David Hinton’s Wilds of Poetry

The Wilds of PoetryShambhala announces The Wilds of Poetry, a study of American poetry by Chinese poetry translator David Hinton.

Hinton takes Henry David Thoreau’s description of “a moment on Mount Ktaadin when all explanations and assumptions fell away for him and he was confronted with the wonderful, inexplicable thusness of things” as “the starting point for his account of a rewilding of consciousness in the West: a dawning awareness of our essential oneness with the world around us.”

The press release explains,

Because there was no Western vocabulary for this perception, it fell to poets to make the first efforts at articulation, and those efforts were largely driven by Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist ideas imported from ancient China. Hinton chronicles this rewilding through the lineage of avant-garde poetry in twentieth-century America—from Ezra Pound and Robinson Jeffers to Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, and beyond—including generous selections of poems that together form a compelling anthology of ecopoetry.

Having, as a translator, “recreated ancient Chinese rivers-and-mountains poetry as modern American poetry,” Hinton in The Wilds of Poetry “reenvisions modern American poetry as an extension of that ancient Chinese tradition: an ecopoetry that weaves consciousness into the Cosmos in radical and fundamental ways.”

Read a sample here. Click on the image above for ordering information.

J. P. Seaton on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following comment is from translator J. P. Seaton:

Burton Watson is responsible for whatever good has or will come of my own work as a literary translator of Classical Chinese Literature. In 1962, about the time his career was taking off, I was as a senior in college, and along with my new wife (now of fifty-six years, Kathy Paradiso Seaton,) I left the excellent little men’s school Wabash College (where Ezra Pound taught for a little while a couple of generations earlier) so that Kathy could go back to school, and I could begin the study of Chinese language (not available at Wabash at that time). One semester into that project, living sometimes on fifteen dollars a week, I was ready to give up. Aside from Pound and Waley I had found nothing in translation that provided sufficient motivation to get me through the first stages of what was to become one of my favorite bits of weekly exercise, the memorization of new Chinese characters. (For any beginners reading this, it gets much easier and more rewarding the farther you go.) I was about to drop out of Chinese. Then I picked Prof. Watson’s Records of the Grand Historian (the book form of his Columbia dissertation as the book, and Ssu-ma Ch’ien as the historian) for the single term paper that would provide the whole grade for a required one hour historiography credit that actually was to decide whether or not I’d get the fellowship that would put Kathy and me through school. I loved Ssu-ma Ch’ien, I fell in love with Burton Watson and the legend that he’d done the translation while snowed-in all one winter in a cabin somewhere in Minnesota, (don’t tell me it’s not so!) and the professor in my 200-plus student class loved my paper. Of course, Harvard man or not, he’d never heard of Ssu-ma Ch’ien: that was before all but two of Watson’s forty-plus books had appeared. So, I got one of the first twelve of the National Defense Critical Languages’ Fellowships. So, simply put, I stayed with Chinese because of Burton Watson’s earliest translation.

Some time after I got tenure at UNC, Chapel Hill, around ’73, I got up the nerve to write Prof. Watson about a problem I was having with two lines of a quatrain by Tu Fu, and he was kind enough to send me an answer on a postcard… I have a treasured sample of his handwriting, but we had no more contact until after I reviewed his anthology, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: from Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, for the scholarly journal CLEAR. It was a privilege, an honor, to be invited, and a joy to write. I’ve always hated “critics” and have refused to write reviews that were other than appreciations.

In the late ’80 I got the idea for a “translation issue,” a single issue dedicated entirely to translations of poetry from classical Chinese into poetry in the American language for the The Literary Review (pub. by Fairleigh Dickinson University,) where I had the usually honorary title of Advisory Editor. I was communicating a lot… old fashioned letters, OMG!) with the poet and publisher (Copper Canyon) Sam Hamill at the time, and he eventually wrote a nice little essay on the influence of Chinese poetry on 20th. cent. American poets. The scholar-translator Stephen Owen wrote another essay for the issue. Sam Hamill helped me contact several writers I didn’t know about, including the then barely known “Red Pine,” Bill Porter, but my idea was that everybody had to come on board, and I took on Gary Snyder, Jonathan Chaves, and finally, Burton Watson. I took on Watson first of these (to me) “big three,” because I hoped he might know something about my work, and/or he might have seen or at least have been told about my review of his anthology. We also had a couple of acquaintances in common, including, as I recall it, Carolyn Kizer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who’d been writer-in-residence at Carolina during my earlier career, and Kenneth Hanson, the great poet, who taught English and translated Lin Ho-ch’ing and Han Yu at Reed College after studying there with both Kizer and Snyder (or so it seems to my flagging memory). Anyway, Watson’s response was swift, and so sweet, yes I said sweet, that he seemed to sense how difficult it was for an unknown J.P. Seaton to write asking for help with a fairly ridiculously naive or idealistic project. Even though he said in his first response that he didn’t think he had anything I’d want, I was emboldened to ask what he did have: kanshi, or Sino-Japanese, he said (poems written in classical Chinese by Japanese poets), and right now mostly “Dog poems,” as in poems about dogs. The poems he finally sent, all of which were printed in the Spring, 1989 Literary Review (Vol. 32, #3), are printed below.

