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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #2 (January 10, 2006), page 12.

Three millennia of Chinese poetry translated for English-language readers

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry

Edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Anchor Books, 2005

Paperback, 436 pages, $15.95

By Dave Johnson

If you’re looking for a comprehensive, user-friendly anthology of Chinese poetry for your library, here it is: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, a collection of over 600 poems penned by more than 130 poets spanning 3,000 years from ancient folksongs to the surprisingly deft verse of Mao Zedong to post-Cultural-Revolution writers known as the Misty Poets.

To set the stage for three millennia of poetry by bards, administrators, courtesans, and mountain hermits, Barnstone offers a preface entitled "The Poem Behind the Poem." In his examination of a translator’s difficulties and delights, he takes the reader deep into the territory that lies beyond sensible meanings and sensual impressions. After thousands of years of fragile documentation and, more recently, the artful conversion from pictographic characters to the Roman alphabet, Barnstone talks about how and why classic Chinese poetry is still potent, still has a transcendental spark that arcs between poet and reader.

As a prime example, he presents the quintessential Chinese poem, "River Snow," by Liu Zongyuan — a celebration of the everyday world, a microcosm that defines the macrocosm:

A thousand mountains. Flying birds vanish.

Ten thousand paths. Human traces erased.

One boat, bamboo hat, bark cape — an old man

alone, angling in the cold river. Snow.

Barnstone concludes, "We will never create a truly Chinese poem in English, but … we can extend the possibilities of the translation, which may in turn reveal to the imaginations of English-language poets unforeseen continents."

Next, an introduction by Chou Ping explores the nature of the Chinese poetic form. After explaining that China has been continually redefined by its poets, he discusses the dynamics of its poetic forms. He begins with the Book of Songs that contains solemn hymns, spontaneous folksongs, and structurally symmetrical verse. He moves through the lyrical tradition of the Tang Dynasty, considered the golden age of Chinese poetry, the sharp decline of scholars and poets during the Mongolian rule of the Yuan Dynasty, and concludes with an examination of contemporary verse. It is a compact explanation of the evolution of Chinese poetics as well as a core sample of China’s political and cultural history as captured by its literature.

And then the poems. Divided into eight dynasties, the collection includes samples of the well-known and the obscure, the well-regarded and the rebellious, and, for the first time in English, a long overdue gathering of Chinese women poets.

Laozi, the legendary author of the Dao De Jing, reminds us:

Thirty spokes join at one hub;

emptiness makes the cart useful.

Li Bai (Li Po), the best-known Chinese poet in the West, hands us a basketful of poems about the delirious and melancholy times he’s been having, drinking wine, watching mountain flowers bloom, and inhaling the fragrance of his empty bed. Here are four lines that are timeless and universal:

Inscription for Summit Temple

About to sleep a night in Summit Temple

I raise my hand and touch the stars.

I have to whisper just to keep

from bothering people in heaven.

Du Fu, a Confucian scholar and Li Bai’s more conservative colleague, has a number of often lengthy, at times historical poems in this collection. In the last four lines of "Thoughts While Night Traveling," he ponders his mortality and the fragile legacy of his life’s work:

How can poems make me known?

I’m old and sick, my career done.

Drifting, just drifting. What kind of man am I?

A lone gull floating between earth and sky.

It may startle Westerners to learn that Mao Zedong was a fine poet as well as the brilliant, often brutal chieftain of the Communist Revolution, but it makes perfect sense to the Chinese mind. For thousands of years, political leaders have been expected to take up their feathered quills as well as a sword or musket. In "Warlords," Mao talks about the early days of the struggle:

Wind and clouds suddenly rip the sky

and warlords clash.

War again.

Rancor rains down on men who dream of a Pillow

of Yellow Barley.

Yet our red banners leap over the calm Ding River

on our way

to Shanghang and to Longyan dragon cliff.

The last excerpt from this wide-ranging, flavorsome collection is from Shu Ting, the leading Chinese woman poet in the 1980s. Associated with the Misty Poets, she once worked in a light bulb factory, was attacked during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and twice won the National Poetry Award. In "Two or Three Incidents Recollected," she writes:

Holding up a book to shade the candle

and with a finger in between the lips,

I sit in an eggshell quiet,

having a semitransparent dream.

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