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Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei.

While each of these versions is in some way "good enough" for study or commentary, none really rises to the occasion like this new version from the collaborative team of Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin, from Laughing Lost in the Mountains. Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1992):


Few people see the acacia blossoms fall,

night is quiet, the spring mountain empty.

The sudden moon alarms mountain birds.

Long moment of song in the spring ravine.

While the "person at leisure" magically becomes "few people," I don't feel the spirit of the poem has been violated. I would also remove the "is" in line two. Line and syntax work harmoniously. The "sudden" moon lends a little tension, and the "alarm" grants permission as it were for the closing sentence fragment, a fragment that opens out into nature like birdsong itself. If this translation fails to note the spaces between bird cry and bird cry, it nonetheless compresses the experience of the poem. And the wonderful lilt of song of the closing line! I think Mr. Wang would be pleased.

Wang Wei was the eldest of five brothers raised in a literary family in Shansi province. He was a precocious poet, musician, and landscape painter who passed his advanced examinations at the age of twenty-two. He served in various official posts, reportedly attempted suicide when he was imprisoned during the An Lu-shan Rebellion, and only a poem written to his friend Pei Di from Bodhi Temple saved him from being charged as a collaborator during the aftermath of the rebellion. He was returned to office, and died while serving in the Department of State in his early sixties.

But he is most revered for his nature poems. Far less exuberant or reckless than Li T'ai-po, and far simpler and less cerebral than the incomparable, passionate Tu Fu, Wang made elegant simplicity his greatest asset. As a devout Buddhist with a notable Taoist influence, he was perhaps a perfect counterpart to Tu Fu's Confucianism and Li Po's Taoism. Whereas Tu Fu's nature poems are a record of exile and a sweeping social conscience, Wang's represent a great spiritual vision.

All Chinese "country poets" are in one way or another descendents of T'ao Ch'ien. Wang draws directly on his straight-forwardness, his uncluttered syntax, and his intimate knowledge of place and season. But Wang Wei shares little of the former's deep ambiguity of emotion: where T'ao Ch'ien sings the beauties of solitary wildness, he also finds melancholy, frustration, and fear (as does Tu Fu); Wang, on the other hand, finds the deep spiritual aloneness of Mahayana Buddhism, a teaching that declares equality among all living things and thus a reverence for wildness resulting in calm affirmation. The ordinary rural and sub-rural landscape inspired Wang Wei because it was mundane, and because it represented the junction of human and non-human life.

The introduction to the Barnstone translation draws an interesting comparison between Wang and the modern Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

Wang an official, Machado a teacher in a rural instituto, both poets find their

eyes in nature. They were not scribes of the imagination, like Dante, but of

their daily and nightly vision. They tended to dream--but not nocturnal

dreams associated with sleep and fantasy. Theirs was a reverie of ordinary

landscapes, which their minds transposed as they gazed at them with eyes

wide open. In nature Wang--and later Machado--found a literal script for his


Not only a reverie of ordinary landscapes, but certainly in Wang's case, a reverence for ordinary landscapes. The translators stress the Taoist influence especially, quoting Chuang Tzu's advocacy of stillness, emptiness, of not-having, and underscoring the point by noting Wang's frequent use of "empty mountain" in poems like "Deer Park" and "Living in the Mountain on an Autumn Night." They also note that the character used for "empty" is kong, the Chinese word for the Sanskrit Sunyata, the Buddhist concept of emptiness that is altogether different from our customary use of the word "empty." And indeed, his poems are also loaded with empty forests and empty nights, Buddhist-inspired images that ring with clarity and numinous detail. Zen was in many ways a Chinese adaptation of Indian Buddhism, bringing to its fundamental teaching a profoundly Taoist interpretation: "In China," the Chinese say, "everything becomes Chinese."


A wide icy river floats to far uncertainty.

The autumn rain is eternal in the mist.

You ask me about Deep South Mountain.

My heart knows it is beyond white clouds.

The poet combines definite images with signifying abstraction--icy river connected to uncertainty; "eternal" rain to mist. Are the "white clouds" Buddhist barriers between the poet and Nirvana, or are they literal white clouds passing between the poet and his beloved home in the mountains? Perhaps both. Longing for one's home is a kind of desire, and as a poet and Buddhist Wang aimed to transcend desire. In this poem, implied desire figures prominently, carrying the emotional center. The transcendent vision remains virtually unspoken, buried in the evocation of the natural world. Rain, mist, and white clouds are standard Buddhist symbolism, but in Wang's hands take on added significance.

The Barnstones quote Burton Watson's classic Chinese Lyricism (Columbia University Press, 1971) on a type of Buddhist poetry "in which the philosophical meaning lies [far] below the surface. The imagery functions on both the descriptive and the symbolic levels at once, and it is not often possible to pin down the exact symbolic content of an image." This kind of poetry is not forthrightly didactic--it delivers no direct sermon and cites no sutra. It represents Buddhist philosophy in a practice so refined as to transcend formal Buddhist liturgy.

Years ago, I translated Wang's "Return to Wang River":

In the gorge where bells resound

there are few fishermen or woodsmen.

Before I know it, dusk closes the mountains down.

Alone, I return again to white clouds

and trembling water chestnuts

where the willow catkins easily take flight.

Spring grass colors the eastern landscape.

Snared in a web of grief, I close my wooden door. In the Barnstone translation, the poem reads:

Bells stir in the mouth of the gorge.

Few fishermen or woodcutters are left.

Far off in the mountains is twilight.

Alone I come back to white clouds.

Weak water chestnut stems can't hold still

Willow catkins are light and blow about.

