Cohen on WCW’s Chinese Translations

In a piece tiled “Empty Hills—Deep Woods—Green Moss: William Carlos Williams’s Chinese Experiment,” Jonathan Cohen writes for Words Without Borders Daily about Williams’s Chinese translations and the impact Chinese poetics may have had on his poetics: “Williams had thought his invention of the triadic line that he used in The Desert Music (1954) and Journey to Love (1955) was the “solution of the problem of modern verse,” Cohen writes, but afterward, Williams

found himself at an impasse with his poetics, and subsequently set out to translate a group of poems from classical Chinese, with the help of a young poet-translator from China named David Rafael Wang (1931–77; known as David Hsin-fu Wand in academe). Wang claimed to be a direct descendant of the famous Chinese painter-poet, Wang Wei (701–61), and soon after meeting Williams, he proposed their collaboration. Not all that surprisingly, Pound—famously described by T. S. Eliot as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”—brought them together.

So,

Early in 1957 the voices of poets from ancient China called to him, in the form of the free renderings (Pound style) of a small group of poems written during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and Song dynasty (960–1279) that Wang published in the February issue of Noel Stock’s Edge.

Cohen also notes,

Chinese poetry became a refuge for Williams, like the green mountains to where its poets would retreat. In June he published a review in Poetry magazine of Kenneth Rexroth’s recently translated One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. This review further demonstrates the appeal Chinese poetry had for Williams, who claimed that so far as he knew, “nothing comparable and as relaxed is to be found . . . in the whole of English or American verse, and in French or Spanish verse.” He said Rexroth’s collection was “one of the most brilliantly sensitive books of poems in the American idiom it has ever been my good fortune to read.”

“In the end,” Cohen ask, “did William’s brief experiment as a translator of Chinese poetry help him in his quest to find a workable form for his new poems?”

his experimentation with the stop-short poems of Wang Wei and others reaffirmed for him the value of their square-looking poems using the jueju form. This design is seen in his poem “The Chrysanthemum,” first published in 1960 in the New Jersey-based magazine Now and later in his final book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

how shall we tell
the bright petals
from the sun in the
sky concentrically

crowding the branch
save that it yields
in its modesty
to that splendor?

The twenty-seven words of this poem, in which the poet contemplates how to distinguish the petals of a chrysanthemum from the sun’s brightness, seem indebted in their form to the jueju. It’s just one word short of the classic eight-line jueju. Here the flower is transformed by the sunlight, much like the moss in Wang Wei’s closing image of “Deer Park.” Other poems in Pictures from Brueghel show Williams’s use of minimal design in the style of the Chinese, following his turn away from the triadic line.

Click the image above for the article in full.

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