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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Plums scroll

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

 

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

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

ripe plums are falling

now there are only five

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

now there are only three

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

i gather them in a shallow basket

may a fine lover come for me

tell me his name

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Wild Plums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Plums

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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