David Hinton On Classical Chinese Poetry
Poet and translator David Hinton returns to the blog this year to discuss his passion, classical Chinese poetry. Hinton is the translator and editor of Classical Chinese Poetry, an anthology released last October by FSG. You can see all posts about him here, and listen to his podcast here.
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 C. E.) was the first major Chinese poet to speak in a direct personal voice about the full range of his immediate experience. This is the voice that came to typify the Chinese tradition after T’ao Ch’ien, and it is why classical Chinese poetry has felt so contemporary to American readers over the last century. T’ao lived in relative poverty on a quiet farm, though he moved for a time in a nearby village. There, living in the midst of the human-generated noise that modern urban-dwellers take for granted, he wrote his famous poem about drinking wine:
I live here in this busy village without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,
and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
going home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.
Drinking wine is widely experienced as a relaxation of our struggle with the world, and it appears frequently in the work of T’ao Ch’ien and virtually every poet who followed him in the tradition. But those poets invest that relaxation with striking philosophical dimensions, for in a poem drinking wine generally meant drinking just enough to achieve a serene clarity of attention, a state in which the isolation of a mind struggling to understand and interpret the world fades away. It was T’ao Ch’ien who first began to explore those philosophical dimensions, as in the ending of “Drinking Wine,” with its skepticism about language. This skepticism was there in Chinese intellectual culture from the beginning, in Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and soon after T’ao Ch’ien it became the essence of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, with its emphasis on silence, no-mind, direct transmission of enlightenment outside texts and institutions, and the paradoxical koan practice that teases the mind outside its normal linguistic structures. The primary source of this skepticism is the realization that even after the most exhaustive and accurate description or philosophical account, the most compelling mythology or the most concise and penetrating poem, things in and of themselves elude us perfectly. This insight represents a kind of liberation, because it opens the possibility of immediate experience outside our linguistic story-telling selves, and in that immediacy lies a much deeper potential for dwelling in the world.
This distrust of the ideas and stories we tell ourselves about the world adds another dimension to the imagist poetics that help give classical Chinese poetry its strikingly contemporary feel. To the extent that it is made of landscape images, a poem conspires to speak outside our story-telling selves, to let landscape itself speak as part of identity, a kind of deep ecological practice that weaves identity into landscape as accurately as language can. And translating such poems allows me to speak with even less of a center, because it frees me of the need for an isolated mind struggling to compose the poem. Instead, I can speak in other voices and let other voices speak in my voice—the voices of poets themselves, and of the ten thousand things speaking in poems:
Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then startling up into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.
—Tu Mu (803-853)