Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Selected Poems of Wang Wei translated by David Hinton

New Directions, 2006

Reviewed by John Cotter

English permits Wang Wei only one or two levels of allusion, even in the hands of a translator as good as David Hinton. Were we able to read these poems in Classical Chinese (were we able to read them a thousand years ago) each word would spiral with connotations. But because the culture is alien, the translation is new, and the poems over a millennium old, we are bound to approach them cautiously.

        Beside this spring lake deep and wide, I find
        myself waiting for your light boat to return:

        duckweed slowly drifted together behind you,
        and now hanging willows sweep it open again.

Hinton’s versions feel like Classical Chinese poetry alright: the brief depth, the spare illustrations of nature, the ambiguous finish sending us back into the center of the poem. That Hinton is our most accomplished translator of Classical Chinese is no longer in question: in addition to his ten thousand other projects, Hinton has now completed versions of all three great T’ang era poets for New Directions. But where Tu Fu and Li Po feel and think in voices like our own, Wei is a deeply impersonal writer.

        up in those gorges, who would guess the great human drama even
        And when people in town gaze out, they see distant empty-cloud                 mountains.

Our surviving knowledge of Wang Wei’s life isn’t encyclopedic, but we know a little. He was born of the governing class around 699 AD and worked as a high-level official in one of the most prosperous and advanced cities in the world, Ch’ang-an. The arts of poetry and painting (both of which he practiced and—like Blake—married) were highly developed, and the city in which he spent his life numbered two million souls. The Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu would have felt far more ancient to Wei than the King James Bible does to us. These are not the poems of a simple man in a simple time, but of a highly skilled mind and a great era. To escape the city, meditate and to write, Wei would periodically visit his mountain retreat by Wheel-Rim River. This is the landscape of his poetry.

        Done struggling for a place in that human realm, I’m just this
        Old-timer of the wilds. So why are these seagulls still suspicious?

Hinton, in his too-brief introduction, is on point when he writes that “the distinction between human and nature is entirely foreign” to Wei’s art. To approach these poems nearer to the way the were intended we must remove ourselves from the Christian context in which, like it or not, we read most English language poetry. For all their differences, Wei’s philosophy would have more in common with that of Horace than it would Wordsworth, or Robert Creeley. The “Dragon,” often referenced by Wei is very like the horned god of the European pagans; Wei’s C’han Buddhism much like (and a precursor to) what we know today as Zen. In the poem, “A Meal with Kettle-Fold Mountain Monks,” Wei tidies up his cabin and prepares a meal of pine nuts for some visiting monks. Later:

                                                                Lamps are lit,
        And then at nightfall, chime-stones sing out

        And I understand how stillness is itself pure
        Joy. Life here has idleness enough and more:

        How deep could thoughts of return be, when
        A lifetime is empty appearance emptied out?

Although cold to the touch, Wei’s is a real wisdom that has passed straight through the worldly. It is the disciplined art of the educated city-dweller re-encountering nature:

        Out beyond the river it goes all the way:
        Grief and sorrow, a lone plume of smoke,

        And you think of going back, of offering
        Your lofty talent to those who need you.

        But nothing’s left of ancestral villages now.
        Out beyond cloud, it’s all empty as origin.

Opening this new book, I turned first to the famous poem, Deer Park. This is due entirely to Elliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s scalpel-edged Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Moyer Bell, 1987). Paz and Weinberger are strict constructionists of Wei’s poetry and they are merciless with 20th Century translators who’s sense of the single poem Deer Park drifts by so much as a microtone from Wei’s original. As Classical Chinese is a dense, allusive language stripped of articles and tenses, words can be defined only in context, and scholars continue to debate the content and color of Wei’s mountainscapes. Perhaps with Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei in mind, Hinton finishes his introduction with his own transliteration of the famous poem. In the sequence of the text, he presents a more polished version:

        No one seen. Among empty mountains,
        hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.

        Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
        flares on green moss again, and rises.

It becomes clear that Hinton, without violating Wei’s originals, intends to write clear and (at least linguistically) unambiguous English poems. Hinton is far more faithful to his original material than Ezra Pound in the revolutionary Cathay, say, but it’s fair to say that his interest lies in simplifying the poems as much as possible so as to ease the digestion of the Western reader. Even if we plan to investigate the venerable Pauline Yu’s more scholarly translations (Indiana, 1980), complete with thorough notes and capacious apparatus, Hinton’s book is a fine place to start. It’s as far as many of us will want to go, it’s far enough to get a sense of the place.

        Now autumn tightens cricket song. It echoes into my thatch hut.
        And up in these mountains, cicadas grieve clear through dusk.

        No one visits my bramble gate. Isolate silence deepens, deepens.
        Alone in all this empty forest, I meet white clouds for company.

There are places where Hinton could have enlarged his notes, which appear sparse when compared with his detailed explanations of Tu Fu from 1989 (fifty pages of notes accompany Tu Fu’s poems where a dozen seem to serve for Wei’s). A note explaining Ch’an Buddhist meditation, for example, feels a little thin. And when Wei complains of his lack of talent, we have no way of knowing how ironic he might have intended to be. But we have other editions of Wei to consult, and where Pauline Yu’s notes are more compendious, Hinton’s translations are more mellifluous. If Wei’s cold mountains are going to attract modern English readers, they will do so here.

        Grasses cushion legs sitting ch’an stillness
        up here. Towering pines echo pure chants.

        Inhabiting emptiness beyond dharma cloud,
        we see through human realms to unborn life.

Hinton’s English line is strong and deceptively artful. He repeats words for emphasis, rather than sticking them with needless adjectives. He doesn’t mind at all if his language sounds euphonious, matching Wei’s complex simplicity with English’s riches. It goes down smooth.

I found myself more absorbed by the poems toward the end of the book, those in which Wei seems to let his desolate emotions fill the landscape in a way he hadn’t before. But it’s his humanity, not his philosophy, I think I’m responding to. For poems of overflowing humanity, we must turn away from Wang Wei’s mountain retreat and instead to Hinton’s masterful versions of Tu Fu and Li Po.


Wang Wei (701-761 C.E.) was from Taiyuan, the capital of Shansi province, and moved to Ch'ang-an as a young man. After passing the civil service exam he rose through the ranks and, despite the occasional banishment, eventually reached the post of vice prime minister. However, his interest in Buddhism blunted any political ambitions, and whenever he had time he preferred to wander in the Chungnan Mountains south of the capital. Wang was not only one of the greatest poets of the T'ang, but also a skilled musician and one of the dynasty's greatest landscape artists. (adapted from Red Pine, Poems of the Masters).


David Hinton, whose much-acclaimed translations of Li Po and Tu Fu have become classics, now completes the triumvirate of China's greatest poets with The Selected Poems of Wang Wei.


John Cotter has published work in 3rd Bed, Goodfoot, Hanging Loose, failbetter, Pebble Lake, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, and others. He lives in Cambridge where he's about to start shopping around his first novel, small excerpts of which can be read on his website, here. In 2007 his work will appear in Volt, Unpleasant Event Schedule, word for/word, MIPOesias and Oh One Arrow, the new anthology from Flim Forum Press.