tu fu | to wei pa, a retired scholar | Kenneth Rexroth: translation

25 11 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.146 | January 5, 2007

Tu Fu

The last Poetry Dispatch, the first of the new year (#145, Robert Bly’s poem in homage to Tu Fu), brought to mind the number of revered poets who came out of the ancient East, most of whom still speak to us today, not to mention their jumble of names which make for much confusion:–just ‘who’ wrote ‘what’ ‘when’? And how different is he from the other guy whose short last name also ends in ‘o’?

It could take years, especially for a Western poet just starting out, to familiarize himself/herself with all the grand poets of the Eastern culture. But—they are worth pursuing. They have much to teach beginning and practicing poets, of whatever stylistic persuasion. They have inhabited the American mind and poetic impulse going back to our own Transcendentalists, making ripples which created our school of Imagists, our modern poetry period of William Carlos Williams, right on into to the Beats, the 60’s, to many of our best poems and poets of today , still rippling ever widening circles.

“TuFu, of the eight-century, was introduced to the West as the Chinese Virgil, Shakespeare, or Hugo. He was not one of the popular poets of his own day, but forty years after his time, poets began to realize that he was one of the greatest masters of their craft, and some of them would not hesitate to say that he was the greatest.

Many of Tu Fu’s poems are of a social nature. They contain vital messages of societal importance. Tu Fu wrote poems as letters to his friends. He wrote poems to express his feelings of joy or sadness. Because his observations are very keen, and his portrayals very vivid, his poems have been generally regarded as indispensable for the study of the history of his time.”

One our best American poets, Kenneth Rexroth, who has done some of the most beautiful translations of Eastern poetry (which should be of every writer’s shelf) claimed: “Tu Fu is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language…For me his response to the human situation is the only kind of religion likely to outlast this century.” Norbert Blei

To Wei Pa, a Retired Scholar by Tu Fu

The lives of many men are
Shorter than the years since we have
Seen each other. Aldebaran
And Antares move as we have.
And now, what night is this? We sit
Here together in the candle
Light. How much longer will our prime
Last? Our temples are already
Grey. I visit my old friends.
Half of them have become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn
My bowels. I never dreamed I would
Come this way, after twenty years,
A wayfarer to your parlor.
When we parted years ago,
You were unmarried. Now you have
A row of boys and girls, who smile
And ask me about my travels.
How have I reached this time and place?
Before I can come to the end
Of and endless tale, the children
Have brought out the wine. We go
Out in the night and cut young
Onions in the rainy darkness.
We eat them with hot, steaming,
Yellow millet. You say, “It is
Sad, meeting each other again.”
We drink ten toasts rapidly from
The rhinoceros horn cups.
Ten cups, and still we are not drunk.
We still love each other as
We did when we were schoolboys.
Tomorrow morning mountain peaks
Will come between us, and with them
The endless, oblivious
Business of the world.

From One Hundred Poems From The Chinese, by Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions Books, 1971



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