China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Versereviews5

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003
480 pp.; $18.00 (paper)

Midway through the thirteenth century, near the close of the Sung dynasty, a prolific poet, Liu K’o-chuang, compiled a collection of poems that served as China’s preeminent anthology until the 1970s, when cadres of the Cultural Revolution replaced it in the classroom with proletarian propaganda. TheChien-chia-shih, rearranged several times over the centuries as poems were added and deleted, now holds 214 poems. Tu Fu, Li Pai (Li Po), Wang Wei, and all the renowned Chinese rogue poets are represented. For Poems of the Masters, the first full edition in English, Red Pine, the prolific, coyotelike translator of Chinese texts for North America, has composed crisp, insightful commentaries to each of the verses, which also appear in their original Chinese.

China’s classical poetry holds an arresting lucidity for North Americans. In translation these poems seem to reflect our patterns of thought better than classical English poetry does. The tone of the Chinese verse is intimate—one utterly vulnerable, disarming, beloved friend speaking to another. And because the nearly seven hundred years covered by this anthology—spanning the seventh through the thirteenth centuries—saw terrific political unrest across China, these poems are a collective cry of upheaval, exile, banishment, loneliness, fear of war, and fear of death. The most moving ones, and there are dozens, speak of the separation of friends, or of the poet’s plaintive look homeward to a place he has not seen in years and, perhaps, doubts he will ever see again.

Chinese classical verse carries, with a very particular flavor, the Buddhist notion of impermanence, as well as a Taoist conviction for the inevitability of change. In Poems of the Masters, I was enormously struck by several poems in which all the anguish and longing of separation come to focus on the overhead moon. “The Chinese are fond of saying the same moon shines on those who are apart, thus joining them together,” Red Pine writes in his commentary on a well-known four-line poem by Wang Wei. And there is Li Pai’s bravely understated lyric:

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