2012 Translation Projects
This book will be the twelfth in a long-term project to translate China's major classical poets, recreating each one as a singular and compelling poetic voice in English. In spite of what may seem to be a vast cultural and temporal distance from us, this poetry feels utterly contemporary, and has in fact been an influential strain of American poetry for the past century. Although each of my translations is based on a close scholarly reading of the original text and includes a thorough apparatus, my primary intent is to make convincing English poems that will engage general readers. By translating a large number of poets in this way, I hope to establish a new literary tradition in English, a tradition with a coherent "voice" within which the distinct voices of individual poets are clear and consistent.
"Autumn Meditation" by Mei Yao-ch'en
[translated from Chinese]
Wu-t'ung trees spread above the well,
yellow, and crickets hide under beds.
Absence keeps deepening in presence.
No more false promise in the season.
Hushed wind starts leaves fluttering,
then blown rain clatters on rooftiles:
the ear hears, but mind is itself silent.
Who's left now all thought's forgotten?
About Mei Yao-ch'en
Mei Yao-ch'en (1002-1060 C.E.) was tall and good-natured, with bushy eyebrows, large ears, and red cheeks. This odd character, poor and faltering in his governmental career, came to be called the great "mountain-opening patriarch" of Sung Dynasty poetry, for his poetic thinking established the terms of poetic practice for the many great Sung poets who followed. This is to say that Mei is unquestionably one of the most important poets in the Chinese tradition, for the Sung Dynasty (960-1276 C.E.) is generally paired with its predecessor, the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), as the most accomplished periods of classical Chinese poetry. This evaluation of Mei Yao-ch'en's stature has been the broad consensus over the millennium since his death, and his poetics make him especially relevant to modern American poetic practice.
Mei felt little need to poeticize reality, an attitude that allowed Mei to include the most mundane aspects of experience in his poems. It opened his poetic vision to everything equally, the lofty realm of mountain peaks and Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist insight together with the unsavory everyday realm of lice and latrines. This poetics was profoundly informed by Ch'an Buddhism. Ch'an was almost universally practiced by the intelligentsia in Mei's time, and it taught that enlightenment is nothing other than the clear mind's attention to everyday actuality. This Ch'an attentiveness is reflected in the realism and imagistic texture of these poems.