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.
Mostly. That’s important.
You should see a player gadget below to hear my performance of “End of the Sky.” If you don’t, you can use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.
* 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 read poet and blogger Robert Okaji’s version of Du Fu’s “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End” last month. Okaji, faced as I am with the challenges of translating Tang Dynasty poetry into an unlike language in a place centuries later, calls his versions “After…” rather than presenting them as translations. This year after reading some of his “After…” poems I’ve decided to do the same sometimes. Here’s a link to Okaji’s fine rendition. For other examples of how “After a poem by…” translations may work see Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love” after the Latin poet Catullus and Ezra Pound’s free translation of Li Bai’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”