Poems circa 815 AD

{ Tuesday, January 1, 2008 }

One of my favorite books in my library is "Translations from the Chinese by Arthur Waley," the 1941 edition (or as the title page would have it -- New York: Alfred A. Knopf: Mcmxli).

It's not reasonable to say that I love Chinese poetry, having never read it. I love these translations of Chinese poetry, and I love Mr. Waley's passion for the poetry and the language and his notes about the poets' lives.

I love it, for instance, when he tells me of Tao-yun, poet circa 400 AD and wife of General Wang Ning-chih, "The general was so stupid that she finally deserted him."

Chinese poetry from the eras in this book does things not found elsewhere in such concentrated doses. It makes death, love, parting, trees, rivers, mountains, poetry, sadness, and beauty seem all the same thing, all threads in one cloth. It is melancholy poetry, but not poetry of despair. Death is real. Love is real. Drunkenness is real. Loneliness is real. As real as rivers, rocks, business transactions, candles, flutes, rugs, towns, crops. This poetry assumes the abstracts as givens and doesn't seek to explain them... only to report how they appear and vanish.

The two poems below, one wrenching and one a clown's dance, are from Po Chu-i. His poetry, written four hundred years after the most directly melancholy of these poets, describes his life as a government functionary, translates the life he sees around him, documents his separation first by circumstance and then by death from his beloved friend Yuan Chen, and records his government-imposed exile and return. (Poems are different creatures when read aloud!)

Dreaming of Yuan Chen

At night you came and took my hand and we wandered together in my dream;
When I woke in the morning there was no one to stop the tears that fell on my handkerchief.
On the banks of the Ch'ang my aged body three times has passed through sickness;
At Hsien-yang to the grasses on your grave eight times has autumn come.
You lie buried beneath the springs and your bones are mingled with the clay.
I -- lodging in the world of men; my hair white as snow.
A-wei and Han-lang both followed in their turn;
Among the shadows of the Terrace of Night did you know them or not?

Madly Singing in the Mountains

There is no one among men that has not a special failing:
And my failing consists in writing verses.
I have broken away from the thousand ties of life:
But this infirmity still remains behind.
Each time that I look at a fine landscape:
Each time that I meet a loved friend,
I raise my voice and recite a stanza of poetry
And am glad as though a God had crossed my path.
Ever since the day I was banished to Hsun-yang
Half my time I have lived among the hills.
And often, when I have finished a new poem,
Alone I climb the road to the Eastern Rock.
I lean my body on the banks of white stone:
I pull down with my hands a green cassia branch.
My mad singing startles the valleys and hills:
The apes and birds all come to peep.
Fearing to become a laughing-stock to the world,
I choose a place that is unfrequented by men.

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