Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tu Mu: Dragon or Rat?

November 15, 2009

A Necessary Desecration

Question: Tu Mu, great poet from the late T’ang dynasty period: What Was He Really Like?

Read, if you will, this small priceless jewel from a forgotten millennium:

Easing My Heart

By rivers and lakes at odds with life I journeyed, wine my freight:
Slim waists of Ch’u broke my heart, light bodies danced into my palm.
Ten years late I wake at last out of my Yang-chou dream
With nothing but the name of a drifter in the blue houses.

- translation by A. C. Graham

Now, compare that to this translation by Leonard Pratt and/or Chang Su-hui:

Banishing Care

Wandering the country with my wine,
I found the girls here so very fine.
Ten years since I woke from Yang-chou dreams
With a bad name in pleasure houses.

These two translations are so disparate that they might as well be two different poems altogether. A. C. Graham’s version presents a beautiful bittersweet blues riff; in a few words we have a fully realized portrait of a man, probably in his thirties, who has come to understand the costs of his decade of pleasure, but will never regret those slim waists on his palm. Implied are ambitions forgotten and youthful promise thrown away; the Western reader hears Fitzgerald asking, “What do the vintners buy / one half so dear as what they sell?”

In almost painful contrast the Pratt/Su-hui translation is suspiciously like drinking doggerel, found on bathroom walls. We who are not scholars of classical Chinese literature are left wondering what the real Tu Mu might have meant and felt; we can try to find our way through the maze of learned justification and historical context, and read everything available on the period, and still perhaps have some lingering suspicion that the brilliant and sensitive poet might have been something closer to a barroom versifier whose mystique has been inflated over the centuries, using the handy bicycle pump of critical elaboration and romantic imagination. This problem resembles, in miniature, a lot of other subtle, open-ended questions whose resolution will never be definitive, but whose investigation is nonetheless rewarding: the origin of the universe, the genesis of life on earth, the maintenance of a happy marriage. This type of question engenders endless ratiocination because the available evidence is incomplete, ambiguous, perhaps contradictory; we are forced to abandon scientific and mathematical rigor and plunge into the swamp of intuition, of ‘connected knowing’, and employ Occam’s Razor and the collection of a large context-collage in order to at least put a limit around the edges of the inchoate, unruly question. For one of the premier examples of the usefulness of this sort of mentation, see Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. Using little more than ordinary observation and reasoning, he constructs a remarkably accurate atomic theory. It seems unlikely that this was just dumb luck; but the actual chain of events in arriving at the answer remains mysterious.

In reading a dozen more quatrains by Tu Fu, it seems on the surface quite unlikely that they are just doggerel electroplated in the gold-salt bath of A.C. Graham’s poetics, if only because the typical subject matter is highly rarefied, so that it is generally rather difficult to reverse-engineer them into dross:

Graham translation:

Recalling former Travels No. 1

Whirled ten years beyond all bounds,
Treating myself in the taverns, drinking my own health.
In autumn hills and spring rain in the places where I idly sang,
I lolled against the pillars of every monastery in Chiang-nan.

Poorly recalled and scrawled on a stall door:

Ten long years I faked it as a monk,
Hitting every tavern and getting stinking drunk.
In autumn and in spring I’d be busting out in song,
loitering in monasteries, getting kicked out before long.

That one is actually fairly easy. Let’s try something much more ethereal:

Graham translation:

Traveling in the Mountains

Far up the cold mountain the stony path slopes:
Where the white clouds are born there are the homes of men.
Stop the carriage, sit and enjoy the evening in the maple wood,
The frosty leaves are redder than the second month’s flowers.

and retooled by some yahoo:

Up in these hills the road is rocky and steep,
But even up here there’s the house of some creep.
If you park your car in the evening to have a little fun,
You might enjoy it even more than when you were young.

Hmm. It’s not as difficult as I had thought. Could it be possible that every poetic sentiment, no matter how refined, has its initial root down in the groin somewhere, in the animal yearning for completion? By the wispy beards of P.B. Shelley and Little Johnny Keats, say it ain’t so! Let’s try one more time:

Shih Ch’ung’s ‘Golden Valley’ Garden

…Just then Ch’ung was feasting on the top story of his mansion. “Now I shall be executed on account of you”, he told Green Pearl. She answered weeping: “It is right that I should give my life in your presence.” Then she threw herself from the top story and was killed. (Biography of Shih Ch’ung (249-300))

Scattered pomp has fallen to the scented dust.
The streaming waters know no care, the weeds claim spring for their own.
In the East wind at sunset the plaintive birds cry:
Petals on the ground are her likeness still beneath the tower where she fell.

which might translate downward as:

Some years you eat the bear, some years the bear eats you.
Old Man River he don’t give a damn, and the kudzu climbs down the flue.
The crows’ll strip your bones as the sun goes down;
She ran and jumped, and the stones bounced when she hit the ground.

It’s kind of addictive, actually, but I’ve more or less disproved my hypothesis that an accumulation of context can pin down the soul of a poet dead now these thirteen centuries. Tu Mu exists as a world treasure, in a floating concatenation of feelings in those privileged to have read him closely, either in the ‘original’ or through a gifted translator/poet in another language. The amount of drift or evolution of his legacy through the centuries is unknown; we can only hope that there is a link to his true soul, however tenuous, that yet persists, like the faint, fading fragrance of the long-gone sing-song girl that permeates the whole T’ang dynasty:

Farewell Poem
(second of two to a girl of Yang-chou)

Passion too deep feels like none.
While we drink, nothing shows but the smile which will not come.
The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:
Their tears drip for us till the sky brightens.

And transmogrified:

We liked each other too much to fake a big scene;
We pounded down the shots, but couldn’t raise a smile.
The candles burned down, and nothing could be seen;
The mattress took a pounding to last for a while.

All right! I admit that I’m just fooling around with it now. How dare you question my undying love for the poetry of Tu Mu just because I was bored and needed diversion!

So now, unable to prove the essence of Tu Mu through an accumulation of context, I must fall back on the less rigorous but more versatile tool of Occam: just how likely is it that all those Chinese aesthetes and scholars and critics and historians were wrong about the real Tu Mu, gradually glorifying him down through the shifting dynasties and the untidy, chaotic interregnums of the passing centuries? Not very likely – and that’s good enough for me.

Sorry, old boy – I’m sure you’ll understand – the wine was also to blame for this.


Poems of the Late T’ang, Penguin Books, Translation by A. C. Graham, 1965

Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu, Penguin Books, Translation by Leonard Pratt and Chang Su-hui, 1983

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.