Translation

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage lush.
Siskins in flight
gather in the vines,
sounding cheep, cheep.

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage dense.
I cut it and steam it
to make fine and coarse cloth,
clothing I won’t tire of.

I tell my nurse,
tell her I’m going home.
I clean my underwear,
I wash my clothes.
Which are washed? Which not?
I’m going to visit my parents.

Original

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉萋萋
黃鳥于飛
集于灌木
其鳴喈喈

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉莫莫
是刈是濩
為絺為綌
服之無斁

言告師氏
言告言歸
薄污我私
薄澣我衣
害澣害否
歸寧父母

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When my wife last returned from China, she brought back an edition of the Shijing, the Chinese classic of songs. Thus begins my project to translate it. As always, feedback is welcome. Here’s the first poem. You can see an earlier post of mine about it here.

Translation

“Shut! Shut!” the fishhawk cries
from the sandbar in the river.
Demure, the noble lady,
fine bride for a gentleman.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we track it.
Demure, the noble lady:
awake, asleep, I seek her.

Seeking but not finding,
awake, asleep, I miss her.
With endlessly worrying,
I toss, and turn, and toss.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we pick it.
Demure, the noble lady:
qin and se befriend her.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we sift it.
Demure, the noble lady:
bells and drums amuse her.

Original

關關雎鳩
在河之洲
窈窕淑女
君子好逑

參差荇菜
左右流之
窈窕淑女
寤寐求之

求之不得
寤寐思服
悠哉悠哉
輾轉反側

參差荇菜
左右采之
窈窕淑女
琴瑟友之

參差荇菜
左右芼之
窈窕淑女
鍾鼓樂之

Poem: As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
Poet: John Ashbery

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the Sun yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn’t.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.


For some time now, the Library of America volume of Ashbery’s poetry (1956-1987) has lan­guished on my shelf. Now that he is dead, I suppose it is time at last to crack it open. I am beginning in the obvious place, with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and with the first poem within it, which you can read above. With the exception of two forgettable poems in a recent-ish issue of the Denver Quarterly, this is my first encounter with Ashbery.

It is an appropriate poem for the occasion: the entire final stanza might be read as a commentary on his death, not least that fourth line: “And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth…” But, rich as that reading is, I will lay it aside, and try to enter the poem as it was written—by one still alive. We may yet circle back to death.

The poem’s characters have no names, only pronouns: “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “her.” I often find this frustrating, little more than perverse obscurantism, but here it enriches the poem. This poem plays, deliberately, with the opaque nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” that together form the poem’s “we.” At several points, they appear to be blended together. Consider these lines:

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?

The shift from “you” to “I” here makes sense in context. The narrator (“I”) tells us that a look of glass stops “you.” At this point, the narrator imagines what is in “your” head—thus the shift to the first person. But it is still “you” he is talking about, not himself. Later in the stanza, however, the “I” is carried through:

Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated…

 Though we have left “your” thoughts by this point, this feels—at least to me—like the same “I” as before. And so I start to get the sense that the “you” and the “I” of this poem are the same person, seen from different vantage points, which we might call the self-identifying (“I”) and the self-estranged (“you”). This fits with the theme of perception and objectivity that the opening lines of the third stanza raise.

The sense is only heightened in the next stanza. “You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx,” we learn. But, almost immediately after this, we encounter the “her,” who has “come to ask once more / If I was coming in.” This is just the question one might put to someone who has slept for too long in the sun—but it is “you,” not “I,” who has done that. Once again, “you” and “I” seem to merge into a single person.

One possibility is that “you” is just “I” addressed from “her” perspective, as suggested by these lines:

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in.

The final “Come in” suggests this is in “her” voice, since a few lines later we find that it is “her” who asks “If I was coming in.” This move doesn’t seem to work for the lines quoted above from the third stanza, however: there it does seem to be a self-estranged perspective, not the perspective of some other.

In the poem’s final stanza, all of these personalities drop out, and we are left only with night, and with things. The lushness of summer makes demands, creates the uneasiness that characterizes so much of this poem, but at least the summer night, when this lushness is shrouded and quieted, and the “small things” are able at last to speak out, “gives more than it takes.” And here the brief respite of night forebodes the longer respite of winter. At this point we may, once again, think of death, which, does, after all, eliminate the selves behind all pronouns, in the end.

 

Translation:

Drinking Wine (5)

I build my hut in a settled place
And yet—no clamor of carts or horses.

You ask, sir, How can it be so?
The distant heart secludes the place.

Plucking chrysanthemums at the eastern hedge,
Idly observing the southern mountains,

The mountain air beautiful day and night,
The birds returning like old friends—

In all of this, there is clear meaning.
Even hoping to share it, I lose speech.

