Poetry vendors

This is the 6000th post at Via Negativa — and also, by a strange coincidence, the fourth anniversary of Luisa’s incredible poem-a-day project! I had to do something by way of commemoration, so I made this video. The haiku (technically, a hokku — and one that was used to lead off a 36-poem linked verse sequence with Basho in 1682) is difficult to translate because much is alluded to rather than stated outright. But with the help of Earl Miner’s notes from The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poems of the Basho School (Princeton, 1981), I gave it my best shot. Kikaku was arguably Basho’s greatest disciple.

詩あきんど年を貪ル酒債哉

we’re poetry vendors
life’s too short to worry about money
let’s drink the year out

宝井其角
Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707)

Miner says that Kikaku was alluding to a verse from the famous Chinese poet Du Fu:

I leave debts for drink wherever I go
Since few in any age live to be seventy.

So let us pay homage to the ancient masters who, just like us, longed to live in the moment but worried about money, and diverted themselves with poetry and alcohol as best they could. The footage is from Berlin, but what could be more Japanese than a vending machine or a solar-powered animatronic toy?

Immortals of the Wine Cup

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Lord’s day). Mr. Creed and I went to the red-faced Parson’s church, and heard a good sermon of him, better than I looked for. Then home, and had a good dinner, and after dinner fell in some talk in Divinity with Mr. Stevens that kept us till it was past Church time.
Anon we walked into the garden, and there played the fool a great while, trying who of Mr. Creed or I could go best over the edge of an old fountain wall, and I won a quart of sack of him.
Then to supper in the banquet house, and there my wife and I did talk high, she against and I for Mrs. Pierce (that she was a beauty), till we were both angry.
Then to walk in the fields, and so to our quarters, and to bed.

A red-faced divinity, the fool
who won a quart of sack.
He and I talk beauty
till we’re both angry,
then walk in the fields.


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 5 May 1661.

Ballad of the Army Carts

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Du Fu (Tu Fu), ca. 750

The carts squeak and rattle,
The horses neigh and neigh.
Clouds of dust hide the bridge across the River Wei.
Bows and arrows at their waists, the conscripts file out;
Mothers, fathers, wives and children rush onto the highway.
Hands clutch, boots tromp, bare feet stand still.
The wailing rises straight to heaven — no need to pray.

I walk alongside the column, ask what’s going on.
A soldier says simply: “They call up more every day.

“Some of us were sent north to the Yellow River at age fifteen,
And now at forty we’re heading off to the garrisons in the west.
On our first tour, the village headman had to tie our bandannas for us.
When we came back, our hair was white, but still there’s more unrest.
The frontier garrisons run with blood, enough to fill an ocean,
But the Martial Emperor’s territorial ambitions have yet to crest.
In the hundred districts east of the mountains, throughout the land of Han,
There must be ten thousand villages that brambles now infest.
Even if wives are strong enough to handle a hoe and plow,
The crops grow every which way, the fields are all a mess.
It’s hardest for the Shanxi men, with their reputations as fighters:
They’re rounded up like dogs or chickens, every male impressed.

“But sir, though it’s good of you to ask,
Complaining isn’t part of the soldier’s task.
We can only shake our heads. Take this winter:
The Shanxi troops were never sent home.
The District Officers are demanding the land tax,
But where will it come from? You can’t get blood from a stone!
I honestly think it’s bad luck to bear a son now,
It’s better to have a daughter: at least she can marry
And live with the neighbors next door.
But a son will end up lying on some distant prairie.

“Have you ever been to the Blue Sea — Kokonor?
From ancient times, the bleached bones lie thick along its shore.
The new ghosts moan and mutter,
The older ghosts cry:
Thin chirps and twitters, under a gray and dripping sky.”
__________

I am indebted to David Hawkes’ detailed exegesis in A Little Primer of Tu Fu (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) — highly recommended for anyone with more than a smidgen of Chinese. I have attempted to convey something of the rhythm and end-rhymes of the original, so the translation is a little freer than it might otherwise have been.

