on Classical Chinese Poetry, an anthology translated and edited by David Hinton (Farrar Straus Giroux)

David Hinton is the most productive translator of Chinese literature and poetry in English of the past ten years. He is also one of the most accomplished of all time. When the New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry appeared in 2003, editor Eliot Weinberger focused on five major translators: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder and Hinton. Last year Hinton won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation Award for The Selected Poems of Wang Wei published by New Directions which had previously brought out four of his other books. He has also translated the seminal works of Chinese philosophy -- Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Mencius and Analects.

hinton.jpgNow, in Classical Chinese Poetry, Hinton “presents Chinese poetry as a tradition of major poets whose poetics created new possibilities for the art, which is to say, gave new dimensions to the Taoist/Ch’an unity of cosmos, consciousness, and language.” He makes two points here. The first is that although the poetry was created by diverse types of people and sensibilities -- aristocrats, peasants, monks, courtesans, statesmen, intellectuals, shamans – the literary language “remained relatively unchanged across millennia.” The second emphasis is on the steadfast foundation of the Taoist cosmology in the work. Western poets have turned to classical Chinese verse for inspiration because its sensibilities are familiar -- reminding us that not only is there a more free way of seeing and speaking but that we have been deprived of it. The literary tradition (emerging from centuries of oral lore) was established around 400 B.C.E. – at the very moment Ch’an, the Chinese version of Buddhism, was adopted using Taoist principles, concepts, and phrasing.

Hinton writes, “Meditation … was practiced by virtually all of China’s intellectuals … in the form of thought arising from the emptiness and disappearing back into it. In such meditative practice, we see that we are fundamentally separate from the mental processes with which we normally identify, that we are most essentially the very emptiness that watches thought appear and disappear.” The provisional nature of the self and the admission of human nature, the dismissal of dogma (though often not of loyalties), and the passion for an ecology including civilization – these ideas continue to empower poets. Hinton’s anthology reminds us that tradition itself is a voice that generously accommodates new, coherently idiosyncratic voices.

wang7.jpgHinton has published collections by T’ao Ch-ien (365 to 427), Hsieh Ling-Yün (385 to 433), Meng Hao-jan (689 to 740), Li Po (701 to 762), Wang Wei (701 to 761, pictured here), Tu Fu (712 to 770), Meng Chiao (751 to 814), and Po Chü-I (772 to 846), and selections from these books are included here. For instance, there are 22 poems by Tu Fu, 20 by Li Po. But there are also many poets represented who are less familiar in the West: Meng Hao-Jan (689 to 740, the first of the great T’ang poets), Wei Ying-Wu (737 to 792, heralding a new phrase of more introspective T’ang verse), Tu Mu (803 to 853, a military strategist and social activist of sorts), Wang An-Shih (1021 to 1086, one of the great Sung Dynasty poets and statesmen), and Yang Wan-Li (1127 to 1206, suddenly enlightened at age 50, he began writing in his own style after studying the poetic masters for years). Hinton provides a few solid paragraphs on each of the 23 poets included. There are also selections from the earliest millennia, such as The Book of Songs (15th to 6th century BCE), Tao Te Ching (6th century BCE), and later folk-song collections (2nd to first centuries BCE).

Hinton’s ear is highly attuned to the particular degree of personal expression, the tone of the personal, in each poet -- but his allegiance to the meditative mode rules the whole. His calibrations are exact and exquisite. Writing recently in the New York Review of Books, Eliot Weinberger noted that "the relaxed American speech of Rexroth or Snyder ... had become -- and largely remains -- the standard idiom for Chinese poetry in English translation, a stripping away of rhetorical flourishes as a way of suggesting the extreme compression of the classical Chinese." Weinberger suggests that A.C. Graham's often more strange, candid and allusive translations in Poems of the Late T'ang (NYRB Books) offer a stimulating alternative to the spare mannerisms of the Rexroth mode inherited by Hinton. Here is one of my favorite versions by Graham -- "Impromptu" by Meng Chiao:

Keep away from sharp swords,
Don't go near a lovely woman.
A sharp sword too close will wound your head,
Woman's beauty too close will wound your life.
The danger of the road is not in the distance,
Ten yards is far enough to break a wheel.
The peril of love is not in loving too often,
A single evening can leave its wound in the soul.

Classical Chinese Poetry, David Hinton's perspective on a venerable and still modern tradition, gives us an opportunity to understand that clarity itself is a universal tradition, forever desired and valued – and that the personal, a lovely, ephermeral and customary sound rising provisionally from deep silence, gives way to the strange object of art.


It seems the fiercest love is no love at all, in the end.
Sipping wine together, we feel nothing now but absent

smiles. Candles, at least, still have hearts. They grieve
over goodbye, cry our tears for us until dawn-lit skies.

[Published October 21, 2008, 475 pp., $45.00]