Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Once I went to sit at Han Shan"   [shi in translation]

Once I went   to sit at Han Shan
lingering on   for lo these thirty years
of late I came   to call on friends and kin
the bulk had gone   to the land of mist and tears
slow it fades!   as does a guttering candle
long it flows!   alike a meandering rill
in morning light   beholding a lonely shadow
unwontedly   the tears twainly spill


In still more rambling comment-box chitchat, partly following further this "to rhyme or not to rhyme" topic, I made some reference to the role of classical Chinese poetry (which I studied in the original, when I was in my 20s) in my meandering route toward writing formal English-lang. poetry. By way of attempting to give some flavor of this (a picture being worth a thousand words, and a poem worth 10,000), this evening I recast my own old translation of an 8-line poem from the Tang dynasty Buddhist recluse known as Han Shan ("Cold Mountain"). Han Shan was among the first Chinese poets I studied avidly.



The word rendered here as "guttering" (if memory serves, Snyder settled on that word; I've erstwhile favored "dying," but now I like his good choice in this) -- a word signifying extinction (the extenguishing candle, one may say), is the same ancienet Chinese word that, when Buddhism was introduced, was chosen to translate (from the Sanskrit scriptures) the word Nirvana. [In old Chinese grammar, the selfsame word may be noun, verb or adjective, depending solely on its position in the sentence. Thus, as noun, it can be Nirvana; as adjective it's guttering.]

"To sit at Han Shan" of course implies, to meditate as a recluse in the mountains. Cold Mountain was indeed remote and cold. Han Shan's early poems seem to reflect a life in the city, perhaps as a petty beaurocrat. Some implication of a reversal of fortunes and anyway, the impulse of a spiritual search appear to have prompted his withdrawal from the world.
The Chinese word "zuo" (sit) is the "za" of Zazen (sitting meditation) in the Japanese pronounciation.
For sake of something hinting at a more familiar idiom (and, okay, the rhyme), I've resorted to "the land of mist and tears." The original Chinese idiom is "the yellow springs." (Either way, the realm of the dead is invoked by euphemism. Yellow is the color of the earth element; "below the ground" would be the basic meaning. I feel sure there's an old story behind the phrase, but have not yet tracked it down.)

The grammatical parallelism of the 5th and 6th lines is superb in its spare elegance and balanced contrasts -- a trait exceedingly important and pervasive in Chinese poetics.

The pronoun (the self as subject) is implied (but not stated) vis-a-vis the shadow and the tears in the final two lines (that is, translators might more typically opt for "my shadow" and "my tears"). This is characteristic of classical Chinese poetry. In fact, the pronoun (the "I") is likewise not stated anywhere else in the poem! -- but for clarity in English, I've pulled it into the poem explicitly in the 1st and 3rd lines. Albeit not needing written presence in the Chinese grammar, it's unambiguously present (as the unstated subject) in the poem's initial sentences. An English poem, seeking to mimic this characteristic as style, might perhaps go for something like, "Went to the hills . . . sat for 30 years . . . lately returned to call on friends and kin."

"tears twainly spill": i.e., from the (poet's) pair of eyes


I had introduced the topic of Chinese poetry as a way of explaining my personal route toward writing formal English verse. The implicit hypothesis (or conceit): if metrical, rhyming English poetry had not existed, it would be necessary to invent it (the better to reflect the feel of quialities found in Chinese poetry).


Anonymous j.p.seatontrkrus said...

I like a lot of what you have done here. Bravo. I hope to see more. What is your background in Chinese, and in poetry in general. Too many inns and post houses meta-phrase Li Po (or Li Bai) but it is very early in the morning for me.

J.P.Seaton (another translator...its about all I do these days)

Thu Aug 17, 05:50:00 AM PDT  
Blogger david raphael israel said...

Well Professor Seaton, most honored by your visit. I recall your name from old days, as a translator from classical Chinese. I studied the langague (both modern and olden, but with emphasis on the latter) at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s -- only at the undergrad level, which, alas, amounted to mere "nice introduction." For a couple of years I continued dabbling in my own eccentric interests (particularly, I was involved for a while in translating the classical Chinese poems of an early 20th century Japanese poet -- one Imazeki Tempo, who was himself a scholar of Chinese poetry and drama, and had taught at Shanghai University in the 1920s or something). Others I was drawn to included similarly off-the-beaten-track figures: I was especially interested in the shi by two Yuan dynasty poet-painters -- Wang Mian and Ni Zan; my study in Prof. James Cahill's survey course of Yuan/Ming/Ching literati painting having helped introduce me to such... but I ramble. The truth is, I've been afar from such studies and ditherings in the past 3 decades. There seems a vague possibility life may permit me some return to them in upcoming years, though truth to tell, at the moment I'm hankering to study Indian languages.

Google advises me of several of your volumes I've not properly perused, but should. I was also of course (auto-didactically) devoted to the Laozi, and have not properly checked out what you and Ms. LeGuin have wraught from that classic.

There, anyway, is something of a sketch. When I look now again at this attempt at the shi of Han Shan, I'm mildly embarassed by the "meandering rill" -- and suppose I may not quite be done with this poem yet, even though I've made various attempts at it for low these (almost) 30 years. Some of my other professors included the late Edward Shafer, and the late Michel Strickman -- the latter a most eccentric and interesting Frenchman who was rather innovative in some of his course offerings (including, for instance, a class I took in "popular Chinese Buddhism"). I did dabble in Buddhist Studies at UCB, where there were a few scholars Buddhist Logic and suchlike. But some of my own ideosyncratic meandering included wandering through the upper levels of the East Asiatic Library (I worked there shelving books), randomly picking out little volumes of poetry that nobody was studying, borrowing, or looking at -- some of it remarkable stuff. I had only begun to make my way into use of the Ci Hai -- the great ocean of phrases, in maybe 20 volumes? One could wish that were online these days. But it will need a bit more leisure for me to revive such things. It's most likely to happen if I manage to go spend some time in China (as seems possible) in unfolding years. Time will tell.


Thu Aug 17, 06:37:00 AM PDT  

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