In his commentary, Hawkes notes that the poem was probably written to protest “a new drafting of reservists and ‘volunteers’ to fight against the Tibetans. … The old system of militia service which took the peasants away for regular periods of unpaid National Service was superseded a generation before the date of the poem by the recruitment of paid regulars who were kept on reserve and called out intermittently as occasion arose. Unfortunately the new system did not produce an adequate intake of recruits, and press-gang methods were frequently resorted to in order to raise armies for unpopular campaigns.”

Fighting South of the Wall

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Li Bai (Li Po), ca. 746

Last year we fought at the source of the Sanggan River;
This year in Xinjiang, on the road to Conghe.
We pasture our horses on the snowy slopes of Tian Shan,
And rinse our weapons in the Caspian Sea.
The front stretches for ten thousand miles;
Our troops are all worn out, too old to fight.
For the Huns, fighting and slaughter take the place of plowing;
From ancient times, their fields of yellow sand have grown nothing but bones.
The Qin Emperor built the Great Wall to keep them at bay,
And a thousand years later, we’re still tending the beacons.
Again and again the beacon fires are lit,
And war rages on without end.
Men die fighting hand-to-hand;
The screams of fallen horses reach to the heavens.
Kites and vultures gorge on human entrails, carry them off,
And leave them hanging from withered mulberry branches.
Officers and soldiers bloody the grass and bushes;
What good are the generals’ strategies now?
They must know that war is a terrible tool.
The true sage never makes use of it.
__________

Translated with the help of a dictionary. I’m reasonably certain I got the gist of it, though.

The guest

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Du Fu
(712-770)

It’s spring, so the water’s high
on both sides of my house.
Watch your step.
I’m used to greeting seagulls –
whole flocks of them, every day!
Please excuse the fallen blossoms.
With no other visitors,
I haven’t swept the walk.
You’re the very first guest
to enter by the wicker gate.

Living so far from the market,
our meals are plain – no
fancy dishes. And poor
as we are, our beer’s
a little stale. But
we can invite my old neighbor
to drink with us, if you’re willing.
I’ll give a holler over the fence:
“Come help us finish off
the rest of this beer!”
__________

This translation is dedicated to my friend Chris.

Beer: The Chinese word jiu refers to alcohol in any form. Since most undistilled fermented beverages in East Asia come from grains rather than fruit, it seems more accurate to refer to them as beer rather than wine.

Two translations

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

NIGHT THOUGHTS OF A TRAVELER

by Du Fu (712-770 C.E.)

A breeze stirs the small grass
as the night ferry’s tall mast floats by.

Stars stretch above the endless steppe,
moon bobs in the river’s sluggish current.

My name as a man of letters – how can it last?
My post – I’m old & sick enough to quit.

Drifting, drifting, what kind of life is this?
Caught between earth & sky, a solitary gull.

*

FIVE SONGS FROM A CIRCLE DANCE

anonymous Pima Indian, 20th century

Shining Water lies
Shining Water lies
Mudhen goes wandering through it

come & see
how gracefully
he floats

*
An expanse of muddy water
for me to circle

laced with the greenest algae
arrayed in zigzags

it pleases me so much I pluck a strand
wind it around my head
encircle myself

*
My heart turns giddy
I wander in a daze
ai-ya my heart
an unbearable feeling
running toward this toward that
an unbearable feeling

*
A wind springs up
& carries me off
sets me down in the distant Place of Reeds

there the wind runs through
with a flute-like sound

there where songs are kept
forever fresh

*
Do you hear me do you hear me
the land everywhere resounding

dance on it
circling
stomp

blow gently over it

a piece of eagle down
a wisp of cloud

go in

__________

The Pima (Akimel O’odham) songs are my versions, based upon two sets of English translations – one word-for-word, the other slightly freer – in Ants and Orioles: Showing the Art of Pima Poetry, by Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph. Bahr’s detailed commentary gives the patient reader sufficient tools to turn his transliterations into something resembling poetry, although his identifications of plants and animals are often suspect, according to Gary Paul Nabhan (Cross-Pollinations).

The anonymous composers of these songs credited their inspiration to the spirits of the ants. The versions translated by Bahr et. al. were sung by Andy Stepp and Claire Seota on the Salt River Reservation, Arizona, 1972.

Mysterious mountains

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single
glance!

*

Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!