Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Naar Psalm 11

Als de vogel de pijl
voelt aankomen, vliegt hij –
af! naar de berg!
Als ik de woorden
van de hekelaar hoor, blijf ik –
verscholen in herinnering aan u,
dood op de plaats in het oog van de schutter,
levend in uw oog.

--Lloyd Haft (uit De Psalmen in de bewerking van Lloyd Haft, Querido 2003; herdruk Uitgeverij Vesuvius 2011)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What’s in a Transcribed Name? – Part Two

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 9).

In declaring that there will never be an all-round ‘satisfactory’ transcription system for Chinese, I am aware that not everybody defines either ‘all-round’ or ‘satisfactory’ in the same way. My own definition of ‘satisfactory,’ for example, would be less fine-grained than that of a famous American professor who, reasoning that in the Chinese character script every character theoretically occupies the same amount of space on the page, actually achieved the mental feat of designing a transcription in which each of the several hundred possible syllables could be written using the same number of letters.
As for ‘all-round,’ to begin with, people often envision very different possible uses for a transcription. Speaking very generally, there may be quite a difference between a transcription intended for students to use as a tool in learning the language and, on the other hand, a system for use in the mass media in reporting current events in China. The four tones of Mandarin, which every student of the language is expected to master, must be clearly indicated in whatever transcription their textbooks are written in. On the other hand, the tones are irrelevant abracadabra to non-sinologists, and to them it would be distracting and irritating to have to use a transcription complicated enough to embody that information.
The pinyin transcription can straddle both horns of this dichotomy. In it, the tones may be indicated by accent marks above the vowels, but the marks can be left out at will. In practice they are very often left out. We teach our students that the tones are an inseparable element of Chinese words, that without the tones there would be intolerable ambiguity...but we all know that in practice things are much less extreme. It is easy enough to cite cases of words distinguished only by tone – ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ being the classical case – but in real life, just about all of the time, if you just transcribe what somebody is saying into pinyin without tone marks, most or all of the message is immediately clear.
I would go on to say that the importance of tones as such is usually exaggerated by the kind of textbooks we use. I personally believe tones are less significant elements than other components of the words. I find it much easier to understand speakers from Henan Province in Central China, whose tones sound so ‘incorrect’ that they should theoretically be confusing to the ear, but whose consonants, especially at the beginning of words, sound like the dictionary says they should – than even highly educated Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, whose every tone may be correct but who evidently feel it is perfectly acceptable to indulge habitually in a massive diffusion of consonant sounds which blurs hundreds of words into ambiguity, such that ‘mountain’ and ‘three’ sound alike, ‘pig’ and ‘rent’ and so on.
         The transcription I learned at Harvard, the so-called ‘G.R.’ or Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字system of which Yuen Ren Chao is the best-known proponent, indicated the four tones not by distinctive markings above the vowels of each syllable, but as distinctive spellings of the syllables themselves. This meant that the syllable ‘ju’ in the four tones appeared respectively as ju, jwu, juu and juh. For visually oriented learners (or written-language freaks) like myself, this had the powerful advantage of impressing the tone as an inherent part of the syllable, not just, in Chao’s own phrase, ‘as an afterthought.’
        On the other hand, the disadvantage was that unless you were already sure of its tone, you could not know how to write down a word even approximately. A related problem – and now I really am getting a bit technical – was that in Chao’s system, even an unaccented or ‘neutral tone’ syllable (of which there are very many in actual speech) was always to be spelled as if it had its full tone, that is, the tone in which it would be pronounced if cited aloud, fully stressed, in isolation from any context. The trouble with this is that in listening to people talk, you normally (or often, or sometimes) can hear the overall ‘shape’ of this ‘neutral’ syllable but not its distinctive tone, since all neutral-tone syllables sound the same as regards pitch. Again, how to write it? How even to jot it down?
        So, if the Wade-Giles spelling is ‘cumbersome,’ the G. R. system demands a perhaps unrealistically intense focus on tones, but meanwhile we have in pinyin a perfectly serviceable, linguistically defensible system which has been around for more than half a century and which has come increasingly into use for a wide range of purposes all over the world – doesn’t this mean the question of transcription has been settled once and for all?
        It does not. The reasons are extra-linguistic, reminding us that language does not exist in an intellectual vacuum, but is a matter of people communicating with other people in social and temporal contexts that impose their own demands. When the pinyin transcription first appeared on the scene (it was officially published in 1958), the mere fact that it originated in ‘Red’ China, an area which many countries still did not diplomatically recognize and whose long-term political legitimacy was still felt to be uncertain, meant it could not be widely accepted by Western scholars. As time wore on and the U.S. government refrained from fully recognizing the PRC until 1979, some American sinologists started using if not flaunting pinyin as a genteel political statement, while others would have nothing to do with the ‘Red’ spelling system. For decades, some of the most widely used language textbooks employed  an easy-to-read system, the Yale Romanization, which had originally been devised by George A. Kennedy in 1943 for use in U.S. Army language manuals,[1] but as far as I know, it never made much headway in non-educational contexts. In the academic or scholarly-sinological milieu, Wade-Giles remained dominant – and the longer it remained dominant, the more it seemingly legitimated itself as the vehicle of a venerable and uniquely Western ‘lineage’ of learning.
        My own position was ambiguous and changed slowly. By 1979, I was realistic enough to know that the PRC had come to stay, but I resented the idea that a sudden shift in present-day worldly politics should automatically impose a parallel shift in our manner of spelling Chinese within a scholarly or literary context that had its own history, its own associations, and its own tradition of validity. When I wrote my thesis on Bian Zhilin in 1980, and again when its commercial edition came out in 1983 (see Fragment 7 of this Scrapbook, ‘Preface to Discovering Bian Zhilin’), I still wrote Wade-Giles. As far as I can reconstruct things, my first ‘serious’ sinological publication using pinyin was a Dutch-language history of Chinese literature which I co-authored with Wilt Idema in 1985.[2] As late as 1996, when I published the results of a rhythmic study of Feng Zhi’s 馮至 sonnets in a journal,[3] I still called him ‘Feng Chih,’ true to my Wade-Giles background. I thought I was doing a favor to readers who might wish to consult older scholarly literature on Chinese poetry, most of which was in Wade-Giles. Four years later, when I republished that article as one chapter of a book-length study of the sonnet form in modern Chinese poetry, I finally changed everything to pinyin.[4] Pinyin was obviously being used all over the world for more and more purposes, and I thought maybe the day had come when even non-specialist readers would be acquainted with it. To me, the shift had no political import; I was simply adapting – I thought – to the inevitable.
      Two weeks ago now, I was browsing through a second-hand bookstore in Seattle, USA. I was delighted to find a study of one of my favorite Song-dynasty philosophers, Xie Liangzuo (or Hsieh Liang-tso 謝良佐), published by the Oxford University Press in 2005.[5] By now I was a bit surprised to see it was in Wade-Giles throughout, except for, in the author’s words, ‘names of contemporary Chinese who use the Pinyin system for spelling their names.’
        This brings us to an important point which I will go into in more detail, and with more emotion, in Part Five: transcribe as ye may, but hands off personal names!
        For the moment, back to Xie Liangzuo anno 2005. It so happened that the following day, still in Seattle but at a different bookstore, I found Don Wyatt’s 1996 study of my current favorite Chinese philosopher Shao Yong 邵雍.[6] It, too, was in Wade-Giles.
        I was glad, found it somehow heartening, to see that these two authors, writing about closely related aspects of the Chinese philosophy of nearly a thousand years ago, and publishing with two of the most ‘classic’ publishers in ‘the field,’ had felt free to carry on our Venerable Lineage. There is no evidence that their non-use of pinyin implies any particular political stance. Perhaps it is just an implicit expression of loyalty to our own Tradition, our own Guild, our own Lodge as it were.
        But why am I saying ‘our’ guild, ‘our’ lodge, as if I had published a lot of things in philosophy? Aren’t I a poetry man? How have poetry studies fared in the orthographic struggle between adaptation and continuity?
        There is so much to say about this that I will wait till Part Three to really tackle it. But for now, let me close with a hint: some of the most innovative translators use some of the most history-laden transcriptions.

