Yu Xuanji in Poetry Magazine


After posting about my Yu Xuanji translations of Yu Xuanji 魚玄機 (840–868) in the new issue of Ancient Exchanges, I realized that I had neglected to announce my Yu Xuanji translation in the “Make it Old” issue of Poetry Magazine, last May (2022)!

Chewing ice and eating bark, wishes unfulfilled,
Jin River and Hu Pass in my dreams,
I want to crack this Qin mirror in half. Sorrow is a fallen magpie.
Let Shun play his zither. I grieve at the flight of geese …


And my bio of Yu, as well, here.

Click on the image for the poem in full.

Three Poems by Yu Xuanji in Ancient Exchanges

The new issue of Ancient Exchanges, “Threads,” is now live, and with it three translations of mine of poetry by Yu Xuanji 魚玄機 (840–868).

The shape of water conforms to its container: we know it is indeterminate.
Clouds drift with no intent. Will they ever come back?
Despondent spring winds over the Chu river tonight,
one mandarin duck flies away from its flock.


And a shot across the bow in my “Translator’s Note,” too:

In my eyes, contemporary English translations of classical Chinese poetry tend to fall between two extremes—with scholarly translators prizing philological accuracy and sometimes even taking a perverse pride in not letting their writing be informed by conventions of contemporary Anglophone poetry, while more creative attempts at experimentation often fall short of that goal … Scholarly and literary audiences do not have to be at odds: both are looking for precision of image together with compelling, and compellingly fresh, phrasing.

Follow the links to read the pieces.

Jade Mirror: Women Poets of China

Jade Mirror: Women Poets of China, edited by Michael Farman.

The following is from a write-up by George Ovitt:
“Written in a Pavilion Lost in the Mists”
spring flowers, fall’s
full moon:
               the stuff of poems.
cloudless sun. clear
nights. here: mountain
                    spirits, loosed.
no reason I raised
the pearl-sewn blinds.
                won’t lower them.
my couch is moved for good now.
I’ll turn toward these hills
                and sleep.
(Yu Xuanji trans. by Geoffrey Waters)

What I have noticed is that aspiring poets can reproduce the simple description in this form– reminiscent of e.e. cummings–but when it comes to the real point of the poem, where the observing eye moves inward, when the poetic sensibility must construct meaning from the passive moment of watching flowers and moon and mountain–this is where the trouble begins.  Most pastiches of this sort of transparent poetry miss the point right at the line “I’ll turn toward these hills/and sleep.” What? Isn’t the romantic (and it is the easiest thing in the world to think of Chinese and Japanese “nature” poets as “romantics”–maybe not as loquacious as Wordsworth, but with the identical set of feelings) supposed to regard the hills?  Isn’t it rather anti-climactic to fall asleep?  And that’s the way these deceptive poems often work: they take us to the edge of a simple truth and turn it against us–this is the art of disappointment, or of beauty as emptiness rather than fulfillment.

Click the image above for ordering information.