I suspect that Prof. Watson’s name opened the door for Gary Snyder’s contributions. An original poem by Snyder that I mentioned liking when I wrote to him ended up, greatly appreciated by many readers, as the cover image for the issue, and Chaves, once Watson’s student at Columbia, was the last of more than thirty extremely talented, and well known, translators to join up. As a whole, I’ll claim there’s yet to be an anthology to match it, and I credit Burton Watson for creating the editor, as in me, and for bringing on board well known poet-translators whose presence made it easy for all those folks to come together in one place. I’d asked Walt Cummins, the editor of TLR, to see if he could find money to pay the translators, (fat chance we both thought) but with an NEA grant, Walt and TLR were able to pay twenty dollars per poem, and Prof. Watson got $160 to grace our pages with his work. I’ve never gotten paid anywhere else, other than for books, for a translation, and another of the translators wrote me the same thing. At the time I figured the few dollars wouldn’t be much but a gesture to most of the established folks who offered their work. I remember that Ursula Le Guin’s agent couldn’t even figure out where the little check meant for her actually came from, for six early versions from the Tao Te Ching that she later used in her version, published by Shambhala.

In 1990 it was my great good luck to be invited to write a cover blurb (behind  Gary Snyder, of course, and the Zen man Richard Aitken), for the lovely little book of Watson’s mostly autobiographical essays, The Rainbow World, published by the wonderful and sadly short-lived Broken Moon Press. I didn’t know anything about Burton Watson the man until I read this great little book. It’s offered for sale by several book sellers on-line today. I advise anyone who’s interested in Watson the man, or who’d like to see his prose (it’s easy going and always beautiful) when he’s not limited by the subject matter and language of the translation project, to get your hands on one.

When I read John Balcom’s interview with Prof. Watson, the lead article in the Translation Review (#70, 2005 (seems like yesterday) and heard from Balcom and our mutual friend Steve Bradbury that Watson wasn’t getting money of any kind from Columbia, and was actually translating whatever came to hand, including ads and pamphlets, just to get by, I screamed in a couple of people’s ears about getting him a MacArthur grant or a big money prize of some kind… he certainly deserved a Nobel for his service to the world of literature, and of history, and for providing the basic texts of Chinese and Japanese culture to the English readers of the world. I wished I had another $160 check to send him. But, from the Wikipedia biography that tells me all I know about Prof. Watson after 2005 it appears that something like that did happen… he published a couple of more Columbia University Press works after 2005, and also received a Gold Medal prize from a prestigious Japanese cultural organization that I trust was backed up with enough support for his final years to keep him from having to pawn that medal for the gold… I hope I hear from some folks who knew him more intimately that his last couple of years were lived with some of the ease and dignity that a benefactor of the world at large deserves, but maybe sometimes, often, fails to receive.

If there’s an afterlife I dream of listening to Watson explaining Chinese and Japanese languages and translation to Dryden, and comparing notes with his first literary loves Waley and Pound. If we’re most or all reincarnated, may the Heavenly Bureaucrats in charge of our re-assignments, (recalling Waley’s Monkey) with full consideration of our karmic impacts, give us a lifetime of closer contact: I’d gladly do a turn as his amenuensis, or graduate assistant. Hail and farewell to a great man: brilliant, hard working, generous and kind.

Burton Watson poems from The Literary Review, Spring 1989, special Chinese translation issue:

Chang Yueh: Written When Drunk
Once drunk, my delight knows no limits,
So much better than before I’m drunk.
My movements are all shaped like dances,
And everything I say comes out a poem!

Su Tung-P’o: Lotus viewing
The clear wind–what is it?

