In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century, translations by Wong May, Carcanet, 360 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1800172128
What do we know about Tang Dynasty poetry? Most people with an interest in poetry will be familiar to some extent with Du Fu or Li Bai or Wang Wei. They might have come to them via Ezra Pound or Arthur Waley or any of the pretty numerous anthologies of classical Chinese poetry. They’ll know that the High Tang where these poets flourished was one of the great high points of Chinese literature, a golden age when poetry was not just an accomplishment but a necessary tool for advancement. If you wanted to get through your imperial exam and amount to anything you needed to be intimate with poetry. As this book makes clear: “You couldn’t be a governor if you couldn’t come up, after hard drinking, with a faultless quatrain.” Again, some of the tropes might be familiar: drinking, or composition as a form of drinking – “A jug of wine in the bower of flowers”, as Li Bai has it here – precise notation of landscape and animals, the registering of seasons, mountains and clouds, grief at separation or exile, seeing friends off to distant frontiers. There’ll be a certain formal comprehension, an appreciation of the tone and economy of the poems, their particular unique gesture and way of inhabiting their world, but I doubt whether that will be accompanied by any kind of profound realisation of the nature of political context of that world. That was certainly my own experience: familiarity with certain poets and poems, and a possibly over aestheticised view of its themes and preoccupations.
Perhaps because of the nature of the world we currently inhabit, the deeply disturbed reality of the Tang poets, very much emphasised by Wong May in this original and often startling encounter, which is about the best way I can describe this selection of “200 Tang Poems for Our Century”, hits home forcefully. The poets of the High Tang period wrote in a country ravaged by a civil war, following the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), that cost millions of lives, disrupted and displaced millions of others and led to disastrous famines. Estimates of that cost vary. Wong May repeats the often-cited figure of 36 million deaths, amounting to two thirds of the population of China; more conservative scholarship ascribes that barely fathomable figure to broken bureaucracy, governance and census failure, and puts the figure at 13 million or possibly fewer. Nonetheless the carnage is staggering. It explains why lines like these proliferate:
The country has fallen
Bodily, 6000 li from home & country
Twelve years in the wilderness of Guangxi
Cries of stricken humans rise
Through ranks of clouds
The King of Yue, Gou Jian, has destroyed
The Kingdom of Wu,
Recovering his former capital.
North of the lake, South of the temple tower,
The unbroken shimmer
Once host to
–– Flags & heads
On bamboo poles.
No fire to warm the ground they lie on
Afraid to sleep
Half the night they stay up and moan.
In wartime one weeps for new ghosts
“The Tang Dynasty never truly recovered from the war, although it managed to hold on for another two hundred years,” is Wong May’s sobering assessment. We’re reminded that Wang Wei was a prisoner of An Lushan for most of the war and was charged with treason when it ended. Li Bai was sentenced to death but was reprieved before drowning in exile. Du Fu’s 500-line poem Fengxiang Ballad, as close to war reportage as Tang poetry gets, isn’t here but Wong May quotes some lines from it:
Smells of spilled wine & spoiled meat, from the vermillion gates of the grandees.
By the pavement, bones of humans who died of cold.
“Mention Du Fu in China today,” she says, “& these lines are still on people’s lips.” Tang poems don’t engage with war directly, maybe because the spirit of these poems is the opposite of reportorial, or maybe because war was so predominantly the norm that direct comment or satire would have seemed banal. Writing about Du Fu’s experience of it, Wong May comments:
We can see why War Poetry was never considered as a genre in Chinese literature; when not patriotic or patronising it would be just Civilian Poetry concerning privation, as man’s common lot.
But she reminds us that the effects of war, disruption, societal and governmental fracture impinged on all the poets she gathers here: “Chinese poetry is unique in world literary history in that is written largely by exiles. This is singularly borne out by Chinese history, which may be read in the words of poets.” And in a riven society one of the jobs of poetry will be to give an account of it: “If a civilization were bent on destroying itself, there will be poets to bear witness.” The poets gathered here are witnesses in more ways in one. They record both directly and indirectly the travails of often difficult lives, their separation from loved ones, their forced wanderings around the country. Those wanderings are the true locale of the poems; it’s a poetry of place as displacement, or place as accident: I’m here, I’m there, I might be anywhere:
Ask me why I’ve settled in the Bi Mountains,
I laugh. I have no answer.
