Update: Here’s a curious fact. This post is by far the most popular on a blog I’ve been keeping for over four years. It has been viewed over three times more than the next most popular post. I wonder why. Is it because there are quite a lot of Chinese web users? But if so, why read a post in English about a translation into that language of classical Chinese poetry? Is it English-speaking members of the Chinese diaspora researching poems to add to their wedding ceremonies? Or is it the publication of my own incredibly wonderful poem? (That’s the most likely, wouldn’t you agree?) I would be curious to find out. So, if you wouldn’t mind leaving a comment when you visit telling me why you were interested in this post, I would be grateful.
I just read Qiu Xiaolong’s “Treasury of Chinese Love Poems.” It exceeded my hopes. It was really quite excellent. My previous relationship with Chinese poems was primarily through Rexroth’s “One Hundred Poems from the Chinese” (especially the excellent Wu Tsao) and an occasional Pound hilarity.
Then I started reading Qiu’s Shanghai political police procedurals*, in which he is constantly interpolating classical, as well as modern, Chinese verse. (The “hero” of the books, is a poet as well as a police inspector.) A “refugee” of sorts, he remained in the US where he was studying after the events of Tiananment. His biography is interesting reading.
When we read poems, Asian poems anyway, we expect them to be “emblems.” Any more English readers have accepted that poems in their language are going to be diary entries, language experiments or something equally non-magical. Picking up this book I expected both that incantatory experience and yet expected to be disappointed. Neither happened really. These are actually poems. You can hold them in your hand. They are things, which poems rarely are anymore. It’s considered something of a failure these days if you’re poem is not a “process.” The problem with “processes” of course is that they’re not sharable. For that you need an unashamed artifact.
I’ll just give one example from the 70 or so poems. There isn’t a clunker among them, but I found about 15 to hold particular resonance for me. By the way, the great majority of these poems are from the Tang dynasty, are in two primary forms, and all by men (except one), mostly writing with a woman’s persona, “which,” to quote Abe Simpson, “was the fashion at the time” for love poems.
An Imperial Concubine Waiting at Night
by Li Bai (701-762)
Waiting, she finds her silk stockings
soaked with the dew drops
glistening on the marble steps.
Finally, she is moving
to let the crystal-woven curtain fall
when she casts one more glance
at the glamorous autumn moon.
Chinese poetry is filled with sleeves.
Qiu Xiaolong is an excellent poet himself, something I can say without having read yet his original poetry. It’s not possible to do creditable translations if you cannot write poetry yourself. One example will due, from “Deep Courtyard,” “Tearfully, I ask the flowers,/who do not answer,/in a riot of red falling over the swing.”
These poems have great lines, or extraordinary moments, or mournful atmospheres. There’s something in each poem to recommend it.
Here’s a poem I wrote, in part a reaction to these poems.
The Tang Period
By Curt Hopkins
The poem is a magic object,
A white-silver pearl, in which
A memory or moment is caught,
Captured and preserved.
Not for the sake of time itself,
But for the way our souls light up
Touching the suspension
Of an irrevocable instant.
Above the road the sky softens,
Glowing like purple vellum,
And from the cloud the moon breaks,
Seeking its truer self, her face.