Something to be loved, not to be named.
Moving like a prince wherever it goes;
The grass and trees whisper its praise.
This outing of ours never had a purpose;
Let the lone boat swing about as it will.
In the middle of the current, lying face up,
I greet the breeze that happens along
And lift a cup to offer to the vastness;
How pleasant–that we have no thought for each other!
Coming back through two river valleys,
Clouds and water shine in the night.

Po Chu-I: A Question Addressed to Liu Shih-Chiu
Green bubbles—new brewed wine;

Lumps of red—a small stove for heating;
Evening comes and the sky threatens snow –
Could you drink a cup, I wonder?

Love Long-Enduring
In the ninth month when the west wind blows,

When moonlight is cold and dew blossoms congeal,
I think of you all the long autumn night—
In one night my spirit leaps up nine times.
In the second month when east winds appear,
When grasses sprout and the hearts of flowers unfold,
I think of you through the slow spring days—
One day and my heart takes nine turnings.
I live north of the Lo River bridge,
You live south of the Lo River bridge.
I’ve know you since I was fifteen;
This year I am twenty-three.
Like the dodder plant growing
By the side of the pine,
My tendrils are short, the branches much too high—
Twine and coil as I may, I cannot reach them.
They say when a person has a wish,
If the wish is worthy, Heaven is sure to grant it.
I wish we could be beasts in some faraway place,
Touching, twining limb around limb.

Spring Outing
I mount my horse, ready to go out the gate;

out the gate, pause in uncertainty,
sure she must be puzzled by all these spring outings.
I know I go on a lot of spring outings,
But what can an old fellow do,
When the ruddy face of youth is fading, fading,
And white hairs continue and continue to appear?
You have ten fingers—use them,
Make a count of my friends for me.
Sage age one hundred is the outside limit—
How many make it into their seventh decade?
Now I am sixty-five
And speeding downhill like a wheel on a slope.
Supposing I should last to seventy,
That leaves me only five springs more.
Faced with spring, not to go out and enjoy it,
One would have to be a fool!

Rokunyo: When My Beloved Japanese Spaniel Died
A traveler offered you for two thousand coins,

And I bought and raised you—just three years.
In cold and heat, hunger and thirst constantly you stood guard;
By instinct you knew your master, made friends with the servant boys,
spoke no words, yet we always knew your feelings.
You learned to tell regular visitors, jumped up in their laps,
but barked indignantly at a strange face—small use you had for them!
Toss a fruit, call your name, and off you’d race;
paws folded, you stood on your hind legs and begged.
You did the hop-skip, the crawl—I had only to command;
but tuckered out, asleep on your mat—then you were in heaven!
One morning, listless and weak, you fell over like a cart wheel;
At heart you knew there was no cure for the sickness.
A hundred coaxings with food or medicine—you refused them all,
You wagged your tail feebly, straining to lift your
head,trying to tell us humans the misery you were in.
Creatures of different species may learn to care for one another;
look on them as brothers and there’s none you can’t accept.
I wrapped the body in a worn-out mat, buried it in the temple plot,
raised a little grave mound, planted a wooden marker.
That night, returning, I thought he came out the door to greet me;
the tinkle of a bell struck my ear—wasn’t that his sound?
I felt so downcast I barely touched my supper,
Next day the whole day sat on my cushion in a daze.
High-minded people no doubt will scoff at such foolery,
but who knows?  These feelings ay be the start of Goodness.*

*A reference to the passage in Mencius, IIA, 6: “The heart of compassion is the start of Goodness”

Spotting Plum Blossoms by the Road
I start to pick them, stop my hand—

whose plum tree is this, poking over the fence?
No one would know, but still I’d be breaking the precepts—
in my breezy sleeve I steal off with a bit of the fragrance.

Winter Day: Scene on the Road to Otsu*
Boats and wagons from north and east converge at this port;

in all the coming and going I don’t see one person idle.
Most pitiful—on Meeting Slope slippery with ice and frost,
rice-bale carriers in thin robes, their bodies drenched in sweat.

*Otsu was an important port town at the southern end of Lake Biwa. Osaka or Meeting Slope is a steep incline on the main road between Otsu and Kyoto.

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.

