Saturday, July 03, 2010

`What Holds One's Attention'

Bill Sigler recently posted two “unworthy translations of the Master,” that is, Tu Fu (712-770), or Du Fu, and sent me back to my companion of more than forty years – Poems of the Late T’ang, translated by A.C. Graham, in the slender old Penguin edition. What I like about Graham’s work is its starkness and clarity as English poetry. There’s no mushiness or gassy poeticizing, no striving to sound “Oriental,” whatever that means. Graham has learned from Waley and Pound but never apes them. If he were a Chinese poet, this is how his poems would sound. Here’s the third of five sections from a sequence titled “Autumn Wastes,” translated by Graham and written late in Tu Fu’s life:

“Music and rites to conquer my failings,
Mountains and woods to prolong my zest.
On my twitching head the silk cap slants,
I sun my back in the shine of bamboo books,
Pick up the pine cones dropped by the wind,
Split open the hive when the sky is cold
By scattered and tiny red and blue
Halt pattened feet close to the faint perfume.”

I choose this stanza because except for the head gear it describes a life not unlike my own, though written by a Chinese poet more than twelve-hundred years ago. Some poetry-bearing breeze wafts across the centuries, surely one of the functions of art. “Pattened” refers to the wearing of pattens, an antiquated and ridiculous form of footwear. Jane Austen writes in Northanger Abbey: “Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off.” I particularly like the first and fourth lines of Graham’s version.

Graham includes his version of a poem Sigler also takes a crack at, “Autumn Meditation (5)”:

“The Gate of P’eng-lai Palace faces the South Mountain:
Dew collects on the bronze stems out of the Misty River.
See in the west on Jasper Lake the Queen Mother descend:
Approaching from the east the purple haze fills the Han-ku pass.
The clouds roll back, the pheasant-tail screens open before the throne:
Scales ringed by the sun on dragon robes! I have seen the majestic face.
I lay down once by the long river, wake left behind by the years,
Who so many times answered the roll of court by the blue chain-patterned door.”

Graham appends nine lines of gloss though the meaning remains opaque to this Chinese illiterate. I’m grateful to Sigler and Graham (and Pound and Waley) for revivifying a cultural presence that once seemed academic and now is downright neighborly. I hear Chinese spoken daily (though the speakers may never have heard of Tu Fu). Houston was monolingual compared to greater Seattle. At the swimming pool on Friday I heard Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Spanish, English and several of its mutations.

Marianne Moore writes in the foreword to her first prose collection, Predilections (1954):

"Silence is more eloquent than speech -- a truism; but sometimes something that someone has written excites one's admiration and one is tempted to write about it; if it is in a language other than one's own, perhaps to translate it -- or try to; one feels that what hold's one's attention might hold the attention of others. That is to say, there is a language of sensibility of which words can be the portrait -- a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false..."

That's for Tu Fu, Graham and Bill.

1 comment:

Cynthia Haven said...

You'll sympathize with a Seattle-reared friend of mine from who, as a schoolboy, became unruly and offensive in a classroom discussion of poems.

Called to answer for himself after class, he said that she had read aloud the stupidest poem he ever heard, which began:

"I wandered lonely as a cloud"

The teacher had to explain to him that, in other parts of the world, clouds appeared singly, one by one -- and not in a large, unrelieved bank of color.

Hecht is sorely missed; I reviewed his Darkness and the Light for the WaPo Book World here: