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.
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.
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