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.Han-Shan
translated by Gary Snyder
Skipping forward to the T'ang dynasty, here is a stinging, incisive poem by Po Ch'ü-I:
Too BrilliantFrom 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:
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.
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
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
----on a crate of oranges
Ping-Pong ball caught in vacuum hose
parking tickets unpaid
#757high at midnight:
single light in the rectory
skin a canvas covering
And the Master tells it like it is:
drinking cheap sake--
Issa translated by David G. Lanoue