Online Edition: Fall 2003

The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry

translated by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton

edited by Eliot Weinberger

New Directions ($24.95)

by Lucas Klein

The translator is a servant of two masters, one native and one foreign; Eliot Weinberger, in editing The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, also puts himself at the service of two masters. Just as a translator must compromise between fidelity to the original text and creating a well-written and moving poem in English, Weinberger's anthology presents both the range of classical Chinese poetry and a catalogue of translations to compare and contrast.

The central dilemma within this anthology is the question of what it truly aims to be: am I supposed to understand translation, or am I supposed to understand classical Chinese poetry? The tension lasts throughout the volume, feeding a hidden narrative that enables the book to be read beginning to end more easily than most anthologies, whose historical or thematic organizations lead to random thumbings-through instead of cover-to-cover relationships.

Yet the New Directions Anthology is driven by more interior conflict than this one alone: in Weinberger's introduction, where he outlines the trajectory of Chinese poetry's merging into the lane of 20th century American literature, he hints at a few more spots of stress, as well. Beginning with a narrative of how Ezra Pound came to translate the poems of Cathay, and then delineating how Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton--the five translators whose work this volume showcases--came to translation of Chinese poetry, Weinberger writes, "in 1909 . . . a poet like Li Po sounded like this (the translator is L. Cranmer-Byng):

And now Spring beckons with verdant hand,
And Nature's wealth of eloquence doth win
Forth to the fragrant-bowered nectarine,
Where my dear friends abide, a careless band."

But by 1915, "here was Li Po, as translated by Pound:

Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?"

(The translations are not, fortunately, of the same poem). The tension here is one central to poet-translators everywhere, and that is between naturalization and revolution. That is, will the language of the translation fit naturally into contemporary poetic syntax, or will it seek to revolutionize the language of poetry with the introduction of a new idiom?

Now that Poetic Modernism and its "direct treatment of the thing" are so established, we may need to be reminded that Pound's translation was in fact a radicalization. But the hint is in his selection of the title Cathay as much as it is in T. S. Eliot's praise that "Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time": these poems are inventions, just as "Cathay" refers to an idealized China, and the language of these translations is a new creation meant for use in all poetry to follow. Weinberger touches upon this very point, explaining, "Cathay was the first great book in English of the new, plain-speaking, laconic, image-driven free verse."

But yesterday's radicals are today's policy-makers, and what was revolutionary now is standard. The tension that follows is in the way Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, and even an older Ezra Pound navigate the dilemma between letting these Chinese poems speak an English that either leads or conforms to how poetry is written at the time.

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Shih Ching, or The Book of Odes, which means that except for one Pound translation from 1915, the entire first section comes from Pound's translations of 1954, when he was interred in a mental institution. Here, his earlier Cathay-era calmness is gone, and instead he sounds like a cross between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Langston Hughes. Listen to how he translates the first stanza of "Song of the Bowmen of Shu" in 1915:

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen,
We have no comfort because of these Mongols.

and the same stanza again, forty years later:

Pick a fern, pick a fern, ferns are high,
"Home," I'll say: home, the year's gone by,
no house, no roof, these huns on the hoof.
Work, work, work, that's how it runs,
We are here because of these huns.

Amazingly enough, Pound's impetus is the same in both eras: to create a new idiom for poetry. In his Odes translations, Pound was writing a companion piece to The Cantos, a poem of some length that would contain the history of the whole world. So his translations refer to clichés about Rome ("What the wind hath blown away, / can men of Cheng rebuild it in a day"), with personae who speak like antebellum slaves ("Thaar's where ole Marse Shao used to sit"), mention Greek gods ("who moves as on winged feet"), cook international cuisine ("it will steam thy rice or other / grain"), and revert to archaic spelling to prove a point ("Only antient wisdom is / solace to man's miseries").

At times, Pound's language in these translations reaches a stylized beauty, such as can be found in passages in The Cantos. Echoing the language of "What thou lovest well remains", Pound has translated

Scorching breath on the height, grief,
All grass must die, no tree but loseth leaf
Soft is the valley wind, harsh on the crest,
You remember the worst of me
Forgetting the best

But more often his reach to steam 'rice and other grain' exceeds his grasp, as he is left with

sorrow about the heart like an unwashed shirt, I
clutch here at words,
having no force to fly.

