Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young

Du Fu: A Life in Poetry

Too hot in the sun
too cool in the shade

I keep going from one side
of the house to the other

breezes ripple
through the young grass

hawks slide sideways
along the ridge

the late afternoon sun sets
the flowering crabapple aglow

long shadows fill
with lilac scent

immersed in a life’s
worth of poetry

I’ve let another spring day
come & go

wind stripped the last petals
from my cherry tree

while twelve centuries seemed
almost to vanish.

*

Some things have changed
since Du Fu’s day, I think

it’s more common for men to write
love poems to their wives now

or to write in the voices of conscripts
or laundry women

the Three Gorges would be
unrecognizable to him, I’m afraid

mountains & rivers go to ruin these days
while the state survives

I watch the crescent moon sink
toward the horizon

Chang’an remains attainable
only in dreams.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

5 Comments


  1. I suppose a few notes would be order. This is not a biography but an anthology of poems grouped in chronological order with a brief paragraph to introduce each new “chapter” of the poet’s life, and minimal explanatory notes placed conveniently yet unobtrusively at the end of each poem. A map at the front of the book places the poems in geographical context as well.

    Obviously I liked Young’s decision to render each line of Chinese verse as a free-verse couplet, though the tendency of a five-syllable line in Classical Chinese to turn into a five-stressed line in modern English is still evident. I agree with him that any more exact attempt to imitate the formal complexities of Du Fu’s poems wouldn’t be worth the price in distorted meanings.

    I don’t think this is the definitive English translation of Du Fu for our generation — this isn’t like Edward Snow’s Rilke translations, for example — but I still found it a very admirable and highly readable survey, better than anything that’s come before. Not surprisingly, I disagreed with many of his word choices in those poems I’ve spent some time with myself. But for the first time I felt as if I understood Du Fu’s life and the contradictory impulses that motivated him, and moreover, understood why most Chinese regard him as slightly greater than his friend Li Bai/Li Po. If you have any interest in Chinese poetry at all — or even just like good travel literature — get this book.

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  2. “while twelve centuries seemed / almost to vanish.” — well put. That’s the magic of reading.

    I’ve never read Du Fu and only a little Li Po, but you’ve got me intrigued. Another to add to my list. Come December when my parents ask what I’d like for my birthday, I can just say “see Via Negative, April entries” :)

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    1. Yeah, really! I’ve added a few books to my Amazon “wish list” from here.

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  3. Du Fu’s one of those poets who grows up with you. I’ve been reading him for thirty years, and somehow wherever I am, that’s where he is too.

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    1. Definitely a poet of many topics and styles — Nerudean in that sense. I mean, I love poets like Han Shan and Li He, too, but you have to be in the mood for them. It’s hard not to be in the mood for Du Fu.

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