Turner on Poets of the Late Tang Dynasty

The Collected Poems of Li He   trans.  J. D. Frodsham   (NYRB, March 2017)

Matt Turner reviews The Collected Poems of Li He 李賀, translated by J.D. Frodsham, and Li Shangyin 李商隱, edited by Chloe Garcia Roberts with translations by Roberts, Lucas Klein, and A.C. Graham, for Music & Literature. His piece begins:

Most American readers of Chinese poetry come to it through classic translations by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, and a few others. With some notable exceptions, those translations have tended to focus on the poetic triumvirate of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE): Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Wang Wei. The literary context in which those three Tang poets are placed—in China as well as the U.S.—is part of a long, ascendant tradition in Chinese letters, beginning to certain degree with the early anthology that Confucius assembled … The poems of the Shijing, which often seem little more than folk ditties, span seven centuries during the fabled Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE)—the time, according to Confucius in his Analects, when politics and society were ordered as they should be. In China, the Zhou and Tang periods are acknowledged as two golden ages, exemplars of what is best in the Chinese tradition. A trajectory of one to the other is easily assumed.

But poetry from the period is as little in imitation of the Shijing as the politics of the Tang were a repetition of Zhou politics.


Enter Li Shangyin and Li He … These later-Tang dynasty poets sit even more uncomfortably within the Confucian tradition than Li Bai. Both flaunted their dissipation, and their work calls to mind Ashbery-like discontinuities of image that seem to utterly lack the edifications of orthodox, Confucian letters. If we consider that one of the key Confucian tenets was zhengming, the fixing of qualities or relationships in language in order to demonstrate the Confucian worldview (i.e., a lord has the “lordly” attribute of benevolence, whereas a lord who is malicious cannot be recognized as one; a poem was a means to education, whereas a poetry that disregarded pedagogy could not be called poetry, but only be regarded as nonsense), then Li He and Li Shangyin were then obviously bad guys who disregarded order, proper behavior, and other concerns of literary orthodoxy. Their nonconformism was strong enough for Li He to be omitted from the classic anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems, and for Li Shangyin, though still anthologized, to be classed as only a distant cousin of the three greats: Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Today, their literary legacies are explored primarily by edgy scholars and poets, so the existence of these recent English-language editions is fairly remarkable.

Li Shangyin   trans.  Chloe Garcia Roberts , with additional translations by  A. C. Graham  and  Lucas Klein   (NYRB, July 2018)

Turner pays particular attention to translation:

This collected edition is a necessary addition to the growing body of Chinese poetry in English translation, as well as a corrective to the Poundian tradition of Chinese poetry as plain-spoken and full of imagistic language and tropes. It’s unfortunate that, although a collected edition, it is not dual-language—especially since Frodsham’s translations sometimes seem a bit musty next to the few pieces done by Graham … Nevertheless, Li He was definitely singing a “weird tune,” one which comes through the static of the English.

And in Li Shangyin,

The NYRB Poets edition lets the reader refer to the Chinese-language original as well as compare different English-language versions. This is especially important for a poet like Li Shangyin, where so much of his writing is in soft-focus, even in the Chinese. Multiple translations offer us differing glimpses of the same poem—not only as translations, but also as parts of the kaleidoscopic world the original alludes to. For example, one poem in versions by all three translators lets the reader consider the poem’s world as it is disclosed upon our own, in a cascade of synesthetic appearances.

He ends:

As readers, whether or not we can read Chinese and regardless of our familiarity with that tradition, we might ask ourselves what worlds we want our poetry to invoke or create for us, and what we want from Chinese poetry in particular. These editions of Li He and Li Shangyin will probably thwart those assumptions, evoking worlds we are not entirely familiar with. One reason for that is not the quality of the translations, but our distance from the world of the later Tang. Another reason is that the poetry was, simply, always a bit off. It’s good to know that, sometimes, things don’t change.

