th Century as a small-part-citizen witnessing an empire disrupted in folly can have eerie resonances.
Late Thursday night, worried about material to record the next day, I began to translate Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace.”
I could not find a clean literal translation of the original ideograms for the entire poem, only for about half the lines. I was able to find three previous English translations, which I could at least triangulate for the parts I didn’t have the raw stuff for.
Looking at what I had, I noticed that Du Fu was making constant juxtapositions, comparisons of contrast. Even the opening lines had water pushing and wind sighing and reflecting. That seems conventional, even a commonplace like “oh no, the wind and rain” in an English folk ballad, but it’s followed by a jump to rodents running through a roof, so close to a translation of the English idiom “bats in the belfry.” I decided to take Du Fu as intentional here. Events may seem to push you, or you may sigh and accept them, but “Rats are running in the rafters.” The ruin is real, and for that matter, your mind may reflect that too.
What follows is part “Ozymandias” without Shelly’s political radicalism, and part ghost story. A ruined palace, once as lush as Mar-a-Lago, haunted by ghosts. I was puzzled by the “green ghost fires” referred to in this section, what with my limited knowledge of Chinese culture. Those three words are wonderous, but I still don’t know exactly what Du Fu is describing. Are there actual fires, lit as protection from ghosts (akin to the tradition of ghost lights in theaters)? Why green? Is it brightly colored moss or overgrowth in the ruins? Is Du Fu seeing luminous ghosts (instead of hearing them as he does later in the poem)? I can’t tell. Looking at some online material on Chinese ghosts, I see that this end of August/beginning of September period is sometimes celebrated as “ghost month” in China, and various things are done both to connect with or protect oneself from various spirits. Offerings, such as burning a pile of currency may be left out. I have no idea if that goes back to Du Fu’s time, but in our current world, the thought of a burning pile of greenbacks to keep one safe from long dead rich people sure seems like a vivid image. And water is running over the palace’s roadways. Just what is the sea level of Mar-a-Lago if global warming isn’t only a political question?
“Green ghost fires” The “ghost light” on the dark Fitzgerald Theater stage and money being burned as part of the Chinese Ghost Festival
As you listen to “Jade Flower Palace” perhaps you’ll want to pay notice to Du Fu’s subtle use of juxtapositions. More so than the other translations I read, I sought to bring those forward in mine. Translators seem to differ on Du Fu’s final lines, and that was a part where I didn’t have a literal translation to draw from. As midnight approached, I left two alternatives for my decision of what the final line should be to follow “There are many paths away from here.” It could be “How long are any of them?” or “None of them go on forever.” In the morning I decided that I would keep both, another juxtaposition.
In the performance on Friday I used this as our band warm up, where we loosen up our old and demented fingers, a cold first take. I repeated the first two lines once more at the end both to emphasize that they should be heard as more than commonplaces, and as a reminder (to invert a proverb of mysterious origin) that history isn’t necessarily instructed by rhyme, but repeats.
To hear the LYL Band perform Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace,” use the player below.
“The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”— though he’s often listed as the author.
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters as Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.
One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture. Early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D. Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.
Ernest Fenollosa, deeply attracted to fur; and Li Bai, more into silk
Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,” and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.
If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.
If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.
Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though “The River Merchant’s Wife’s” source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.
Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)
I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from her village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?
To hear my performance of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” use the player gadget at the bottom here. Since this post is already long, I’m not going to talk much about the music today. The higher-pitched string instrument you’ll hear is my approximation of the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute. There are many moving recitations of this poem available online, but to see an entirely light-hearted modern translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife” after listening to mine, view this one.