Tammy Ho on Contemporary Faces of the River Merchant’s Wife

Writing at World Literature Today, Tammy Ho Lai-ming 何麗明 talks about the “Contemporary Faces” of “The Merchant River’s Wife: A Letter,” Ezra Pound’s translation of Changgan Xing 長干行 by Tang poet Li Bai 李白 (whom he called Rihaku) in Cathay (1915). Specifically, she focuses on contemporary extensions, responses, and rewritings: Luca L.’s “Letter to Ru Yi, the River-Merchant’s Wife”; “The Expat’s Partner: An Email,” by Alistair Noon; and “Ghost Husband,” by Renée M. Schell. Here’s how she ends her piece:

In his introduction to Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction and photography, the painter Gerhard Richter suggests that translation means that “something is presented, interpreted, explained, and even understood in terms of something else.” Seen in this way, the three contemporary poems discussed can be called transgender, transtemporal, and transcultural translations of Li Bai’s poem, read through the prism of Pound’s rendering.

Click on the image for the full article.

Rothenberg on Pound & Yip

Jerome Rothenberg has posted his introduction to a collection of the poetry in English of Wai-lim Yip 葉維廉, forthcoming next year. Here’s an excerpt:

But what about [Ezra Pound’s] invention of China or of Chinese poetry?

What is left to say is that Pound set a style that came to typify early twentieth-century translations into English/American and that he later pointed (in Canto 49, say) toward other styles that were possibly closer to the classical Chinese … It fell to Wai-lim Yip – a poet first and foremost – to unearth all this for us – not to invent China over again but to explain and explore aspects of the traditional poetry that link to American works after and beyond Pound and William Carlos Williams.  From Yip’s work we get what we might call the montage principle based on both a knowledge and practice of Chinese poetry and an observation of the work of later American poets, including Pound himself in the Cantos.  (That Yip’s approach is not only that of a scholar but of a deeply involved poet is also something worth noting.)  In the course of doing this Yip has opened for us not only a sensible view of Chinese poetry but a profound understanding of the nature of translation and the possibilities of poetry as they emerge from an actual practice.

Click on the image above for the full piece.

Klein on New Premodern Chinese Poetry Translations in LARB

2016-07-15_1030The Los Angeles Review of Books @lareviewofbooks has published “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now,” my take on what looks like something of a resurgence in translation into English.

I use a nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman to frame a review of Chloe Garcia Roberts’s translation of Li Shangyin 李商隱, David Hinton’s translation of Wang An-shih 王安石, an anthology / travelogue by Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete Du Fu 杜甫, alongside Ira Nadel on Ezra Pound and the New Directions re-release of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (and mention of Gary Snyder, Bob Perelman, Paul Kroll, Eliot Weinberger, and more). Here’s how it ends:

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon … With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.

Click the image for the full article.

Yi-Fen Chou, the Welfare Queen of American Poetry

reganBecause it’s broadly related to Chinese poetry as understood in English, I wrote something about the recent Best American Poetry controversy, published at Drunken Boat, titled “Yi-Fen Chou: Michael Derrick Hudson and/or Ronald Reagan.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is a translation of a poem by medieval Chinese poet Li Bai 李白, and was part of the redefinition of Chinese poetry and Chinese culture in English in the early twentieth century. The Love Poems of Marichiko, presented as translations of young Japanese woman’s poetry but which Rexroth admitted to writing after he was nominated for a translation prize, were an attempt at an imagined empathy with a cultural other, the poems narrating a passion with an unknown lover that dissolves boundaries as the passion dissolves as well. And the Araki Yasusada phenomenon undermined our prevailing notions of authorship to expose and critique the cultural double standards at work in the American poetry industry. Yi-Fen Chou, on the other hand, looks motivated by a desire to take advantage of the prevailing notions of authorship and our double standards in the American poetry industry. And this is why I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan era was when American poetry of all stripes turned inward, as if mirroring not only the government’s xenophobia, but its configuring of trade into a neo-liberal assertion of American dominance, now called globalization. Not that American foreign policy before Reagan had been anything to be proud of, but poets had responded to the Vietnam War by translating more (as they would in the Bush II era, reacting against war by increasing their curiosity about the outside world); in the years afterward the Me Decade took over American poetry, as well, and American poets wrote best about their own personal me. Hudson says “he did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a ‘persona’ or ‘heteronym’ à la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.” That, at least, would have been interesting, and related his pseudonym to his poetry. As is, both his lack of interest in engaging with the culture he names and his use of a minority name to get published make him the poetic equivalent of the domestic and international policies of the Reagan presidency.

Click the image above for the full piece.

Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River Reviewed

crossingyellowriverJohn Bradley has reviewed Sam Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (Tiger Bark Press) at Rain Taxi. He writes:

What is about Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), that has drawn so many translators over the years, such as Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Bill Porter, to name only a few? … Li Po’s “Questions Answered” offers a good example of that “depth and clarity and delicacy”:

You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,

and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.

The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.

I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.

Click the image for the full review.

Not Altogether an Illusion: Lucas Klein on Burton Watson

Illustration from Feng Yunpeng's Jinshi suoAs part of a Translation & World Literature feature, World Literature Today has published my short article “Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson.” Here’s an excerpt:

Since Chinese poetry started being translated into English, poets and sinologists have presented poetry and sinology as if they were locked in eternal conflict. In 1921 Amy Lowell said, “Chinese is so difficult that it is a life-work in itself; so is the study of poetry. A Sinologue has no time to learn how to write poetry; a poet has no time to learn how to read Chinese”; in 1958 George Kennedy said of Ezra Pound, “Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation”; drawing a distinction between the “poet-translator” and “critic-translator,” James J. Y. Liu wrote in 1982 that while the latter’s “primary aim is to show what the original poem is like, as a part of his interpretation,” the former “is a poet or poet manqué whose native Muse is temporarily or permanently absent and who uses translation as a way to recharge his own creative battery [and] write a good poem in English based on his understanding or misunderstanding of a Chinese poem, however he may have arrived at this”; and in 2004, against those who “believe that translations should consist of word-for-word cribs in which syntax, grammar, and form are all maintained, and in which the translator is merely a facilitator who allows the original poem to speak for itself in a new language,” Tony Barnstone posited that the “literary translator is like the musician who catalyzes the otherwise inert score that embodies Mozart’s genius. . . . Fidelity, true fidelity, comes from a musician’s deeper understanding of the music.” The genius of Watson’s translations is that they reconcile the rift between poetry and scholarship.

Click the image above for the full article.

Photographic Response to Pound’s Cathay by Zhao Jing

"Song of the Bowman of Shu" by Zhao JingThe Baltimore Sun reports:

Around the turn of the 20th century, ancient Chinese poetry grabbed fresh attention in the West and provided inspiration for some notable works.

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, for example, found in a set of German translations of Li Po the impetus to create “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). And four years after the 1911 posthumous premiere of that profound music, American poet Ezra Pound published “Cathay,” his influential interpretations of Li Po and other Chinese poets.

A century later, Baltimore-based artist Zhao Jing offers her response to Pound’s “Cathay” in a powerful series of photographic diptychs under the same title, now on exhibit at C. Grimaldis Gallery.

In a way, Zhao has gone through something similar to Mahler’s experience.

Responding to a translation, Mahler composed a kind of second translation — something that captured his own time and style, but also the sensibility of the original. Likewise, Zhao has, in effect, re-translated Pound’s translations and has made her own statement about them and the original poems.

The show will be on exhibit through April 12. Click on the image above for the full article & more information.

Pastreich’s Confucius on Shifts in Institutions

In “Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions” Emanuel Pastreich presents a translation of Confucius so as (per an explanation elsewhere) “to write something that does not sound too sage-like [but rather] is essentially of the same style as contemporary American political discourse … If Confucian writings are translated as the words of sages, closer to the register of the Bible or of Plato, their impact on contemporary American political discourse will be limited.” He translates:

If the terms that we employ to describe the institutions in society cease to be accurate representations of what those institutions have become, then, although we can discuss the problems of our age, the discussion will not correspond with the actual reality in a political or economic sense.

Pastreich applies this to the banking industry:

Confucius suggested that the problems we encounter in the political realm are the result of a slippage in the meaning of the terms that we use to describe. For example, there has been tremendous slippage in the significance of the term “bank” and that slippage has introduced chaos into our society. Although we use the word “bank” without even thinking about its meaning, the term’s significance is far from clear. Whereas the word “bank” referred to an organization with a rather limited mandate to lend money under strict regulations, it has evolved into a complex financial instrument whose roles are multifarious and changing rapidly as money itself has shifted in its significance as a result of the IT revolution. We need perhaps to redefine “money” at the same time.

What I find so striking about this is that while the method of translation is very, very different than translation of Chinese according to the imagined Confucian notion by Ezra Pound, both present us with a similar investigation of the morality of economics, specifically as relates to banking.

Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
WITH USURA
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.