Ezra Pound's translations are attempts to change the music of poetry in his age. Kenneth Rexroth's translations attempt the opposite, and try to fit the classical Chinese rhythms to a calm American voice (Rexroth and Pound form a perfect odd couple: one was a fascist atheist Confucian who translated Li Po, the other was an anarcho-socialist Christian Buddhist who translated Tu Fu). Weinberger describes: "Rexroth had reimagined the poems as the work of someone on the other side of the Pacific Rim, speaking in a plain, natural-breathing, neutral American idiom. Ignoring the Chinese line, which is normally a complete syntactical unit, Rexroth enjambed his, often with end-stops in the middle, to give them the illusion of effortless speech."

The effortless speech of his translations, in step with the rhythms of his own poetry, make Rexroth's the most readable and attractive translations in the volume. One of the premier poets of physical love in English, the writer of "When We with Sappho" seems to have honed his ability to merge the soul with the body in his Chinese translations:

We break off a branch of poplar catkins.
A hundred birds sing in the tree.
Lying beneath it in the garden,
We talk to each other,
Our tongues in each other's mouth.
                    (Anonymous, Six Dynasties)

His deftness is especially audible in his translations of the Sung Dynasty, where a freer and more open style of verse based on the tunes of old songs developed. While the taut structure and denseness of Tang Dynasty lyrics have attracted most poets interested in the Chinese tradition, Rexroth's poetic personalities merge best with the Sung verses, where he can write "At this moment, out of the / River, the material / Soul of the moon is born" (Su Tung-p'o); "There will never come a / Time when I will be able / To resist my emotions" (Chu Shu-chen); "It is no longer possible / For me to contemplate / The blossoming plums" (Li Ch'ing-chao); and "What does it matter to him / If the government is built / On sand?" (Lu Yu).

Rexroth's translations are not mitigated by being so close to his own voice; a voracious translator, he lent his own mouth to the songs of classical Chinese poetry, and called translation an "act of sympathy" with the original poem. But where Rexroth's translations pour into the vase of his own tone and line, William Carlos Williams kept the form of his translated lines distinct. Not one poem follows the three-step line, and only two of his poems (Li Po's "Spring Song" and "Summer Song") read with the characteristic prescription-pad line length famous from "The Red Wheelbarrow":

Spring Song

A young lass
Plucks mulberry leaves by the river

Her white hand
Reaches among the green

Her flushed cheeks
Shine under the sun

The hungry silkworms
Are waiting

Oh, young horseman
Why do you tarry. Get going.

Even here, each couplet is obviously a single line in the Chinese, and the break between lines in each stanza reflects the caesura between the second and third characters in five-word Tang Dynasty lines. The majority of his other translations are end-stopped, with language that, at times, jars with the stripped-down essence of Williams's other writing ("The wind blows fiercely over lakes and rivers. / Be watchful lest you fall from your boat!", Tu Fu). Williams was much less a translator than the other poets collected in the anthology, and his daring in poetry seems dampened by his responsibilities to the original. Collaboration with a native speaker, while saving him from errors or misreadings that snagged the others, may also have lessened his experimental streak. Nevertheless, he initiated one fine line-break, at the end of his translation of Meng Hao-jan's "Late Spring":

With cups held high in our hands
We hear the voices of sing-song girls
                                                                 ringing

Williams's great poetic interest was finding a specifically American poetic, and as such his translations from the Chinese are something of a surprise. Gary Snyder's voice, while no less American, has always been more interested in the foreign or excluded--such as his years in Japan and his eco-activism--and one senses that his translations are attempts to spread the American idiom wide enough to cover Asian literature.

It is no surprise, then, that his poems reject the naturalization impulse. In his translations--and in much of his poetry--he has sharpened his idiom with a sparse Asiatic grammar. Here, for instance, is Kenneth Rexroth's translation of the Liu Tsung-yüan poem "River Snow":

A thousand mountains without a bird.
Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.
A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat,
Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.

