March 2010

Learning the Tao of T'ang poetry

By Art Goodtimes

CHINA ENVY … It’s hard to believe a patriotic retail chain like Wal-Mart would countenance flooding the market with all these manufactured goods from the totalitarian nation of China, where protestors in Tianamen Square a few years back got run down with tanks for throwing up a shrine to the Statue of Liberty. Especially as those same cheap Communist-made goods put American workers out of work and Made in America businesses out of business … But China is an ancient civilization. One of the world’s oldest and most inventive. It has learned the lesson of industrialization without free markets and without free speech. And its literature is replete with cultural icons who’ve turned away from the workaday world and retreated into its mountains … It’s the later bards and immortals who most interest me. Li Bo (aka Li Po, Li Bai) was one of the great T’ang dynasty poets who won honor with the Emperor but fell out of grace and into travelling the land, sometimes banished and sometimes on pilgrimage with his fermented muse. Although translations cannot replicate the intricate symmetry of rhyming poetry in a language of tones, nor the calligraphic intensity of glyphs instead of alphabet soup, still, Li Bo’s magic shines through the centuries … So, I gobbled up “Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest” by Albert A. Dalia (Pleasure Boat Studio, New York, 2007) – one of those books that you inhale as much as read. That you only put down to sleep, late at night, begrudgingly, and then pick up the next day as soon as one’s calendar permits. I’d somehow stumbled into the book a couple years back, when I was taking hospice care of my Dad in California. It had won Online Book Review’s 2007 Best Fiction of the Year. And it is well-written, if not New Yorker quality. But Dalia is a China scholar with four decades of study, research and experience in medieval Chinese history under his belt. More than just exotic, he spins his story of Li Bo’s exile from court (an historical reality) in the flamboyant style of a Tang dynasty “tale of wonder” (magical realism taken back a millennium or so when ghosts were assumed fact and dragons played a significant role in social relations – both good and bad) … The story, the characters, the quest had me riveted to the dog-eared non- Kindle paperback for a good couple days (and nights) … Of course, Dalia’s book was even more powerful for me coming on the heels of three large Copper Canyon Press poetry translations from the Chinese by Red Pine that I’ve been reading over the last several years (a handful poems per dump became my normal bathroom etiquette). Two were Tang dynasty poets – the inimitable Han Shan [Ch.> lit., “Cold Mountain”] and Wei Ying-wu. And one was Red Pine’s version of the classic poetry anthology of T’ang and Sung dynasty poets Ch’ien-chia-shih [Ch.> “Poems of a Thousand Masters”].




Relaxing below Cold Cliff
the surprises are quite special
taking a basket to gather wild plants
bringing it back loaded with fruit
spreading fresh grass for a simple meal
nibbling on magic mushrooms…

— excerpt of a poem by Han
Shan, as translated by Red Pine
©2000 Bill Porter

HAN SHAN … Most of us Pacific Rim poets learned of Han Shan through the small covey of translations that Gary Snyder did at the back of his groundbreaking poetry volume by New Directions, “Rip Rap.” A brilliant poet, Snyder’s Han Shan was irreverent and reverent at the same time. Taoist (aka Daoist). Buddhist. A mystical old goat with a wonderful sense of humor and insight, Han Shan lived away from the red dust of the world in a cave in the Tientai Mountains of Western China and wrote piercing, zen-like poems. The bilingual “The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain” (Copper Canyon, Port Townsend, 2000) has given us the first full collection of Han Shan’s work, poems written some 1200 years ago on rocks, trees and temple walls and then saved by admiring disciples. Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) is a masterful translator, and his preface gives wonderful context to the lyric offerings. His interpretation is clear and graceful. But he is not a poet of Snyder’s caliber, and the English text – while accurate – lacks a certain flair and joie de vivre that seems elemental to Han Shan’s legacy. Nevertheless, the book is a whole college course in Chinese thought and T’ang custom, with a dazzling introduction by China scholar John Blofeld. And there’s even translations of two of Han Shan’s lyric sidekicks, Feng-kan [“Big Stick”] and Shih-te [“Pickup”].

WEI YING-WU … Red Pine’s uncolored, almost prosaic style works better for me with “In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu” (Copper Canyon, Port Townsend, 2009). Born into an aristocratic family whose fortunes were on the decline, Wei Yingwu bounced from one minor government post to another. He lived in the turbulence of the T’ang dynasty, and as a young man had to escape with imperial forces from the An Lu-shan rebellion that turned his world topsy-turvy. Later, his patron in the court, Li Huan, was accused of treason and executed. His wife died at about the same time. All these setbacks seasoned the poet’s sense of loss. His poems linger on the past, on friendship and those who have passed on (his 17 elegies to his wife are among his best work). His poems were not popular in his own day – but became known as Chinese classics in the Sung dynasty. And they are filled with wisdom, and lovely language: “When other plants bow to the frost / chrysanthemums alone show their beauty / this is the nature of things … life is about more than plenty” … The book has a fine preface and incredibly informative footnotes. In all, a very powerful immersion in Chinese thought and custom.

T’ANG AND SUNG VERSE … I’m still reading the last of the “Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse” (Copper Canyon, Port Townsend, 2003). This collection includes the most-quoted poems in the Chinese language by the most famous poets of China’s golden age of poetry, the T’ang and Sung dynasties (618-906 and 960-1278 respectively). This book is an entire education in Chinese literature, and is the most memorized collection of verse in China. Again, Red Pine gives us fine translations of a host of amazing poets. Perhaps not the zingers that the lyrics were in their own tongue, but a fair representation of the poetic heart of the sleeping dragon ... If you’re interested in Chinese culture, this is one of the best places to start – certainly for the scholarship and history and yes, for the poetry too.

Art Goodtimes is a San Miguel County commissioner.