Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Li Shangyin

One thing that is interesting about reading some of the lesser-known or recently translated Tang poets (e.g. Meng Chiao, Li He, Li Shangyin) is the realization that, beyond the Li Po–Tu Fu–Wang Wei axis, not all of the Chinese poets were as focused on the clarity of the image the way these (and some others) often were.  From the standpoint of English-language poetics, we tend to see Li Po, through Ezra Pound’s translations, as the avatar of imagism, though he also wrote poems of mystic journeys that veer into the surreal and dreamlike.  In the early modernist period, Witter Bynner’s translation of the standard Tang anthology also formed an alternative to Poundian imagism, but Bynner’s work has sadly fallen out of the conversation over time (a situation that in my view ought to be revisited).  Imagism is extremely important, and, sure, despite his racist and fascist views, Pound himself still cannot be completely dismissed as a formal innovator.  But the emphasis on the imagist “thing” has until recently tended to leave a lot of other Tang-era poets out of picture.  A. C. Graham began to remedy that somewhat in his Poems of the Late T’ang (1965), and in recent years, further translations of individual poets have been more frequently published.

The latest of these is the work of Li Shangyin (813-858), translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (New York Review Books, 2018).  This volume includes not only Roberts’s translation of approximately 50 pages of Li’s poetry (with facing original Chinese), but also the versions by Graham and some by Lucas Klein (most of which are duplicate poems, making for interesting comparisons).  Li’s style is at times naturalistic and imagistic, but more often allusive, metaphorical, and, like Li He
’s, surreal.  His work has historically been considered extremely obscure or, as Roberts puts it in her introduction, “unknowable and elusive . . . almost baroque, opulently layered with distinct mythological, historical, personal, and symbolist imagery” (xi).  This, of course, makes him difficult to translate.

Thankfully, Roberts has chosen to take an almost literal approach, leaving intact the weird accretion of incongruous shifts and juxtapositions.  Graham, on the other hand, took certain liberties in order to make Li’s poems make sense.  In reality, their versions are not that far apart, but, if we are going to use a Western analogy, Graham’s sometimes come across as pleasant if melancholy lyrics, while Roberts’s tend toward a slightly more staccato rhythm, with brighter diction. For example, here’s Graham in 1965 rendering lines from “The Patterned Lute”: “The moon is full on the vast sea, a tear on the pearl. / On Blue Mountain the sun warms, a smoke issues from the jade” (in Roberts 145).  And here is Roberts in 2018:

Seablue, moonbeam,
Pearls hold tears.
Indigo fields, sun-warmth,
Jade begets smoke. (39)
Klein’s recent version falls somewhere in between but is perhaps closer to the syntax of Graham: “When the moon shines by the green sea there are tears on pearls, / and when the sun is warm on Mount Bluefield steam rises off jade” (116).  Each has their merits, but speaking subjectively, the clipped, at times paratactic, versions that Roberts creates resonate with me more, and at least visually seem closer to the Chinese form.  But it is a funny thing about translation; the more versions you read, the better the picture you seem to get.

Whatever the case, there is the sheer beauty of Li Shangyin’s poetry itself, if you can tune in through language and time.  Perhaps of use is an ars poetica, which begins,

At dawn, use clouds
To conceive the lines.
In winter, hold snow
To divine the poem. (33)
The poem “Spring Wind” is emotional in a way that differs from the work of other Tang poets (it seems to me, though others may be more expert).  Often in Tang poetry, there is an evocation of emotion through the image, like Li Po going to visit a Taoist monk only to find him gone, nothing but pine trees, and the scene or the season usually accords with the speaker’s feelings.  In Li Shangyin’s “Spring Wind,” there is a reversal of this.  First, there is a brief meditation on the coming of spring and the exuberance of it.  Then, there is this odd and unexpected move where Li imagines spring as a sentient or even bodily creature:
If I could force spring
Into sentience
It would only send forth
A single fragrant branch. (47)
Huh?  This seems to say that if spring were indeed human it would lack the exuberance it emits in its guise as a natural force, further suggesting Li’s real mood is not so lush and energetic.  In the third part of the poem, Li suddenly reveals that, actually, “my own sentiments differ / From the sentiments of spring” because “When spring begins, / I am already broken inside” (47).  It is almost a kind of “meta-” use of the season, a commentary on common poetic tropes, punctuated by the bizarre image of spring’s “single fragrant branch,” set up to create a contrast with and to emphasize a sense of inner crisis.

“Chamber Music” is a poem of loss, a lament for the ephemerality of human connection.  With the person to whom the poem is addressed now gone, and their “tender skin” now absent from the jade mattress, “All I see, / Silken emerald surface” (73) and not the person who would have lain upon it, and certainly this is intended to seem tyrannical.  Likewise, if not its music, then still “The brocade zither / Outlasts the person” (73).  Even in the otherworld (or when, say, we return to the state of primordial energy) there is little hope for a reunion, for without bodily form,

Agony: when heaven, earth,
Are overturned,
We will see each other,
We will not know each other. (75)
This is purely abstract, and not concrete or imagistic, but there is a poignancy here that rivals anything Li Po ever produced (please note that I love Li Po).

There are many other poems here that elucidate a sadness imparted by death and loss, and even the realization, “I know while the body exists / Emotion profoundly persists” (101) — that is, perhaps the realization is something like the Taoist and Chan understanding of the emotions as an inextricable part of life, which we can begin to see in context as one of the many parts of being human as we increasingly understand the way the mind and its complexes work.  At the same time, as in Li Po there are indeed many moments of joy.  Some are sparked by poetry itself:

On good days
The self is often moved.
Though it’s impossible
The writer could always be so. (31)
Perhaps the message here is that the poet ought not to wait on the “spontaneous overflow of emotion” in pursuit of their work.  Other times, as in Li Shangyin’s “Spring Night, Cheering Myself Up,” where we see him delighting in the wind in the bamboo, the moonglow on the flowers, and the “rampant moss,” there is also the knowledge that “My happiness and contentment / Depend only on music and wine” (105).  There are so many other great poems and lines here, and I personally don’t care if (in fact I like that) it doesn’t always all make sensethough it usually more or less does.  Incidentally, there is a wonderfully minimalist cover design (by Emily Singer) with smart use of color for this volume (somewhat bolder in real life than the jpeg included above).  It is of a piece with the NYRB Poets series, but it especially complements Roberts’s excellent work.


Dave Bonta said...

Thanks for this. I have a volume of translation and commentary on Li Shangyin from the University of Chicago Press translated by James Liu, which I haven't dipped into in 25 years but recall enjoying. Glad to know about this new translation series.

Mike Begnal said...

Thanks for the comment. I've heard good things about the Liu volume, but haven't gotten my hands on it.