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 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!