Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese Poetry, edited by Bonnie McCandless

Over the past few weeks, I've taken some time away from the tour of my Eastern anthology bookshelves because, frankly, I got stuck in the "C's", as in anthologies of Chinese poetry. Well, I've read through another intrepid little volume, with a decidedly un-humble scope: poetry from the Ancient Chou Dynasty to the present day (1991) in 127 pages. Chinese Poetry: Through the Words of the People, edited by Bonnie McCandless, is divided into 9 sections, plus an introduction, each section containing a 2 to 4 page intro of its own. So that adds up to almost 30 pages of introductory material, leaving about 100 pages to cover 2500 years of poetry from one of the world's finest traditions. There is one poem per page, with a few poems covering two or three pages.

A daunting task, indeed; you get the idea.

As might be imagined, the presentation here is highly selective and, one would assume, highly qualitative. The translations are by a variety of different people, including Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, Witter Bynner, Kenneth Rexroth, and more. As with many an anthology, I had mixed feelings; it seemed for such a slim volume, there were even slimmer pickings. I winged my way through the entire first two sections until being struck by the following in section three, "Poetry of the Recluse:"

Written While Drunk

I built my house near where others dwell,
And yet there is no clamour of carriages and horses.
You ask of me "How can this be so?"
"When the heart is far the place of itself is distant."
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.
The mountain air is fine at evening of the day
And flying birds return together homewards.
Within these things there is a hint of Truth,
But when I start to tell it, I cannot find the words.
T'ao Yüan-Ming
translated by Cyril Birch

"Within these things there is a hint of Truth ...," an untellable truth - that's the ticket. This poem is immediately followed by a selection of Han-Shan's Cold Mountain Poems, translated by Gary Snyder. Though Snyder's are not my favorite renditions, Han-Shan is one of my favorite poets; this one's a beauty:

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn't make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I'm back at Cold Mountain:
I'll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.
translated by Gary Snyder

Skipping forward to the T'ang dynasty, here is a stinging, incisive poem by Po Ch'ü-I:

Too Brilliant
From distant Annam there came a gift-
a scarlet parrot with coloured plummage
like peach blossom; so clever that
it could speak like men;

-----so, as with clever men
-----they put it in a cage
-----where it sits wondering
-----when it shall taste life again.
Po Ch'ü-I
translated by Rewi Alley

There is a touch of a political air in this poem and it is welcome. From the next section, "Chinese Women and Poetry," comes a poem by a woman in praise of women, which in its time (8th century) and culture had its own political implications:

Willow Eyebrows

Sorrows play at the edge of these willow leaf curves.
They are often reflected, deep, deep.
In my water blossom inlaid mirror,
I am too pretty to bother with an eyebrow pencil.
Spring hills paint themselves
with their own personality.
Chao Luan-Luan
translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

The next section, entitled "Poetry in Music, Art, and Theatre," begins with a poem by the wonderful 8th century poet/painter, Wang Wei, whose work is moving in a deeply personal way:

Composed on a Spring Day on the Farm

Spring pigeons bill and coo under the rocks;
Returning swallows spy out their former nests;
Apricot blossoms whiten the outskirts of the village.
Axes in hand, the peasants set out to prune the mulberry trees
Or shouldering hoes, exploring water sources for irrigation.
Old people leaf over the latest almanac.
As for me, with my cup of wine, I suddenly forget to drink,
Whelmed in abysmal longing for friends far away.
Wang Wei
translated by Chang Yin-nan and Lewis C. Walmsey

The poem itself has such a painterly quality as to conjure up the scene entire in the mind. The technique is one that will also bring to mind for James Wright fans the poem Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota: each line builds, an image at a time, to a sudden final, moving revelation in the concluding line. The Wright poem, often justifiably cited as one of his very best, was initially met with critical resistance which basically posited that the reader was unprepared for the conclusion by what came before. Yet here is Wang Wei, 12 centuries earlier, showing the exact same psychological process which somehow a number of modern critics somehow managed never to experience in their time on this wildly spinning blue ball in space.

Go figure.

A few pages after the Wang Wei poem, is a poem entitled "A Lady Picking Flowers" by the Chinese painter, Shen Chou, who obviously also knew how to wield both kinds of brushes, the painter's and the poet's:

A Lady Picking Flowers

Last year we parted as flowers began to bloom.
Now the flowers bloom again, and you still have not returned.
Purple grief, red sorrow—a hundred thousand kinds,
and the spring wind blows each of them into my hands.
Shen Chou
translated by Jonathan Chaves

A third poem from this section quickly established it as my favorite; those with delicate sensibilities, quick, look away - this one's hot ...