Original (traditional characters):

飲酒

結廬在人境
而無車馬喧
問君何能爾
心遠地自偏
採菊東籬下
悠然見南山
山氣日夕佳
飛鳥相與還
此中有真意
欲辯已忘言

Original (simplified characters):

饮酒

结庐在人境
而无车马喧
问君何能尔
心远地自偏
采菊东篱下
悠然见南山
山气日夕佳
飞鸟相与还
此中有真意
欲辨已忘言

Over the past few weeks, I have been spending time with Susan Howe’s latest (and perhaps last) book, Debths. I am working on a review of it that I will send to a Real Venue—this is not that. Rather, fortuitously, two other books I’ve read or am currently reading have helped to frame my reading of Debths in an interesting way. This is about that.

Recently, I read The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of essays and remarks laying out the background prosodic views of the poets included in The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. It is a fascinating volume, a document that captures the ferment that accompanied the flowering of the American free verse tradition. Recurring in that volume is a revolt against received form. Each poetic moment must find its own form, and should not be mutilated into the shape of a sonnet. Interestingly, this revolt had a distinctly irrationalist bent. Here, for instance, is Robert Duncan:

Form to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant in so far as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. […] The reality of the world and men’s habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared. […] It is of the essence of the rationalist persuasion that we be protected, by the magic of what reasonable men agree is right, against unreasonable or upsetting information. […] [T]he rationalist aesthetic was an heroic effort to find balance against this admission of vertigo, against the swirl of a vastly increased vision of what man might be. (pp. 197, 199, 203)

Reason and order, embodied by the use of received poetic forms, are on this view reduced to protective measures against everything that threatens to disorient. As so often, this irrationalism eventuates in the myth of spontaneity: “first thought best thought,” as Ginsberg put it (p. 350).

I’ll admit: when I read this, it made me angry. Even when, after reading on and finding out what, exactly, Duncan was protesting and very much rightly protesting, I calmed down, still it struck me as a manifestly uncharitable, limiting view of the use of received forms: damning the many for the sins of a few. Free verse does not require irrationalism, and received form is more than a coward’s retreat. But…

But now I have begun reading Paul Fussell’s Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England. Fussell looks at the conservative prosodists of this time, who favored metrical regularity to such an extreme that Pound’s injunction not to compose “in the sequence of the metronome” seems less like a ridiculous straw man (what I had previously thought) than like a serious critique. Fussell provides examples in the first chapter of these prosodists “correcting” Milton and others for their irregularities. These corrections can only be described as howlers.

And how do these lovers of regularity justify themselves? Their defense was explicitly moralistic. The human mind is threatened by disorder and must discipline itself. This works itself out in different ways in different aspects of life. In poetry, it works itself out in the establishment of clear, fixed prosodic principles. Regularity is the sign of an ordered mind; irregularity the sign of a disordered mind. First regularity, then piety, to summarize Johnson’s praise of Gilbert Walmesley (Fussell, p. 43).

Now the poets of The New American Poetry were certainly not reacting against 18th century British prosodists. But the British prosodists answer so perfectly to the 20th century American’s caricature of their critics that I begin to wonder whether that caricature is not, in fact, a perfectly fair and accurate representation. I don’t know, but I’d no longer be surprised to find it so.

Where does this leave us? We have, on the one hand, a conservative prosody that emphasizes regularity on moral grounds as a bulwark against disorder and chaos. And we have, on the other hand, a liberal prosody that eschews regularity in an explicit attempt to welcome disorder and chaos, to stand before it unafraid.

Which brings me back to Susan Howe and Debths. At first glance, Howe seems clearly to be the descendant of the liberal tradition. Open Debths to a random page and you may see something like this:

Howe, Debths

There aren’t even full words, let alone regular recurrences of stress. Look further and the connections continue. Debths is published by New Directions, a company noteworthy for publishing a great many of the poets represented in The Poetics of the New American Poetry (off the top of my head, Pound, Williams, Ferlinghetti, Lorca, and I know there are plenty more). In more ways than one, then, she does fit into this tradition.

But, as I read Debths, I think the relation to order and disorder is different from the irrationalist embrace of chaos represented by Duncan. (In fairness to Duncan and the rest of his generation, their statements are more extreme than their practice. But I am going by their statements here.) Howe’s book comes to grips with the reality of the poet’s coming death (Howe is 80). We can think of organisms as temporary pockets of order in a world that trends toward disorder; on this conception, the organism that is Susan Howe is nearing the point of disintegration, of ceasing to be able to hold its own against disorder.

Debths exists at or around this very boundary between order and disorder. Connections can be traced throughout the work, they swirl in and out of consciousness, now apparent and graspable, now beyond our reach. The collage poems (“Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths”) feel like frayed thoughts, crowded by indistinct, marginal voices. There is order, but it is imperfect, and perilously maintained. A page like the one given above captures a moment of a near-total wane in order, yet even this waxing and waning has a rhythm of its own, which Howe captures.

What this means for the reader is that the reader must take a rationalist approach to the book: must seek out its order intellectually. This is not a book that can be felt intuitively. It must be puzzled over. And yet it is a world away from the moralistic drudgery of Johnson. Johnson loved regularity because it satisfied the mind’s expectation of order. Howe’s poem works by satisfying that expectation only intermittently, and otherwise frustrating it. Still, the frustration cannot exist without the expectation.