And here is Snyder's:

These thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat--coat--hat--an old man!
Alone      fishing      chill      river      snow.

The first two lines are more dramatic than Rexroth's, but the final couplet is more emblematic of Snyder's method of translation. Preserving the Chinese syntax while pressuring the English, he has nearly eliminated grammar and made his poem out of a gloss of the original. The result, either fresh and immediate or stilted and pretentious, is dependent on personal inclination; nonetheless, Snyder's pursuit of the foreign has compelled him to reject the more natural rhythms and structure of an English line, pushing towards newness in poetry.

While he has never published a volume of his own poems, David Hinton's translations featured here are capable of simultaneously anchoring the anthology in trustworthy fidelity and creating a new direction for contemporary poetry in English. Hinton's translations in this book come from six book-length translations of a single author each, plus an anthology of Chinese wilderness writing; certainly his scholarship is beyond question.

More than that, his process of translation allows for Rexrothian enjambment while respecting the basic unit of measurement of Chinese poetry, the couplet. Nearly all of Hinton's translations appear as sequences of two-line stanzas, suggesting the importance of the couplet in Chinese writing. From T'ao Ch'ien's "Drinking Wine":

I live in town without all that racket
horses and carts stir up, and you wonder

how that could be. Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

Picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute. Whenever I start
explaining it, I've forgotten the words.

Here, Hinton's sculpturing of his lines has allowed for stress and meter to seep in according to the English, all the while hinting at the primacy of the couplets in the original. His rhythms and vocabulary also tend to be thicker, or more full, than that of the other translators: compare a couplet from Ezra Pound's translation of Li Po's "The Jewel Stairs' Grievance" ("The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew, / It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings") with Hinton's "Jade-Staircase Grievance" ("Night long on the jade staircase, white / dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings"). As a result, his translations transmit something of the condensed complexity of the Chinese original, where in Pound's, Williams's, Rexroth's, and Snyder's translations the fluidity creates poems misleadingly simple.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Hinton's translations, at least with respect to the current volume, is that their author is a translator rather than a poet. Not only do his lines not come short in comparison with the others--all members of the Pantheon of Modernist Poets--but his knowledge of the language ensures that the details of these poems do not get lost or misunderstood away. While Weinberger has not included the Chinese texts or word-for-word definitions, Hinton's translations, when set against what may be more interpretive versions, approach the original as closely as we can expect.

If The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry has a flaw, it is that Weinberger only had space for five translators. He mentions many other translators and poets in his introduction, such as James Legge, Burton Watson, Arthur Waley, Wai-lim Yip, David Hawkes, Amy Lowell, and others, but their work--except for Legge and Watson versions in the comprehensive Notes--is unrepresented. Neither does the book have space for more contemporary poet-translators such as Carolyn Kizer and Arthur Sze. Weinberger, remarking on criticism of his earlier anthology, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, has said that the anthology is the only genre that can be faulted for what it does not include, as well as for what it does. In the introduction, he hopes to forestall such attacks with "The dream of comprehensiveness among anthologists and reviewers--a dream of a library, not a book--leads only to shelves of the massive and the unread." The point is taken, and hopefully a project such as this can inspire readers on to further readings, further translations, and further poetry, just as many speakers of foreign languages have been inspired by translations they read early on.

And in the end, tension resolved, this is not an anthology of translation: it is an anthology of classical Chinese poetry (for a brilliant discussion of comparative translation, see Weinberger's earlier study, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei). Just as Chinese landscape painting never developed a one-point perspective, always preferring to see the same mountain from many sides at once, this anthology presents Chinese poetry as viewed from several angles. And ultimately, with such many-sided and multi-faceted viewing, the reader ends up with a richer, more developed sense of the poems and their literary tradition. At the end of this volume, rather than feeling servant to two masters, the reader feels master of two servants: the trajectory of translation of classical Chinese poetry into English, and of the Chinese poetry itself, as close to the original in spirit and in letter as any volume can hope to achieve.


Fall 2003 Table of Contents