Sunday, February 28, 2016


Quick thoughts:

1. The narrator of these poems often presents himself as a wastrel and a drunk. How does Tu Fu manage to make readers who are not wastrels and drunks identify with a persona they might otherwise disparage or pity?

2. Tu Fu often mentions colors, but he (or the translator) tends to choose very basic words to indicate them. Why? How do you delineate color in your own writing? Are your choices similar to or different from Tu Fu's?


Peg Duthie said...

1. Pondering these through the lens of "how drunk is the writer?" I find myself thinking that the booze doesn't seem to be doing its purported job: the writer is still brooding and sleepless and aware of time not waiting for him to get his act together. That, I fancy, is a condition many can relate to regardless of status, (un)(der)employment, or self-medicating brew of choice.

Also, it may well be my preoccupation with forgettability vs. immortality speaking, but there's no escaping that these poems are reaching us across 1300 years, which on the one hand could be attributed to sheer luck, but on the other lends itself as testimony to some quality of determination/preservation that undermines the drunk/wastrel pose.

2. I think I would have to read other translations of these poems to assess Rexroth's choices -- words like "white," "grey," and "scarlet" don't automatically strike me as "very basic," so I would have to see how other translators convey those colors to pick up his manipulation of scent or temperature or deliberate understatement or what-have-you.

Hopscotching through past blog entries and binders, I find that I don't employ colors much in my own poems. Ironically, the first set of photos I took for the cover of Measured Extravagance was deemed too colorful by both my publisher and my husband -- the latter told me that the mess of many-colored feathers looked like a Muppet had exploded.

Back to 1. I didn't read Rexroth's notes before I started typing this comment, turning to them when looking up how long ago these were written. The details re Tu Fu's position of privilege + Rexroth's discussion of which poems he chose and why certainly add more layers to ponder re identifying (or not) with the poet, especially Rexroth's "I am sure he has made me a better man."

Carlene said...

Answers to the Tu Fu questions:

I think that we’ve all “been there” emotionally/spiritually; the incipient despondency, the sense of futility, the doubt of self and others are all human qualities. In this way, Tu Fu’s narrator transcends the wastrel/drunkard persona: the narrator chooses to portray himself in this way, but it’s the experiences and doubts that we focus on. We, the readers, may not choose the narrator’s path (maudlin behavior, over drinking, etc.), but we can connect to what leads him to those things.

The colors are, I think, simple because of the need to not color how we experience the emotion in the poem. The poems feel more open, airy, spare, almost too much so. I feel the structure and the emotion, but I don’t get pulled into the scene in many of the poems. Sometimes I want more from Tu Fu (or the translator), but that may be purely a cultural response. The poems feel, to me, like the clear delineation of calligraphic characters, the sharp black ink on white page. This contrasts to the richness and delicacy of traditional Eastern artwork; the softly muted colors, the articulated details in the background of images, the texture of petals, for example, add layer upon layer of beauty and complexity, and the calligraphy is stark and spare. The images, for example, of the river, the mist, and the stars that are juxtaposed against the statement that “war has its consequences” is almost jarring. The line is placed amid such simple, quiet things. We cannot help but notice how it pulls us sharply from the quietude and makes us think: what are the consequences of war? Should we just accept this as inevitable, as it seems the narrator does? Can we be quiet and live simply, if these consequences are omnipresent? Sobering thoughts for us today, I think.

Color in my own writing? I try to be exact, and yet words usually fail me. Perhaps I over-write in my attempts to be precise. I struggle to get the textures of the setting, and the results are often incomplete. Perhaps Tu Fu’s example (or that of the translator) would be a better one to imitate for a while, to see how to get setting suggested without overdoing it.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Peg and Carlene. You know, I kept asking myself as I read: is this narrator really a drinker or is he using the trope of drinking as a way of positioning his narrator in the world? The clarity of the images, word choice, thoughts aren't much like being drunk. To me, the disconnect is curious.

And re those single-word colors: Peg, you're right they're not simple as images. Maybe I was thinking about how simple they are sonically.

Carlene: yes, there is a conundrum about precision/overwriting. How much is too much? How little is not enough?

Peg: I would love to see a book cover that looked like an exploded Muppet!

Looking forward to more conversation here--

Peg said...

The conundrum about too much precision/attention takes my mind back to tipsiness, actually: how sometimes the loss of control is signaled by someone being unnaturally careful about their movement/diction. Hmmmm.

I'm pondering perceptions of sonic simplicity as well. To my chronic frustration and occasional embarrassment, I don't know enough Mandarin to converse (I'm Taiwanese American, so it's expected of me) but I have studied enough to know about the four "tones" any one syllable can have. Then there's also my being a longtime resident of the southern United States, where any one syllable might could be stretched into three or four. Whyyyyyyyyt. Graaaayuh. This is not to disagree about the colors or the poems themselves being simple visually or aurally -- more me roundaboutedly demanding from Jacob's angel "What makes something simple-shallow vs. simple-deep and therefore (un)satisfying?"

Dawn Potter said...

Peg, you're absolutely right about the sonic variations that may or may not exist behind what I'm looking at on the page. That's very interesting information about the four tones, and now I'm feeling as if I should find out more about Rexroth's own dialect. And now I'm also thinking about the "unnatural care" of the drunkard: yes, that's true in life; and is it true in these poems?

Still, there's a clarity in them that (to me) doesn't feel artificial or forced (though art is, by its very existence, artificial and forced). They puzzle me. There is a secrecy in that clarity. What isn't the poet saying?

Peg said...

Dawn, I have been thinking about "what isn't the poet saying?"

Thoreau keeps coming to mind -- the undisclosed privilege that arguably allows the writer the freedom to pose as off-tether / untethered. But even as I bring that up I wonder to what degree I am being unfair or unfocused, both in that I haven't taken the time to read fuller biographies of Thoreau / Tu Fu and in applying biographical particulars to the question at all. If the poet were anonymous, we'd still suspect something was being held back because of the disconnect between pose and diction, ouais? Then again, how much do we care that something is being held back in poems as short and spare as these? (Compared to say, "The Hound of Heaven"?)

Dawn Potter said...

I think art always holds something back. Just the process of refining and framing a piece of work forces us to pick and choose. Some poets offer the sensation of revealing everything--Ginsberg, O'Hara, Olds, Milton--but in truth they are giving us only a glimpse. That said, I think your remark about "the freedom to pose as off-tether / tethered" is very compelling. I'd add Dickinson to your list, I think--in a way, "the disconnect between pose and diction" is the crux of her art. Tu Fu (or his translator) isn't playing her game, but he is a smooth operator nonetheless.

Carlene said...

I'm considering, in the larger sense, the idea of what to share/what is held back. All art is reductive, in the sense that what is shared, by necessity, leaves out all other alternatives. I like the comparison with Dickinson; I still struggle with her work, seeking connections with what she has chosen to share. I sense there's so much more going on, and it's up to us to figure out what's operating behind the screen. It's the idea of choice; art is manipulation, reforming what we see, know, and experience through carefully selected lenses.

Dawn Potter said...

I'm forwarding this email comment from my friend Jay, which I think you all might find very interesting:

To mention two books I am finding fascinating, and that might relate to your forays into Chinese poetry--Hunger Mountain by David Hinton, and Hinton's anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. For instance, he talks about the wine-drinking celebrated by so many of those guys. Hinton sees it as a way of facilitating the "Empty Mind" they aspired to work from, drawing on Tao/Chan traditions. He explains that stuff at some depth. He also talks a lot about the unique character of the Chinese language and provides glimpses into the task of translating it into English: He'll present a line of Chinese characters and provide the translations of those "graphs" and you can see the syntactic (or perhaps, to the English speaker, lack thereof) layout of the line, and then what his actual rendering is. Another book I found is the New Directions Anthology edited by Eliot Weinberger. He's the guy that did those epic Borges collections. His commentary in this is less formal sounding then I remember in the Borges books. Anyway, in his collection you will often have multiple translations of the same poem--Rexroth, Hinton, Snyder, Pound...looking at those in conjunction with some of Hinton's info is really cool. I got into this stuff thru a book called Japanese Death Poems, that I read (I know it sounds morbid but it really wasn't!) while in chemo. It's an incredible book, especially the selections from the Haiku Masters. Prior to that my only knowledge of this stuff (probably like many Americanos) was the Cold Mountain poems, which I discovered in an Eastern Mountain Sports Catalogue back when I was in college. It's a book (I love the Burton Watson versions) I have purchased and given away over & over.

I have trouble holding on to the deep teachings available in Hinton's books but find them really profound.