To the east is a rice paddy, color of spring grass.

I close the thorn gate, seized by grief

It is a poem others have tackled with varying degrees of success. Robinson leaves out all punctuation and gets quite wordy: "And I am going alone towards the white clouds home/ Water-chestnut flowers so delicate so hardly still ..." closing, "Colours of spring on the banks of the marsh to the east/ And I am melancholy as I shut my door." Ugh.

In one of the, stranger crimes against the Chinese, David Young translated this poem in his Four T'ang Poets (Field, 1980), turning each line into a triad, even changing the title to "Returning to My Cottage." It's a good example of how not to translate a poem. His closure is, well, pathetic: "it's sad/ to walk in the house/ and shut the door." This is not "elegant simplicity," but what Willis Hawley called "dumbing it down."

I admire the uncluttered completeness of the Barnstone translation, the ease of the poem as a whole. No artificial language, but enough ear at work to let the line--each line--convey its own sense of unity. I do not like "Far off in the mountain is twilight" because of the inversion and its tinny ring, and because it fails to convey the poet's sense of discovery of twilight. The use of "twilight" where I had used "dusk" however is a good stroke, carrying the added weight of implication by plurisignation--is it the poet's own twilight? The choice of "twilight" over "dusk" also demonstrates the translator's need to interpret. The Barnstone translation also gets the rice shoot/ grass comparison I "dumbed out."

All poetry offers variable possibilities in translation. Often, small subtle matters of interpretation make all the difference. Robinson, while "getting the meaning" all right, completely misses the right tone for Wang Wei in American English; in London, all those piled up prepositional phrases may please the ear, sounding remarkably simple, direct, and uncluttered like the original--in contemporary American English, it sounds mundane, flabby, prosy. Young tries to turn Wang Wei into William Carlos Williams-style imagism, but succeeds only in creating Amygism

To the Chinese, Wang is the great poet of impersonality. His poetry is a record of a lifelong struggle to be free of desire, free even of the desire to be free of desire, a non-struggle to attain non-attainment. Often severely self-critical he begins "Written in the Mountains Early Autumn" by saying, "I'm talentless and dare not inflict myself on this bright reign./Perhaps I'll go to the East River and mend my old fence." Humility before his task is a signature of Wang Wei. Autumn "abruptly falls," and he listens to crickets and cicadas. "Alone in the empty forest, I have an appointment with white clouds." He completely disappears into "nature" without losing presence.

At a conference on "the power of animals" years ago, Gary Snyder pointed out that we are most deeply into our "animal intelligence" when we are alone. The aloneness of a Zen mountain poet like Wang Wei is not the portentous melancholy Robinson's translation might suggest, nor is it the pathetic sadness of Young's version. The poem is not about sadness at all, but grief and aloneness--an entirely different emotional complex that must be seen in a Buddhist context. It is the aloneness of completion, the aloneness that is not-alone, the aloneness of transcendental animal consciousness, of mere beingness without self-consciousness. At the close of his poem, the poet discovers his own sense of aloneness. He becomes a part of his white clouds, the clouds become a symbol of transcendent grace, the speaker and the listener and the images blending into a single note of eternal resolution. It is spring, new rice-soots growing brilliantly green. Spring, a time of birth; but twilight simultaneously. The poet is caught--snared--between the two which are not two, but one: springtime-twilight-whitecloud-poet. Closing the poem on a note of self-awareness indicates the poet has yet to attain "highest perfect enlightenment" and therefore remains caught in the realm of samsara the cycle of birth and death. He grieves over the transience of things, including himself.

Wang's poetry arises out of the complex simplicity of his language, but can't be found in a dictionary. Capturing his tone, his grace-note, is the translator's greatest challenge. Eliot Weinberger's wonderful essay, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Moyer Bell, 1987), examines nineteen versions of a poem of one quatrain, "Deer Park," with wonderful insight. The final line of the poem, in literal trot:

Return (again) shine green moss above Of all the versions under Weinberger's discussion, only Gary Snyder notes that the light is shining through the moss overhead--apparently only Snyder recognizing that moss grows in trees. The noted Sinologist James J. Y. Liu even goes so far as to supply "ground" for the moss. In the Barnstone translation it reads:


Nobody in sight on the empty mountain

but human voices are heard far off.

Low sun slips deep in the forest

and lights the green hanging moss.

To make translations work at their best in English, the translator must aspire to the poet's powerful evocation. The language is very simple; the vision is very complex. The slant rhyme of "off" and "moss" is just right. The l and s sounds in the closing couplet also convey some sense of the musicality of the original. My only quarrel with this version is that I believe the light is shining through the green moss overhead. This translation at least gets the moss in the right place.

In "Autumn Meditation," the moon sails "Heavenly River," the Milky Way, and in four lines reveals a world:

The balcony's icy wind stirs my clothing.

Night. The drum endures. The jade waterclock slows.

The moon sails the Heavenly River, soaking its light.

A magpie breaks from an autumn tree. Many leaves fall.

The human element vanishes in falling leaves. The poet transcends the "world of illusion" by achieving pure consciousness through attentive meditation. The world is as it is: transient. In the hands of most modern poets, the magpie would become personified or the imagery would carry added abstract philosophical argument. Here, the poet and the world are one.

Laughing Lost in the Mountains is the best translation of a substantial number of Wang Wei's poems to appear in English. In addition to breathtaking poems of nature and hermitage, there are many wonderful formal court poems, letter poems, and portraits, all in suitable American English dress. This should become the standard Wang Wei for a generation of readers.
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Author:Hamill, Sam
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Poems of Wang Wei.
Next Article:Mirror for the Moon.

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