Wednesday, November 30, 2005
The silver brilliance
To what extent the poems should really be called translations is a useful question. In some cases Rexroth clearly took liberties in putting the poems into English. Other sources have indicated that Rexroth often worked from already existing translations in English (the very free versions of Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell, for example) or French (possibly the translations by Judith Gautier). Rexroth's translations are not the most literally accurate ones available. He was a great poet, and he had a keen intuitive knack for getting at least a little into the mind and sensibility of the poet he was translating. This, along with his vast and varied scholarly reading in multiple fields, resulted in beautiful poems, versions, in English, even when they stray far and obviously from the originals.
The men and beasts of the zodiacThe lines are from a poem by Tu Fu, translated by Rexroth with the title "Winter Dawn," in 100 Poems from the Chinese. I don't know any Chinese, and can't comment on what the original poem says. Tu Fu, who lived 713-770 (the dates Rexroth gives), clearly did not quote Robert Burns in the original. And it's doubtful that there were cars starting outside 1200 years before they were invented. In spite of these obvious meddlings, which occur here and there through Rexroth's translations from various languages, the essence of the poem feels true to me.
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
(I am using here Rexroth's transliterations of Chinese names, rather than the modern Pinyin system, just to avoid confusion and complication in referring to Rexroth's works. Using Pinyin transliteration, Tu Fu would be written Du Fu.)
Ezra Pound said somewhere something to the effect that all cultures are contemporaneous; he thought it should be possible to make a poem from medieval Provence or T'ang Dynasty China into a contemporary 20th century poem in English, and retain all of the essential qualities of the poetry in each of the languages. That, anyway, is what he appears to have advocated; the approach continues to influence generations of would-be translators: trying to create, in translation, the sort of poem the translator imagines the poet might have written, had he or she written in contemporary American English. Pound's approach largely resulted, in his own case, in "translations" (from Provencal, Chinese, and other languages) that read like an average account by a late-nineteenth century English gentleman of a liesurely walk in the country (or, perhaps, sitting in a study daydreaming about the countryside). The poems get lost in the translator's narrow conceit. Pound's translations remain confined by the limits of Pound's own poetry; he didn't write as well as the poets he purported to translate.
What Rexroth did, at his best, was something else. It's as though he attempted to move his mind and senses into the mind and senses of the poet he was translating; to write the kind of poem Rexroth felt he himself might have written, if he had lived in the time and place and life of the other poet. This remains, of course, ultimately an act of Rexroth's own creativity and imagination. Rexroth, as a poet, was largely equal to the poets he translated. Although his translations of Tu Fu or Su Tung-P'o (or of Sappho or Yosano Akiko) are not always the most literally accurate, his versions do invariably convey the greatness of the poets and the original poems.
One of my favorite Rexroth translations, and one of my favorite poems by anyone, is one I've never found in any other version by any of the other translators I've read; I've considered the possibility that it may be largely of Rexroth's own making, though I don't have any basis for saying that, I'm just idly speculating. From the poem "Moon Festival" by Tu Fu (in 100 Poems from the Chinese):
The moon toad swims in the riverIn a footnote, Rexroth says that in China the moon is sometimes popularly imagined as a toad, a rabbit, or a mortar for grinding, among other things, in the way that some popular "Western" tradtions imagine a man-in-the-moon face. Whether the moonlight means anything to the soldiers camped in the desert is maybe a worthwhile question; we often turn to isolated moments of calm and beauty in the midst of misery and chaos. But on the scale of history and the world the poem feels true to me.
And does not drown. The moon rabbit
Pounds the bitter herbs of the
Elixer of eternal life.
His drug only makes my heart
More bitter. The silver brilliance
Only makes my hair more white.
I know that the country is
Overrun with war. The moonlight
Means nothing to the soldiers
Camped in the western deserts.
For readers wanting a closer sense of the Chinese originals, and the detailed workings of Chinese poetry in general, a useful source is The Heart of Chinese Poetry by Greg Whincup (Anchor Books, 1987). Whincup presents several dozen classic Chinese poems, in the original Chinese, with literal word-by-word translations, and his own renderings into something like modern poems in English; and useful prose commentary on the lives of the poets and the historical background of the individual poems. Although his poem translations aren't everything I might hope for, the literal versions he presents are invaluable (especially if you don't know any Chinese) in giving a little bit of a sense of how the poems and the language work; I generally preferred the literal versions, even as awkward as they sometimes were, to Whincup's more finished translations. It can help give a little bit of basis for gauging how far from the originals any particular translator may have wandered.
Issue 23 of the online literary magazine Jacket includes a large section devoted to Rexroth, including a couple of essays dealing with Rexroth as a translator. Though I don't agree across the board with everything in the essays, I found them interesting and provocative. The table of contents for the issue of Jacket is here.
Rexroth did further translations from Chinese, all published by New Directions: Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese; Women Poets of China (originally published as The Orchid Boat by The Seabury Press); and Li Ch'ing-Chao: Complete Poems (done in collaboration with Ling Chung). All are wonderful, even with the reservations I've noted above about Rexroth's tendency to take liberties with what the originals say. All of them left me wanting more.
The world is vast and we are small. Even with computers and cell phones and the internet, we find our way through a mysterious world, swept by the forces of politics and history, the whims of love and loss and sorrow, in which we sometimes choose to act, by which we sometimes find ourselves seized and dragged along. A poet writing hundreds of years ago speaks across the distance of years and continents. The struggle to exist on the earth, to make life better, continues, through everything; we speak to each other, and we are not alone.
Once more it is the Ninth Day(From the poem "To the Tune 'Drunk Under Flower Shadows'" by Li Ch'ing-Chao, in Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese, cited above.)
Of the Ninth Month. I lie restless
On my brocade pillow, under
The gauze curtains, until, past
Midnight, a chill sweeps into me.
In the East Enclosed Garden
We got drunk one evening.
The wine's secret perfume has never
Left my sleeves. No one else notices,
But it carries my soul away.
Now when the West wind flaps the screens,
I am more frail than the orchid petals.
With regard to Pound, I think often of a comment Robert Bly made in a essay many years back, in which he compared Pound's Cantos to an imperial city-state expanding rampantly out of control, grabbing and swallowing up everything in its path.
your post up to it as a resource under
'Happy Birthday KENNETH REXROTH (part I).
Fragrant with powder, moist with perspiration,
They are the pegs of a jade inlaid harp.
Aroused by spring, they are soft as cream
Under the fertilizing mist.
After my bath my perfumed lover
Holds them and plays with them
And they are cool as peonies and grapes.