Am not bothered.
(Li Bai, “Mountain Dialogue”)
I go where the spirit takes me
Will not strive for Beauty
Nor seek the other company,
Needs to know.
(Wang Wei, “The Southern Lodge”)
The only certainty is that the poet is not at home. Home remains an elusive notion, out of reach for many: “if Tang poetry has a subject matter or a predominant mode, it is homesickness”. That homesickness was often focused on a particular place, the vast imperial capital Chang’an, seat of all ambition and hopes for advancement, subject to constant attack in this period.
Another aspect of the disruption is the emphasis on friendship between poets, often, inevitably, friendship at a distance, and all the more intense for that. For Wong May this friendship is integral to the achievement of Tang poetry. It would be hard to imagine the poetry without it: “Hard to say where else in world literature does friendship have such an active role. Poems written between friends far surpass love poems in quality and quantity. The best part of a Tang poet’s life seems to consist of friendship.” Probably the most famous examples would be the poems Du Fu and Li Bai wrote for each other. Du Fu met Li Bai in 744 when both were in exile and theirs would be “a friendship that has marked not just their lives but Chinese literature. Du Fu’s poems on the theme collected here include “Not Seeing Li Bai”, “Dreaming of Li Bai”, “Thinking of Li Bai from One End of the Sky”, “More Dreams of Li Bai”. There are different colours and nuances to these friendship poems: the friendly rivalry of
The speed with which he knocks out verses,
You will want the poet locked up & dealt with,
& his drinking manner,
Drunk as a lord
Wherever he can make merry.
(“Not Seeing Li Bai”)
or the tender evocation of absence of
In dream often
You made your visit
Knowing how I miss you
(“Dreaming of Li Bai”)
or the rueful reflection on the effects of adversity:
Resents happy circumstances.
Good writers are rarely spared
The demons of this world …
(“Thinking of Li Bai from One End of the Sky”)
Interestingly, Wong May reaches for lines from Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ to emphasise the importance of the friendships that define Tang poetry and makes that work in many respects a collective or fraternal enterprise:
Men build heavens
As they build their circle of friends.
(This is as striking a moment as when she co-opts Francis Ledwidge into the Tang sensibility: “Ledwidge a ‘nature poet’ in sense & sensibility & a disenfranchised war poet who writes to stay sane on the Western front in the darkest days of European history, belongs with the Tang poets.”) There’s the sense, again unique in world literature, of a body of work growing organically out of a network of friendship and collective enterprise but also of consistent engagement with what has gone before. So many poems are triggered by responses to other poems that the tradition is very much alive as on ongoing vital conversation.
Du Fu is the major figure here, shining equally through war and peace. At one point in her afterword Wong draws a series of bubbles containing random lines by Du Fu: “The wind has ceased, I pick up pinecones for nuts”; “Old man whose teeth have half fallen out, left ear deaf”; “Drunk, I don’t mind being a wayfarer / I knew the gods had visited.” He’s the all-encompassing poet who writes “as a man who lives in the world”, as liable to note the price of rice as the clash of armies or conditions in salt mines. She keeps coming back to that worldliness, which for her is also a rejection of self-privileging or grievance: “it is a poetry singularly devoid of grievance”. Here are a couple of examples of her translations of the very particular Du Fu tone:
In season, friend
Be guided by nature.
The rest is bilge.
The body by a name tag
To this floating world?
(“The Winding River Tune”)
or Du Fu as dutiful host:
Think I might, if you say so
Like a good neighbour
Call the old man over the fence
Ask him in
For a round. Think
(“A Guest Arrives”)
Nature is always a central preoccupation in Chinese poetry: the alert notation of seasonal change, the association of seasons with the phases of life and death. It’s a notation that occurs within that context of wandering and exile already mentioned, and it’s often framed within the essentially urban sensibility of the poets. A reminder of that urbanity is a poem by Li Shangyin, the late Tang poet heavily represented here:
Living deep in the narrow walled city
Spring’s gone, Summer not yet busy –
Heaven has a special regard for the quiet grasses
& who on earth doesn’t love
The last light of day after a cloudburst?