To the Tune "Red Embroidered Shoes"

If you don't know how, why pretend?
Maybe you can fool some girls,
But you can't fool Heaven.
I'd dreamed that you'd play with the
Locust blossom under my green jacket,
Like a eunuch with a courtesan.
But lo and behold!
All you can do is mumble.
You've made me all wet and slippery,
But no matter how hard you try.
Nothing happens. So stop.
Go and make somebody else
Huang O
translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

That's Heaven with a capital "H," fellas. Nobody, but nobody, wants to be on the wrong end of this kind of put-down. You'll notice, while we are busy catching our breath, that like many a Chinese poem, it takes its name from the song melody referenced in its title. Finally, of course, one can't help but wonder if red embroidered shoes were involved in any way besides a reference.

The anthology moves forward to conclude with 3 chapters of modern Chinese poetry, much of which has a political tone and shifts emphasis from the personal/universal to the societal. To be sure, there are some poems of revolution, here and there a poem of nature ("Sonnet" by Feng Chih is quite good), and a beautiful poem of living nostalgia (Bei Dao's "Old Temple").

Any anthology, especially one this slim, that offers up 5 to 10 poems of lasting value is a success in my estimation. I'm not sure, in this case, that this was the type of success the editor hoped for. I suppose if someone else read it and there were 5 to 10 other poems that grabbed them, then it might be accounted an overall success. However, I can't in good faith urge people to seek this one out. It seems to me that the huge editorial scope simply overwhelmed the sheer lack of room. But, if you see it in a used book shop cheap, and I bet you will, or pick it up at the library, it is worth a peruse. You'll probably catch a gem or two that got by me.


This week's featured broadside, HighKu (Lilliput Review, #118), is a highly experimental, with the emphasis on the highly, set of poems by Washington state poet M. Kettner. As such, They may not be everyone's cup of meat, as the poet said. But here's a taste of the 13 poem broadside: the first bag's always free:


aerial surveillance of self
patent leather reflecting sun


sun on chipped paint
alleys steaming



ocean breeze
----on a crate of oranges


feet clean
zits popped.



Ping-Pong ball caught in vacuum hose
parking tickets unpaid


high at midnight:
single light in the rectory
skin a canvas covering


And the Master tells it like it is:

drinking cheap sake--
this cuckoo
this grove

Issa translated by David G. Lanoue



Charles Gramlich said...

So much to explore, and me with only one life.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

So true, Charles - with all this poetry, I've been reading only the occasional novel and I miss it ...

Ed Baker said...

neat stuff, eh?

Bei Dao's UNLOCK

twists and turns that surprise...


a neat/fun book that I prize (title of a section is: "From The Yueh-Fu Collection
Of Ballad-Songs Of The Bureau Of Music In The Han Dynasy")

Chinese Poetry Wai-Lim Yip, editor & translator

seems like "everything" has it s plinth in Song

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, thanks for the recommendation ... a very nice preview over at google books ... I see inexpensive copies at abe (and amazon for those who insist). I remember seeing this one quite sometime back but didn't get it ... time to take a look.

Also will look into Unlock ... also generously previewed ...

Lyle Daggett said...

The post here reminded me that in an earlier post (in January) you mentioned a public TV documentary about Han Shan. I did see the program on the local public TV station here (Minneapolis), and enjoyed it quite a bit. Among other things, they went to Cold Mountain (the actual mountain, in China) from which Han Shan took his name. The video features Gary Snyder, the translators Burton Watson and Red Pine, and Jim Lenfestey (a local poet here).

The video was produced by the Center for International Education, basically the project of one guy, Mike Hazard, in St. Paul, who has produced a number of other poet videos over the years. He's fond of handing out business cards that say "CIE Agent."

A webpage about the Han Shan video is here, if you want to take a look.

(By way of disclosure, I don't have any material interest in Mike Hazard's video productions, though Mike himself has been a friendly acquaintance for many years.)

Enjoyed the review of the anthology here. I too can get completely absorbed in reading poetry from that part of the world. I couldn't begin to guess how many nights nights over the years I've been up late reading Tu Fu or Wang Wei or a hundred others.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Lyle, thanks very much about all the great info. I believe I'll be doing a future post based on this, pointing folks to Michael's movie, which looks absolutely incredible.

I don't know if the film got wider public tv distribution, but it deserves it. Based on the excerpt, I'm ordering a copy and hopefully a post on it will make at least a small targeted audience aware of its availability.

christina said...

wow.. I need to stop over more often to read.. Thanks for the post on this.. very interesting.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Hey, Christina, glad you liked it ...

Chinese said...
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