I take both grace and insult
With cheerful equanimity
— Du Fu
Congrats on your decision to move to China and, as Kerouac advised, be in love with your Shanghai life. I marvel at your ability to trust your intuition.
You mentioned when we met at Northwest Coffee your daily commitment to being happy in the moment. Did I tell you about a former student whose Chinese name had the wonderful meaning “Happy Every Day”?
This reminds me of one of my favorite poets, Han-Shan, whom I first read about decades ago in Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums. Therein, the character Japhy Ryder (modeled on poet Gary Snyder) is shown translating Han-Shan as part of the requirements for his program of study at UC Berkeley. I also read Burton Watson’s Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang poet Han-Shan, many of which I’ve memorized (they’re typically short—8 lines or so). Here’s one by Watson that makes me think of the resolve to be happy in the present moment:
Be happy if there’s something to be happy about!
When the moment comes, do not lose it!
Though they say life lasts a hundred years,
Who has seen a full thirty thousand days?
You’re in this world no more than an instant,
So don’t sit there grumbling about money.
At the end of the Classic of Filial Piety
It tells you all about what funerals are like.
Since you were in my class in January 2008, I’ve feasted on great translators of Chinese poetry from Snyder and Watson to Arthur Cooper, Kenneth Rexroth, David Young, David Hinton, Arthur Waley, and Ezra Pound. Here are some random passages from the translators and editors of these volumes:
In the 20th century, American poetry is inextricable from classical Chinese poetry and the Chinese language itself. – Eliot Weinberger
… Li Po being the Taoist (intuitive, amoral, detached), and Tu Fu the Confucian (cerebral, moral, socially-engaged). Informative though it may be, this contrast is a simplification. To be a complete human being, a Chinese intellectual must be both Taoist and Confucian, and this was true of both Li Po and Tu Fu. – David Hinton
Much Far Eastern poetry is concerned with the transitoriness of human values, the ephemeral beauties of nature, the impermanent illusion of the ego, with the life of man as a tiny series of unknown incidents in the flow of the universe. – Kenneth Rexroth
For Po [Juyi], the poem is genially a kind of relaxed rambling, open to all thought and experience, whether petty or profound. – David Hinton
Actually, what we want poetry to do is guide lovers toward ecstasy, give witness to the dignity of old people, intensify human bonds, elevate the community, and improve public spirit. And so, it is in just that humanness, that delicate—I’m almost tempted to use the word sweet—appreciation of the details of human life, families, the frustrations of employment with the government, and the frustrations of being a hermit, that we respond to most deeply in Chinese poetry, having a poetry ourselves which is so different in a way, so mythological, so political and so elevated, that it can’t deal with ordinary human affairs often. – Gary Snyder
Du Fu is the poet who truly originated the lyric poem as we presently know and value it. –David Young
For a thousand years, [Li Ch’ing-chao and Chao Ming-ch’eng’s] marriage has been celebrated by the literary gentry as an ideal one. They wrote poems to each other. They shared the same passion for poetry and classics, music, painting, and the art of calligraphy. – Kenneth Rexroth
Anlin, one of my current students at Maryville, told me with compassion that it’s impossible to translate Chinese poems! So much must be lost, even with the best effort and talent! While I have to rely on such translators, you may be able to work through the originals. If you ever do, let me know what poets and poems you enjoy!
Here’s one of Rexroth’s translations of Su T’ung-Po,”The Turning Year”
Nightfall. Clouds scatter and vanish.
The sky is pure and cold.
Silently the River of Heaven turns in the Jade Vault.
If tonight I do not enjoy life to the full,
Next month, next year, who knows where I will be?