New Directions Anthology of
Classical Chinese Poetry
Eliot Weinberger, Editor
(New Directions)To most of us English majors from so many years ago, the poet Ezra Pound made no sense whatsoever. We tried to figure out whatever appeared in our anthologies. We often wondered if our professors could help: they usually couldn't. We worked valiantly to understand the complex turns and twists of his words, especially in the very obscure later Cantos. For most of us, he was --- should we say? --- too pure. Especially for those of us who favored T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Stephen Spender, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas (or even Edward Thomas).Pound was the poet's poet but to us he came from another planet. Not the least of his bizarre activities was his broadcasting over Italian short-wave during WWII long eulogies for the Mussolini government. Many of us had gone into English Literature because of hope and beauty and the flowers and the sun flooding the wheatfields and the night sky flooding us with the Eternal. Here we were being civilized, studying to be the New Romantics and all the while the thought of one of the preëminent poets of English Literature of the 20th century making apologies for the first fascist regime in Europe struck us as weird indeed. We could be in love with the drunken Dylan Thomas throwing up during his readings and then going out feeling up young ladies who attended his parties, but speeches In Praise of Benito Mussolini? No.Be that as it may, Donald Halls' anthology Contemporary American Poetry from fifty years ago carried several poems by Pound, and one that touched us was a translation from the 8th Century Chinese poet, Li Po. Not only could we understand it, we could be moved by it. Pound called it "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." For many of us, it gave us a push to find out more about the verse coming from the Mysterious East.
In this New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry not only does it turn up again, we are given the chance to compare Pound's version to a translation by William Carlos Williams and another by David Hinton.
Long Banister LaneWhen my hair was first trimmed across my forehead,
William Carlos Williams
I played in front of my door, picking flowers.
You came riding a bamboo stilt for a horse,
Circling around my yard, playing with green plums.
Living as neighbors at Long Banister Lane,
We had an affection for each other that none were suspicious of.
At fourteen I became your wife,
With lingering shyness, I never laughed.
Lowering my head towards a dark wall,
I never tamed, though called a thousand times.
At fifteen I began to show my happiness,
I desired to have my dust mingled with yours.
With a devotion ever unchanging,
Why should I look out when I had you?
At sixteen you left home
For a faraway land of steep pathways and eddies,
Which in May were impossible to traverse,
And where the monkeys whined sorrowfully towards the sky.
The footprints you made when you left the door
Have been covered by green moss,
New moss too deep to be swept away.
The autumn wind came early and the leaves started falling.
The butterflies, yellow with age in August,
Fluttered in pairs towards the western garden.
Looking at the scene, I felt a pang in my heart,
And I sat lamenting my fading youth.
Every day and night I wait for your return,
Expecting to receive your letter in advance,
So that I will come traveling to greet you
As far as Windy Sand.
This version reads, unfortunately, like a treatise. "Playing with green plums / Living as neighbors at Long Banister Lane" must have delighted the strict symbolist in Williams, but some of the lines appear stilted, especially passive renderings like "I began to show my happiness," or the neo-Victorian "a devotion ever unchanging" and the down-right corny
Looking at the scene, I felt a pang in my heart,
And I sat lamenting my fading youth.
Even the translation of the Chinese locale as "Windy Sand" seemed far less poetic than the far more sonorous "Cho-fu-sa."
Ch'and-Kan Village SongThese bangs not yet reaching my eyes,
I played at our gate, picking flowers,
and you came on your horse of bamboo,
circling the well, tossing green plums.
We lived together here in Ch'ang-kan,
two little people without suspicions.
At fourteen, when I became your wife,
so timid and betrayed I never smiled,
I faced wall and shadow, eyes downcast.
A thousand pleas: I ignored them all.
At fifteen, my scowl began to soften.
I wanted us mingled as dust and ash,
and you always stood fast here for me,
no tower vigils awaiting your return.
At sixteen, you sailed far off to distant
Yen-yü Rock in Ch'ü-t'ang Gorge, fierce
June waters impossible, and howling
gibbons called out into the heavens.
At our gate, where you lingered long,
moss buried your tracks one by one,
deep green moss I can't sweep away.
And autumn's come early. Leaves fall.
It's September now. Butterflies appear
in the west garden. They fly in pairs,
and it hurts. I sit heart-stricken
at the bloom of youth in my old face.
Before you start back from out beyond
all those gorges, send a letter home.
I'm not saying I'd go far to meet you,
no further than Ch'ang-feng Sands.
This version with its strict couplets seems even more rigid than Williams'. The notes to the Anthology tell us that Hinton is a translator-
scholar- poet and it's apparent, especially when we run across lines like "you always stood fast here for me / no tower vigils awaiting your return." "Stood fast" sounds like something out of a Maoist marching song, and "tower vigils" has touches of their army manual. The butterflies "fly in pairs / and it hurts" bears an unfortunate echo to sappy poems we wrote in our youth, and "I'm not saying I'd go far to meet you" has the touch of someone not to keen to have the old fellow return. This may be a perfectly correct translation, but it don't have no heart.
This brings us back to Pound's version. It occurs to me that it is unimportant that it was, as editor Weinberger says, "written by an American who knew no Chinese, working from the notes of an American [Ernest Fenollosa] who knew no Chinese, who was taking dictation from Japanese simultaneous interpreters who were translating the comments of Japanese professors." The reason? Because what we have is inspired, moving, and very subtle verse.
These are a series of inspired sequential snapshots of two people from a thousand years ago, pushed into an arranged marriage, and the coming of a gentle love. With none but the simplest words --- no sentiment, no stodginess, rich understatement --- we are immersed in five sequences of their lives, with a hint of deep yearning, a possible tragic loss at the end.
The River Merchant's Wife:
Ezra Pound While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married my Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
For ever and for ever and for ever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noises overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the west garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.
§ § §
There are almost 200 translations of other poems from the centuries in this volume, including not a few by Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder. Some are two or three lines, some are four or five pages.
There is also an excellent essay by William Carlos Williams on the translations of Kenneth Rexroth, and a rather loopy one by Pound and Fenollosa on the visual aspects of Chinese Poetry --- that is, how "visible hieroglyphics" create a "time art ... semi-pictorial appeals to the eye." A Chinese character is, thus, "vivid shorthand picture of the operation of nature."
Despite this nonsense, this is an excellent chance to investigate Chinese poetry in translation. The editor's introduction is informative, free of that MLA cant. The best translators, as Williams points out, and this anthology proves, "must brush aside purely grammatical conformations" by "creating a new language."--- A. W. Allworthy