Read the full article here.m

Nan Da on Recent Chinese Poetry in Translation

https://i0.wp.com/www.the-tls.co.uk/s3/tls-prod/uploads/2018/08/Nan-Da-COVER-605x770.jpg?resize=347%2C439&ssl=1Nan Z. Da knows everything.

In a cover story for the Times Literary Supplement titled “Poetry of the suicide note,” or alternately, “It is useless to live,” she reviews five recent books of Chinese poetry–both modern and premodern–in English translation: Hawk of the Mind, the collected poems of Yang Mu 楊牧, edited by Michelle Yeh; Narrative Poem 叙事诗 by Yang Lian 杨炼,  translated by Brian Holton; Michèle Métail’s study of “reversible” poems in Wild Geese Returning, translated by Jody Gladding for Calligrams; and the Calligrams re-release of The Collected Poems of Li He 李賀, translated by J. D. Frodsham and François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated by Donald A. Riggs, with an anthology of Tang and Song poems translated by Jerome P. Seaton.

The essay begins,

There is a type of Chinese poem called the juemingci [絕命詞], which means, roughly, verses to terminate your life. Almost the poetic equivalent of a suicide note, the juemingci … is a formal acknowledgement of one’s negative relation to the present: the world in whatever configuration it finds itself will never be for you, will never work out for you, and the mark of a fine mind is that it will go to waste.

She also writes:

Perhaps this setting aflame, like all those elements of Chinese poetry that foil translation – its grammar, its sonic and visual elements, its “characters’ formidable power of suggestion” … – might be enfolded into the aesthetics of decadence, so that discussion of Chinese poetry in translation does not have to turn endlessly on arguments about translatability. Even if one is set on regarding translation as subtraction (a tally of what is lost or needlessly added), in decadent poetry you can lose almost all of the valences and still have more than enough meaning.

But what I think is her most moving passage is,

Maybe one does not have the training to catch all the allusions (to both Chinese and foreign literature and history), maybe one does not read difficult Chinese, or maybe one does not read Chinese (or poetry) at all. None of this is to suggest that we should not try. We should, not least because these particular books evince their translators’ responsibility and accuracy, and represent the best possible resources for becoming familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language, and accessing levels of meaning previously closed to the uninitiated.

Click the image above for the full piece.

Baty’s Review Frodsham’s Li He

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0726/9203/products/Li_He_cover_2048x2048.jpg?resize=338%2C522&ssl=1Tank Magazine has published Jamie Baty’s review of The Collected Poems of Li He 李 賀 (c. 790–c. 817), translated by J. D. Frodsham, under the title of “The Sound of Glass.” Baty writes:

Frodsham presents Li as a poète maudit in the mould of Baudelaire, or Rimbaud. From the first pages of the introduction, Li’s “modernity” is illustrated with a quote from the 20th-century writer Hugo Friedrich; Baudelaire’s poem “L’Invitation au voyage” is quoted to illustrate Li’s (categorically non-Western) conception of heaven; his approach to composition is likened to the poetic philosophy of Gautier and the Parnassiens. Such examples masquerade as glimpses of an interconnected network of culture entirely free from geography or history, but in reality they assert a profoundly European sense of linear “progression”, with the ultimate effect of claiming Li as some form of non-Western, proto-modern Western modernist.

But on many occasions, when he is trying most concertedly to claim Li for the “modern” West, Frodsham is defending himself from those who claim the translation of Chinese poetry to be altogether impossible.”

Despite this interesting frame, I should point out some slight errors in the review: the book is credited as being published by “University of Hong Kong Press,” but in fact it’s Chinese University Press, in coordination with New York Review Books; also, the review states that the book is “the second English translation of Li’s work published in the 50 years,” but since it’s a reprint, the referenced earlier translation may be Frodsham’s, as well (I find a 1970 version as well as a 1983 version)–and of course this does not include the various piecemeal translations that have appeared in anthologies, journals, and scholarly writing.

Click the image for the full review.