Thursday, July 08, 2010

"Du Fu: A Life in Poetry" translated by David Young

Like all the other Chinese scholars of his time, Du Fu aspired to serve the court in the country's vast bureaucracy. He was passed over again and again, and lived with his family in poverty for much of his life, intermittently relieved by the generosity of friends and patrons. The country's loss is poetry's gain. Du Fu might have written as much and as well if he were a high-ranking official (although that is very doubtful), but he would not have been as innovative in his subject matter.

Struggling with the various miseries of poverty, he gained a profound sympathy for the weak and helpless, and wrote wrenching poems about commoner families suffering from devastating warfare. Separated from his family in order to find work, he celebrated in verse the simple joys of playing with his son and watching chickens scratch in the backyard, when he was finally reunited with them. Equally new was his expression of romantic sentiments for his wife. Before Du Fu, feelings of affection were reserved, at least in poetry, for courtesans and male friends. But Du Fu wrote, in "Moonlight Night,":

Tonight
in this same moonlight

my wife is alone at her window
in Fuzhou

I can hardly bear
to think of my children

too young to understand
why I can't come to them

her hair
must be damp from the mist

her arms
cold jade in the moonlight

when will we stand together
by those slack curtains

while the moonlight dries
the tear-streaks on our faces?


The progression of ideas and images is utterly simple and convincing. "Slack curtains" is a masterly touch. It speaks of their financially straitened circumstance as well as their strong longing for reunion, but it does so in an image that gives the opposite impression of tension and strength.

David Young's unrhymed couplets, here and elsewhere in the book, capture very effectively the extensive use of parallelism and caesura in Chinese verse. The minimal punctuation--beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period or question mark--also evokes the openness and suggestiveness of Chinese poetry. Yet the translation reads like a successful English poem.

The translations are arranged in the book according to the chronology of the poet's life. The eleven section titles sum up its course: Early Years in the East, 737-744, Back at the Capital 745-750, War and Rebellion 750-755, Trapped in the Capital 756-758, Reunion and Recovery 758-759, On the Move 759, Thatched Cottage 759-762, More Disruptions 762-765, East to Kuizhou 765-766, The Gentleman Farmer 767-768, Last Days. Young introduces each section with a paragraph of biographical context that, read together with the poetry, gives the sense of a tumultous life.