Winter Dawn

Apologies for my lack of posts of late – and incidentally for not having visited others’ blogs. I have been, er, working on other projects and in any case leaving Sweettenorbull’s fields lie fallow a while to come back with some fresh posts in due course. I hope this has been a good year for my handful of regular readers, and wish you a good one to come. See you in 2015. I leave 2014 with a reprise of a very old post of mine on welcoming a new year in less than exhuberant style…

Let’s get the new year rolling with a take on Tu Fu, or Du Fu if you like, by the American Beat poet, Kenneth Rexroth. This should be particularly apt for those of you who will have greeted the new year with a bout of serious drinking, perhaps some feasting and a healthy dose of bonhomie, punctuated – between rounds no doubt – with the occasional melancholy reflection on the passing of time and the shortness of life…

The Winter Palace, China

The Winter Palace, China

Winter Dawn

The men and beasts of the zodiac

Have marched over us once more.

Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,

Both emptied, litter the table.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each

Sits listening to his own thought,

and the sound of cars starting outside.

The birds in the eaves are restless,

Because of the noise and light. Soon now

In the winter dawn I will face

My fortieth year. Borne headlong

Towards the long shadows of sunset

By the headstrong, stubborn moments,

Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.

Tu Fu (trans. Kenneth Rexroth)

From One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, New Directions Press

It is apparent to even a non-Chinese speaker that this is one of the more westernising, and modernising, of Rexroth’s translations, with the western zodiac, the sound of cars and even the lines of Burn’s famous song standing in for whatever their Tang Dynasty equivalents may have been (answers on a postcard…). We shouldn’t complain about this, however. Rexroth freely admitted that some of his translations were much more free-wheeling than others, and his ‘cultural’ translation of the poem probably helps us to understand it better. There is something universal in the poem in its evocation of the wonder-tinged sense of mortality that we feel even as mark the passing of time with drinking and dancing. The empty bottles and lobster shells are the perfect image to capture that stangely empty feeling following a big celebration.

There is one line here that does need a little more explanation – ‘In the winter dawn I will face/ My fortieth year’. Traditionally the Chinese, aged 1 year old at birth, would get a year older on New Year’s day, not on their individual birthdays (this is still the way one measures age in some parts of China, and in the whole of South Korea). So Tu Fu was only 38 when he wrote this, and it wasn’t his birthday. With Tu Fu being a generally pessimistic fella, though, I don’t think this knowledge would have changed the mood of this poem…

‘Borne headlong / Towards the long shadows of sunset’… ah well, happy new year all!



Filed under Poetry

8 responses to “Winter Dawn

  1. A very likeable translation; easy, real, in good American English. Thank you for the reprise.
    A good new year to you and yours, and also (since you are in South Korea) I wish you a happy birthday!

    • Thanks – but I didn’t realise I had just got older until you reminded me… the poem is, as you say, real – those green wine bottles are a nice detail. No doubt a few people groggily depositing them in their recycling bins as we speak… Well, happy new year!

  2. I too enjoyed this, and found especially fresh those inages of bottles and lobster shells and the birds restless in the eaves. Drunken wildfire seems a bit of a miss. But the overall effect is very satisfying indeed!

  3. Birds restless in the eaves is, as you say, a perfect image. I spent a Chinese new year in China once, and they do like their firecrackers – that at least hasn’t changed since Du Bu’s time. I hadn’t thought much about the drunken wildfire until your critical eye spied it out – it is a little off as you say, as it is people who get drunk, not fire. Nevertheless, it’s a great poem, and I do think Rexroth an underappreciated poet. Anyway, happy new year!

  4. Great to have you back in town (Blogville, that is). Thanks for all your support, and for celebrating the invaluable literary tradition of great poetry. Also, ‘ave an ‘appy new year!

  5. Thank you for introducing me to Kenneth Rexroth. Coincidentally, I have been musing about the parallel fates of Robbie Burns’ native Scots language and the Chinese dialect of the early Chinese in Canada. Both are subsumed into the world’s monolithic languages, Scots by English, and the Chinese dialect of Hoiping by Mandarin.

  6. That’s an interesting parallel, setohj. No doubt some Scots would argue that their language endures. It has a living literary tradition, at least – with the Scottish translator Brian Holton, for example, translating Yang Lian’s Chinese into Scots as well as English poems..

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