However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill’s collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or “Classic of Poetry” (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill’s translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley’s 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: “Sam Hamill’s work, like Waley’s, represents a lifetime’s devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current.”
Earlier than Waley’s work, Ezra Pound’s slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound’s contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the “River Kiang” as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound’s directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound’s Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in “The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills” (“Taking Leave of Two Officials”). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. “Taking Leave of a Friend,” by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer’s mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer’s intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached–as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, “Crossing the Yellow River,” by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky–
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore’s “The Paper Nautilus,” Eliot’s “Preludes,” Philip Levine’s “Milkweed” and Karl Kirchwey’s “In Transit,” among others.
Li Ch’ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book’s few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China’s greatest and also “one of the most influential critics of her age.” “To the Tune: Boat of Stars” brings back to me Ezra Pound’s remarkable adaptation of Li Po’s “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I’ve gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter–
I’m intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Wife’s Lament,” the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader’s mind. Here, for instance, is “A Smile”:
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I’ll try to hide my smile.
Hamill’s revised translation of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi’s poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi’s injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill’s ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes’s Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document’s history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill’s prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author–the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In “Discovering the Artist Within,” he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan–two in the Marines and one on a fellowship–added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. “We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T’ang Dynasty,” Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today’s practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: “I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life.”