Showing posts with label Wang Wei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wang Wei. Show all posts

Friday, November 2, 2012


In my previous post, I made an amateur attempt to gloss a poem by Basho. In addition, I posted three different versions of the haiku, hoping to show that translating a mere seventeen syllables is a very tricky thing.  This is especially true when the seventeen syllables are capable of containing Life, the World, and the Universe.   The following poem by John Hewitt sheds some light on the process of translation.

                                                         Gilbert Spencer
                                              "Air Raid Warning" (1940)

     Gloss, on the Difficulties of Translation

Across Loch Laig
the yellow-billed blackbird
whistles from the blossomed whin.

Not, as you might expect,
a Japanese poem, although
it has the seventeen
syllables of the haiku.
Ninth-century Irish, in fact,
from a handbook on metrics,
the first written reference
to my native place.

In forty years of verse
I have not inched much further.
I may have matched the images;
but the intricate wordplay
of the original -- assonance,
rime, alliteration --
is beyond my grasp.

To begin with, I should
have to substitute
golden for yellow
and gorse for whin,
this last is the word we use
on both sides of Belfast Lough.

John Hewitt, Collected Poems (Blackstaff Press 1991).

I think that it is best to concede that no translation can ever capture the original.  We delude ourselves if we think otherwise.  But does that mean that reading translations is not worth our while?  Speaking for myself, I am not willing to give up the poetry of, for example, Basho, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei, or C. P. Cavafy because I do not know Japanese, Chinese, or Greek.  I realize that I will inevitably be missing something in the absence of the original, but I can only hope that something of the heart of the original is conveyed in a good translation.

                                                        Gilbert Spencer
                           "The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (c. 1952)

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Salt Wind": Two Poems

Eugene Lee-Hamilton's "Soulac" (which appeared in my previous post) contains the lines:  ". . . as the salt winds sweep/The restless hillocks of ill-bladed sand."  "Salt winds" reminded me of a poem by Norman MacCaig that contains the phrase "salt wind."  MacCaig's poem, like "Soulac," is about the passing of time, but the perspective is different.  Although aging and mortality are acknowledged, there is a lovely recognition of the life that accompanies them.

        Old Poet

The alder tree
shrivelled by the salt wind
has lived so long
it has carried and sheltered
its own weight
of nests.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

                          Samuel Palmer, "A Farm in Kent" (c. 1826-1832)

There is something to be said for brevity and directness (bearing in mind that they do not preclude depth and implication and suggestiveness).  The Chinese and Japanese poets come to mind.  In fact, "Old Poet" sounds as though it could have been written by, say, Wang Wei or Ryokan.  We should also remember, for example, that Edward Thomas wrote a number of fine four-line and eight-line poems.

Thom Gunn, in an excellent essay on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, makes an observation that merits thinking about in connection with brevity and directness.  Gunn notes approvingly the absence of "rhetoric" in Hardy's poetry, contrasting it with "the strain of all that rhetorical striving" in Yeats's poetry.  Gunn writes:  "Rhetoric is a form of pretence, of making something appear bigger or more important than you know it is."  Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry (North Point Press 1985), pages 104-105.

As one might expect, poems that are brief and direct tend to be short on rhetoric.  "Old Poet" is, I think, a wonderful example of a great deal being accomplished in a small space, without rhetoric.

                                 John Nash, "Wintry Evening, a Pond"

Monday, June 27, 2011

Three Versions Of Wang Wei: "I Close My Brushwood Door In Solitude"

When reading traditional Chinese poetry, I am always aware of the fact that, because I do not know Chinese, I am dependent upon translations.  Translations into English of T'ang Dynasty poetry often, I think, create a deceptive impression of simplicity and casualness.  For instance, in most translations the poetry tends to look and sound like free verse.  However, much of the poetry of the T'ang period (and of other periods) is in fact highly structured, being subject to rules relating to metre, rhyme, voice tone, and, in some cases, grammatical parallelism.

With those considerations in mind, here are three different versions of an 8-line poem by Wang Wei (c. 701-761).

     Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses

I close my brushwood door in solitude
And face the vast sky as late sunlight falls.
The pine trees:  cranes are nesting all around.
My wicker gate:  a visitor seldom calls.
The tender bamboo's dusted with fresh powder.
Red lotuses strip off their former bloom.
Lamps shine out at the ford, and everywhere
The water-chestnut pickers wander home.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

              Majorie Hayes, "Stone Built Watermill, Somerset" (1934)

          A Picture of Mountain Life

In quietness I close my firewood gate.
A whitish immensity faces the dropping sun.
In every pine are nesting cranes
yet no one comes by my cottage.
Tender bamboos have new bloom on them.
Red lotuses have shed old clothes.
On the bay, lamps and bonfires shine.
Water chestnut pickers are coming home.

Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin (translators), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (1991).

                                                     Majorie Hayes
                                    "Two Houses in the Woods" (1945)

     Dwelling in the Mountains: Impromptu Lines

In solitude I close my brushwood gate,
In the vast expanse, facing lowering light.
Cranes nest in pine trees all around;
Men visiting my wicker gate are few.
Tender bamboos hold new powder,
And red lotuses shed old clothes.
At the ford lantern fires are lit:
Everywhere water chestnut pickers come home.

Pauline Yu (translator), The Poetry of Wang Wei (1980).

For more in this vein, I recommend Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (1987) by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.  In the book, the authors look at 19 translations of "Deer Park," one of Wang Wei's best-known poems.  It is ostensibly a "simple" 4-line poem.  This is Vikram Seth's translation:

                 Deer Park

Empty hills, no man in sight --
Just echoes of the voice of men.
In the deep wood reflected light
Shines on the blue-green moss again.

               Majorie Hayes, "Cottage and Pond, Abergeveny" (1944)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"How Sordid Is This Crowded Life"

My previous post about the poetry of Ryokan and Wang Wei brought to mind a poem by W. H. Davies (1871-1940).  Davies's poetry is mostly forgotten now, but his work was praised by the likes of Edward Thomas.  (Thomas provided financial assistance to Davies, even though Thomas's own finances were always precarious.  They became friends, and Davies wrote "Killed in Action (Edward Thomas)" after Thomas's death in 1917.)  Davies's style is perhaps quaint by "modern" standards, but there are gems to be found in his work.          

       How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, Complete Poems (1963).

Davies (who was a sociable fellow) suggests that, in the end, a life of retreat might be too much for him.  In this regard, Ryokan, who lived in his hut for 25 years, is forthright in his depiction of such a life, and faithfully records both the good and the bad.  But his contentment, I think, underlies everything he wrote.

The vicissitudes of this world are like the movements of the clouds.
Fifty years of life are nothing but one long dream.
Sparse rain:  in my desolate hermitage at night,
Quietly I clutch my robe and lean against the empty window.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

                    Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Stop Chasing After So Many Things": Ryokan And Wang Wei

When I am in need of a sense of perspective, I often turn to the poetry of Ryokan (1758-1831) or Wang Wei (c. 701-761).  Ryokan was a Zen monk who lived much of his life in a hut in the wooded hills near the coast of the Sea of Japan.  (Present-day Niigata Prefecture.)  He is one of the most beloved of Japanese poets, valued for his humility, his simplicity, and his integrity.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977). 

        John Nash, "Cornfield at Wiston-by-Nayland, Suffolk" (c. 1932)

Wang Wei was one of the four great poets of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty.  (The others are Po Chu-i, Li Po, and Tu Fu.)  He was also an artist and a musician.  Like most of the T'ang poets, he served as a government official.  He was a devout Buddhist, and this is reflected in his poetry.  This may explain the affinities between his poetry and that of Ryokan.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

               John Nash, "Cop (Kop) Hill, Princes Risborough" (1919)