The Play of Opposites

A reissued translation of late T’ang dynasty poetry unites ancient form and raw emotion.

by Eric Ormsby
Poetry Media Service

Poems of the Late T’ang, edited and translated by A.C. Graham. NYRB Classics. $14.95

In the year 755 common era, when the T’ang dynasty was shaken by violent rebellion, many of its leading citizens–courtiers as well as poets–took to the roads. The dynasty was weakened but would endure for another century and a half, until it would be overthrown in 907. For the exiles, no return seemed possible.

One of these was the poet Tu Fu (or Du Fu, as his name is now romanized), generally considered the greatest of classical Chinese poets. In the poems he composed during his years of wandering, and especially in his last poems, written not long before his death in 770, at the age of 58, he mourned this loss. “I walk a road each day more desolate,” he wrote. But what is most striking in these final poems is neither his nostalgia for the ancient capital of Chang’an, where, as he wrote, “the mansions of princes and nobles all have new lords,” nor his sorrow at losing his position at court–and with it, his livelihood–nor even the pain of separation from family and friends. It is the sense of a hard-won serenity infusing every line which makes of his last poems both a surprise and a puzzle.

In “Poems of the Late T’ang,” translated and with an introduction by the late A.C. Graham–and now reissued from the original Penguin edition of 1965–seven remarkable poets step from the shadows of a long-vanished dynasty. They range from Tu Fu to Meng Chiao (751-814), the “poet of cold,” to the violent and extravagant Li Ho (791-817), one of the most original of all Chinese poets, and finally to Li Shang-yin (c. 812-858), an erotic poet of astonishing versatility.

Like Arthur Waley or David Hawkes, Graham is a both a lyrical and a scholarly translator; the individual accents of each poet ring out distinctively. This isn’t as straightforward as it might appear. Classical Chinese poetry was governed by strict conventions. Poems not only rhymed but the syllables of each line were exactly calculated; to make matters trickier, there were tonal patterns as well, dictated by the pitch accents of the language. Add to this the time-honored conventions of topics and imagery–certain subjects, such as romantic love, were considered improper, and Li Shang-yin scandalized critics simply by writing about women. Graham neither rhymes nor counts his syllables, but he does manage to suggest the delicate tension which arose when poets of genius gave small but decisive spins to such conventions. For a T’ang dynasty poet, as Graham makes clear in his superb introduction and notes, poetic convention wasn’t oppressive; rather, convention liberated originality.

Graham is as good on the lighthearted poet Tu Mu (803-52)–now better transliterated as Du Mu–as he is on the chilly Meng Chiao or the wild Li Ho. Tu Mu calls himself “a drifter in the blue houses,” that is, a frequenter of brothels, while Meng Chiao complains that “the cold wind harshly combs my bones,” noting, rather boastfully, that his bones have “hacking edges.” Li Ho, strangest of Chinese poets, comes out with such baffling lines as “The blue raccoon weeps blood and the cold fox dies.” And yet, the same Li Ho could write, “If heaven too had passions even heaven would grow old,” a line in which all the pathos of human experience is obliquely conveyed.

Until his death in 1991, Graham taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and was steeped in Chinese philosophy as well as poetry. He was fascinated by the supple play of opposites in Chinese thought–his study “Yin-Yang and the Nature of Correlative Thinking” is now, sadly, out of print–and this awareness shaped his translations. When Tu Fu writes, “At home in its tree, notice the secret bird: / Safe beneath the waves, imagine the great fishes,” he looses a ripple of antitheses. The contrast isn’t only between the bird hidden in the leaves and the fish concealed beneath the waves. There is a tacit contrast, as secret as bird or fish, between those creatures and the homeless poet who envisions them. The images are at once objective and deeply personal. As Graham points out, Chinese poets rarely write, “I.” No Chinese poet would exclaim with Shelley, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” not only because it would seem blatantly distasteful, but because it would be less powerful. The Chinese poet would show us the thorn and the drop of blood. Our imaginations would draw the inference.

Graham’s marvelous little anthology is governed too by the play of opposites. Each of his chosen poets stands in sharp contrast with the others. When Li Shang-yin in a moment of erotic disenchantment writes, “One inch of love is an inch of ashes,” he seems utterly opposed to the fantastic Lu T’ung, who celebrates “a demon frog which comes to eat the moon.” But both extremes tug against the conventions; they are dissonant and yet they cohere. Like figures from the terra-cotta army of the first Chinese emperor, buried a millennium before the T’ang dynasty not far from the same ancient capital of Chang’an, these seven poets puzzle and surprise: They are distant and familiar at once. Meng Chiao writes that in his verse, “the bones of poetry jut.” Thanks to Graham’s delicacy of touch, those bones live still.

Eric Ormsby’s work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, The Paris Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in The New York Sun, where he writes the weekly “Readings” column. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Eric Ormsby. All rights reserved


~ by ericedits on September 9, 2008.

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