(Li Shangyin, “Late Cloudburst”)
That Frank O’Hara-ish note is rare (assuming the New York poet might have had a Tang outing); apprehension of the natural world functions in rather different ways from the exulting or moralising eye of the “estern tradition. One aspect of this is the nature of agency, the fact that the first person singular rarely appears in Chinese, so that experience is not mediated through an individual consciousness, so no Wordsworthian egotistical sublime, no privileged individual self gets to dominate the experience. One of my favourite poems to teach in a translation course is Wang Wei’s “Deer Grove” (the title references a specific place name). The text I use is 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, which contains nineteen versions of the poem mainly in English but also in French and Spanish. Here is Burton Watson’s 1971 translation from that book:
Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.
And here is Sam Hamill’s version from Crossing the Yellow River (2000):
No sign of men on the empty mountain,
only faint echoes from below.
Refracted light enters the forest.
shining through green moss above.
Neither of those commits the error of introducing the first person singular of, say, WJB Fletcher’s 1919 translation:
So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
To see what Wong May does is a good introduction to her method throughout this book:
no one about
Sounds speaking of humans
In the deep wood
On the green moss
Of the day
There’s no major semantic difference between Wong’s version and either Hamill’s or Watson’s. In terms of the actual language deployed, there are differences of emphasis, a more minimalist articulation, less concerned to make sense in a net grammatical fashion. The real difference is the spatial arrangement, and this is the technique used throughout the book. It creates a drama for the eye; it slows things down, it replicates the gesture of the original, it translates us into the poems in the way she states is the translator’s responsibility. It also, of course, translates the poetry into Wong’s particular sensibility, into how she writes her own poems: that impressionistic, disjointed movement, those highly visual spatial relationships that remind us that she’s a visual artist as well as a poet and translator.
Although Wong May does discuss translation in the long series of mini-essays that make up the afterword, she addresses it in quite a sidelong fashion and doesn’t so much talk about what she’s done herself as about translation in general and the translation of Chinese into English in particular. Ezra Pound first appears in the Pisan cage sleeping on the cement floor, minus his Chinese-English dictionary. Some Chinese poets and critics have been critical of Pound’s versions, but Wong is clear: he is “in his way our best translator of Classical Chinese, Pound is irreplaceable.” And again: “I am not sorry to say from the translators’ bureau, where I sit, there is still more poetry in Pound than in many bona fide translations.”
Her appreciation of Pound, I think, is an appreciation that a certain latitude brings justifiable rewards, and this applies to her own approach: “A translation is a likeness, the portrait of a poem.” In an interview with the poet Seán Hewitt in The Irish Times she said: “When I translate, the aim is not just to translate the poem; but to translate the reader, the person sitting opposite you, to the poem, to translate them into the Tang dynasty, into a Tang poet. That’s what thrills me.” This notion of translating the reader into the poem is crucial and one of the great merits of this book is that she has succeeded in translating us into the whole world of Tang poetry. This is also because the original, or originating idea was from the outset the intention to capture a significant swathe of the whole tradition, as she describes in section 62 of the afterword:
From the translator’s working journal:
Dec. 7th 2016
Lying ill in a hotel room in Beijing, the idea of translating Tang & Song poetry very slowly & surely takes hold of me.
Translators and translations have distinct personalities; Wong May sees herself as an employee who wants to please but nevertheless has a streak of defiance and is perfectly willing to be led astray:
At work, I have regarded each of the 38 as my boss. Each has his or her own temperament & peculiarities. I have been guided by the voice, tried to be observant of bespoke requirements & transcribe accordingly. I don’t always behave. As an employee, I got on better with some poets … I owe allegiance to the poets only, not that I have ever regarded myself as anyone’s favourite translator. I shut myself in with a poet until his poem speaks to me. A dialogue. You do not take footnote s…
Here’s another example of her strategy. Here are two versions of a poem by Li Bai: the first by Joseph J Lee, the second by Wong May:
To Amuse Myself
Drinking alone without knowing the coming of dusk.
I discover my robe covered with fallen petals.
Drunk, I rise to walk along the moonlit creek ‑
The birds have gone and few are the people around.
With wine to drink
You won’t know it’s getting dark.
Fill my clothes.
I went along with the moon in the creek.
Birds are distant. People scarce.
