Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sunday Poet: Tu Fu

Alone, Looking for Blossoms Along the River

The sorrow of riverside blossoms inexplicable,
And nowhere to complain -- I've gone half crazy.
I look up our southern neighbor. But my friend in wine
Gone ten days drinking. I find only an empty bed.

A thick frenzy of blossoms shrouding the riverside,
I stroll, listing dangerously, in full fear of spring.
Poems, wine -- even this profusely driven, I endure.
Arrangements for this old, white-haired man can wait.

A deep river, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
And such goings on: red blossoms glaring with white!
Among spring's vociferous glories, I too have my place:
With a lovely wine, bidding life's affairs bon voyage.

Looking east to Shao, its smoke filled with blossoms,
I admire that stately Po-hua wineshop even more.
To empty golden wine cups, calling such beautiful
Dancing girls to embroidered mats -- who could bear it?

East of the river, before Abbot Huang's grave,
Spring is a frail splendor among gentle breezes.
In this crush of peach blossoms opening ownerless,
Shall I treasure light reds, or treasure them dark?

At Madame Huang's house, blossoms fill the paths:
Thousands, tens of thousands haul the branches down.
And butterflies linger playfully -- an unbroken
Dance floating to songs orioles sing at their ease.

I don't so love blossoms I want to die. I'm afraid,
Once they are gone, of old age still more impetuous.
And they scatter gladly, by the branchful. Let's talk
Things over, little buds ---open delicately, sparingly.


Full Moon

Above the tower -- a lone, twice-sized moon.
On the cold river passing night-filled homes,
It scatters restless gold across the waves.
On mats, it shines richer than silken gauze.

Empty peaks, silence: among sparse stars,
Not yet flawed, it drifts. Pine and cinnamon
Spreading in my old garden . . . All light,
All ten thousand miles at once in its light!


Morning Rain

A slight rain comes, bathed in dawn light.
I hear it among treetop leaves before mist
Arrives. Soon it sprinkles the soil and,
Windblown, follows clouds away. Deepened

Colors grace thatch homes for a moment.
Flocks and herds of things wild glisten
Faintly. Then the scent of musk opens across
Half a mountain -- and lingers on past noon.

Here is some biographical information about Tu Fu from Wikipedia. For those who are interested, I highly recommend reading the whole entry -- it's very well-done and educational not just about Tu Fu, but about all Chinese poetry.

Du Fu or Tu Fu (712–770) was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Along with Li Bai (Li Po), he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His own greatest ambition was to help his country by becoming a successful civil servant, but he proved unable to make the necessary accommodations. His life, like the whole country, was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, and the last 15 years of his life were a time of almost constant unrest.

Initially unpopular, his works came to be hugely influential in both Chinese and Japanese culture. He has been called Poet-Historian and the Poet-Sage by Chinese critics, while the range of his work has allowed him to be introduced to Western readers as "the Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo or Baudelaire".
In establishing a context for the entry, the authors of this piece on Tu Fu have added the following, which I think is very useful in reading any of the Chinese poets.
Traditionally, Chinese literary criticism has placed great emphasis on knowledge of the life of the author when interpreting a work, a practice which Watson attributes to "the close links that traditional Chinese thought posits between art and morality" (p. xvii). This becomes all the more important in the case of a writer such as Du Fu, in whose poems morality and history are so prominent. Another reason, identified by the Chinese historian William Hung, is that Chinese poems are typically extremely concise, omitting circumstantial factors which may be relevant, but which could be reconstructed by an informed contemporary. For modern western readers therefore, "The less accurately we know the time, the place and the circumstances in the background, the more liable we are to imagine it incorrectly, and the result will be that we either misunderstand the poem or fail to understand it altogether" (p. 5). Du Fu's life is therefore treated here in some detail.
I first came to Tu Fu through the translations of Kenneth Rexroth back in college. I didn't then appreciate the simplicity (which hides complex ideas) in the work of Tu Fu or Li Po, or any of the others. But many years later, living in Seattle, I came upon some translations by Sam Hamill and began to reread these amazing poets.

It's likely that my interest in Buddhism revived my interest in these poets, but I am also deeply impressed by the use of images to convey feeling and meaning. We have very little sense of how the images in these poems work as place markers for big ideas among Chinese readers, but if we envision our own depth of meaning for images such as doves, ocean waves, or cowboys we can begin to get closer. When we read about plum blossoms, or cranes, or the moon in Chinese poetry, these images have very defined meanings that become apparent over time and with a little research.

In the end, though, it is the poem itself that brings me back to Tu Fu over and over again. Each time I come back I find new things to admire in the brief lines.

These poems are from the Rexroth translations in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese:
Overlooking the Desert

Clear Autumn. I gaze out into
Endless spaces. The Horizon
Wavers in bands of haze. Far off
The river flows into the sky.
The lone city is blurred with smoke.
The wind blows the last leaves away.
The hills grow dim as the sun sets.
A single crane flies late to roost.
The twilit trees are full of crows.


Clear Evening After Rain

The sun sinks towards the horizon.
The light clouds are blown away.
A rainbow shines on the river.
The last raindrops spatter the rocks.
Cranes and herons soar in the sky.
Fat bears feed along the banks.
I wait here for the west wind
And enjoy the crescent moon
Shining through misty bamboo.


[This is a different translation of the "Full Moon" poem from above. Notice how differently two people can translate the same pictographs]

Full Moon

Isolate and full, the moon
Floats over the house by the river.
Into the night the cold water rushes away below the gate.
The bright gold spilled on the river is never still.
The brilliance of my quilt is greater than precious silk.
The circle without blemish.
The empty mountains without sound.
The moon hangs in the vacant, wide constellations.
Pine cones drop in the old garden.
The senna trees bloom.
The same clear glory extends for ten thousand miles.

Tu Fu on the web:
Famous Poets and Poems
Poem Hunter
Wikipedia entry
Poet Seers
Du Fu Index -- contains original text, literal translation, and literary translation for much of the poetry
Poems by Tu Fu -- a nice assortment
300 Tang Poems

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