Can Americans Write Chinese Poetry?

Of course we can. Coleman Barks, as a young poet, began writing versions of Rumi without understanding the original Persian, relying instead on earlier English translations that though literal lacked the magic of poetry. Now Rumi has become the most popular poet in America thanks to Barks’s renditions that seem both contemporary and exotic. In a similar way, David Hinton and other translators of ancient Chinese poetry, must, though they know the original language, convert what would be a string of almost disjointed phrases in literal translations into smooth-flowing and slightly mysterious poems that please us today with their timeliness and wisdom. Yet as much as I enjoy their translations, I still find these poems otherworldly, conveying a sense of the the wildernes that seems so clear and pure and beyond what I’m able to write for myself, tangled up as I am in self-awareness, ideas, irony, and other forces of modern life. These two poems have made me smile because they wrestle with the same dilemma.

Of Distress Being Humiliated by the Classical Chinese Poets

By Hayden Carruth

Masters, the mock orange is blooming in Syracuse without scent, having been bred by patient horticuluralists
To make this greater display at the expense of frangrance.
But I miss the jasmine of my back-country.
Your language has no tense, which is why your poems can never be translated whole into English;
Your minds are the minds of men who feel and imagine without time.
The serenity of the present, the repose of my eyes in the cool whiteness of sterile flowers.
Even now the headsman with his great curved blade and rank odor is stalking the byways for some of you.
When everything happens at once, no conflicts can occur.
Reality is an impasse. Tell me again
How the white heron rises from the reeds and flies forever across the nacreous river at twilight
Toward the distant islands.

Not just “minds” “without time” I would add, but minds without death, that great subject of Western poetry, which Carruth invokes with his “headsman with his great curved blade.” The ancient Chinese poets viewed death much differently than we do. This poem appeared in his collection, Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Island, published in 1989, but I found it in his Collected Shorter Poems: 1946—1991, a treasure chest I’m happily exploring.

Carruth wrote earnest and personal poetry with a sense of wit. Matthew Zapruder does the opposite in keeping with the spirit of our times, writing poems of irony and dazed overload that break through their detachment to surprising poingancies. Here’s his take from Come On All You Ghosts published in 2010.

After Reading Tu Fu, I Emerge from a Cloud of Falseness

wearing a suit of light.

It’s too easy to be

strange. I glow

reading a few pages

of an ancient Chinese poet

to calm me, but soon

I am traveling down

terrible roads

like an insect chased

by golden armies.

Then I am tired in a little boat

filling with smoke.

Then in the seasonably

cold morning I am

once again missing my friends.

Some have been sent

to the capital to take

their exams or work for a while

or be slowly executed. I

cannot help them. I am trying

to build a straw hut

beside the transparent river.

The sky is a perfect

black dome, with stars

that look white but

are actually slightly blue.

I have two precious candles

to last me a night

that has suddenly come.

I feel the lives of cities

drift through me,

I am the beautiful scroll

on which the history

of a dynasty has been written

in a dead language

not even one lonely scholar knows.

I see sad crushed plastic

everywhere and put

some thoughts composed

of words that do not

belong together

together and feel

a little digital hope.

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