You immediately notice that Wong’s translation is drunker than Lee’s. It lurches, it staggers, it might fall into the creek. It’s not sure what’s falling on its clothes. Maybe it’s blossoms but then again maybe it’s not. And going for a walk with the moon is not the same as walking “along a moonlit creek”. Likewise, there’s a difference between the idea of birds having gone and birds being “distant”: out there somewhere. There’s a sense of the humour of the situation having crossed over intact. Wong reminds us that “Li Bai’s forte is immediate engagement; one enters entranced. This accounts for much of his brio. His first-person singular is a persona, centre stage, larger than life, a force of nature, it knocks you off-guard.” The brio, the personality are what Wong is particularly adept at communicating.
How did subsequent poets deal with the legacy of the major High Tang Poets like Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei? Wong locates a particular excitement in the transition between High and Mid Tang poetry, in the work of Liu Zongyuan (773-791), Wei Yingwu (737-791) and Meng Jiao (751-814). The latter in particular is interesting in the way he extends and develops the influence of Du Fu, writing densely textured series of linked poems shot through with a despairing apprehension of the violent times he lived in. The first translation into English of his work was David Hinton’s The Late Poems of Meng Chiao and that book is remarkable for the vivid impression it gives of this troubled poet, whose best work was produced late in his life. He lived through dangerous times and refused to take the famous national examinations until late in his life, ensuring himself a life on the margins. His defining friendship was with Han Yu, and it was that friendship that encouraged his transformation into a poet of significance. Hinton translates him into couplets, but the formal decorousness still allows the fierceness to slip through. Wong sees him as a fundamentally unstable talent, “unrecognisable from one poem to the next”. This is what he sounds like in her translation:
Having borrowed a wheelbarrow to move my belongings
I see they aren’t enough to fill one.
Owner of the barrow,
Mock me as you will.
Snap your fingers
My penury is not worth a laugh.
One of the most striking aspects of the Tang tradition is the ferocity of the devotion to poetry: “The Tang poets may be scholars, civil servants, ministers, or commanders at the frontier wall; they wrote because they were mad about poetry.” Or: “Li He died young, a certifiable addict to diction. His own practice was to go riding each morning, followed by a boy with a brocade pouch. Should a word or line crop up, the boy would toss it in.” The enthusiasm was returned, it should be said, and this is a striking difference with our own age. Where we have ads, posters, graffiti, Tang China had poetry. “For twenty years in China, Bai Juyi was the writing on the wall, recited by court ladies & courtesans, by herdsmen, woodcutters, farm hands …” Much of that poetry speaks as clearly and movingly to us as it must have to its first readers. The poems by Yuan Shen (779-832) here are mostly elegies for his wife:
The poet Pan Ye mourned his wife in fine verses.
All I want is to share a window with you underground.
It’s a note repeated in a poem by Bai Juyi (772-846):
In life we share intimacies
In one room
In death will do the same.
But if they seem to address us with familiar warmth, humanity and emotional directness they also keep returning us to our own dark age. The book’s title reminds us that these are poems “for Our Century”. Again, in the case of Li He, “Curtains open on the smouldering rubble of a country; survivors of war & plague & famine stalk the land like ghouls …”
Griffins and salamanders spit & drool.
Am I bothered?
Bad Jiao slept on straw most of his life
Yan His at 29, touched
With frost at the temples like an old man.
It’s not as if Yan’s blood was thin
In his prime,
Or Bao Jiao, summarily dispatched,
Had in any sense disobeyed heaven:
Heaven had thought to spare them the worse fate
of being fed to monsters, the gnashing of teeth,
Workings of the maw
Heard all over the land.
(“Don’t Go There, — Sir, Out of the City Gate”)
Here as so often in this personal selection of 200 poems, we hear a note of irresistible urgency. “Apocalypse Tang, Apocalypse Now, a graphic novel of wildfires, plague & warfare – climate refugees, ghouls & ogres on the prowl.” Wong’s quirky, individual voice, her own original spirit in translation and commentary, accompanies us on an unmissable journey through her Tang poetry; we can only be grateful for that queasy moment in a Beijing hotel room when the project began slowly but inexorably to announce itself and gradually take hold.
Peter Sirr is a poet and essayist.