decided to bring the world of Sinology to Sarasota. Already a voracious collector, he doubled down on his passion, buying entire collections of academic journals and books. His research specialty had been China’s most famous poet, Li Po, who lived during the Tang dynasty of the seventh to 10th centuries, often called China’s greatest. That dynasty became his focus. He amassed 75,000 volumes, including 50,000 in Chinese: one of the largest private Chinese-language libraries in the world, and larger than many well-known universities’ Chinese collections.
The project reflected what friends and relatives call Mr. Eide’s sometimes-manic personality. A onetime fitness buff with a dark brown beard, he became a paunchy recluse. He wore old clothes, chain-smoked Winstons and drove a beat-up Volkswagen bus. He poured his efforts into acquisitions but often neglected the details of cataloging and housing the books.
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 poem is by Sam Hamill, his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson(Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015):
Salutation to Burton Watson
So very much learned from the feet of a master— the fall of the Ch’in, the rise of the T’ang and Sung, tales from Masters Chuang and K’ung.
The long dusty roads of the various poets and monks, and sutras chanted, the sake cups filled with kinship and harmonies,
Hardships remembered. It is December, the moon full, snow turned to ice on the frozen ground. I raise a cup of good Nihonshu
To a master, a lifetime’s companionship in wandering borders. Through hard times and good, decade by decade, when my heart yearned
For good company, I always knew where to turn. Tonight, just a cup below Li Po’s cold clear moon— because it is impossible to drink alone.
Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.
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.
A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.
The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.
“They feast and drink merrily despite no accompaniment of strings or flutes. When somebody wins a game or a match of chess, they mark up their scores with drink and raise a cheerful din sitting or standing. The guests are enjoying themselves. In their midst sits an elderly man with white hair, totally relaxed and at ease. That is the governor, already half drunk…The governor can share his enjoyment with others when he is in his cups, and sober again can write an essay about it. Who is this governor? He is Ouyang Xiu.”
In addition to Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修, the article mentions Confucius 孔子, Li Bai 李白, Du Fu 杜甫, and Lu Xun’s Kong Yiji 孔乙己.
Because 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.
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.
At Language Log, Victor Mair posts (pictured here) a handwritten translation of a famous Li Bai 李白 poem, whose translator “said he was caught doing English homework in a Chinese class by his Chinese teacher. The teacher was angry and punished the student by making him translate Shǔ dào nán 蜀道难 (‘The Way to Shu Is Hard’) into English.”
For good measure, Mair posts a translation I did of the poem when I was a college senior, and published on CipherJournal.
Click the image above for the full Language Log post, and the fruitful discussion that follows.
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.
In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.