[1] See Jeroen Wiedenhof, ‘Purpose and effect in the transcription of Mandarin’, at
[2] Chinese letterkunde, Uitgeverij Spectrum 1985. The revised English version appeared as A Guide to Chinese Literature, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan 1997. The choice of pinyin for the original Dutch version was made easier by the fact that in The Netherlands, unlike the English-speaking world, there was no other single transcription having the established authority and prestige of the Wade-Giles.
[3] ‘Some Rhythmic Structures in Feng Chih’s Sonnets’, in Modern Chinese Literature 9:2 (fall 1996), pp. 297-326.
[4] The Chinese Sonnet: Meanings of a Form, Leiden: Research School of Asian, African, and American Studies, 2000.
[5] Thomas W. Selover, Hsieh Liang-tso and the Analects of Confucius: Humane Learning as a Religious Quest, Oxford University Press 2005.
[6] Don J. Wyatt, The Recluse of Loyang: Shao Yung and the Moral Evolution of Early Sung Thought, University of Hawaii Press 1996.

Naar Psalm 138

Als ik u prijs
is mijn hart heel,
ook waar duizend beelden
mij blijven aanstaren.
Ik groet in de richting
van uw verborgenheid,
zeg dat uw naam
licht is en waarheid:
boven alle dingen uit
blijft uw naam.
Op de dag dat ik schreide
hoorde ik in de sterkte van mijn schreeuw
uw antwoord.
Wisten zij wat ik zoek
ook koningen zouden u prijzen
en zingen van uw wegen
dat deze gloed groot is
want u laat mij levend
door benauwdheden lopen.
Ik kom op de ziende uit,
in ziens blijvende band.
Het gluren van de hekelaar
raakt mij niet,
wat mij raakt
noem ik uw hand.

--Lloyd Haft (uit De Psalmen in de bewerking van Lloyd Haft, Querido 2003; herdruk Uitgeverij Vesuvius 2011)

Monday, April 25, 2011

What's in a Transcribed Name? - Part One

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 8)

Some years ago, one of my colleagues in Chinese studies amused us over the internet with a humorous maxim that he had come up with. It was that there are three sure signs by which you can tell that a Sinologist has finally crossed over the borderline that separates Genius from Madness. The three are:

(1)   he or she invents a new system of alphabetic transcription for Chinese;
(2)   he or she comes out with a new translation of the Dao De Jing (道德經); or
(3)   he or she is occupied in any way whatsoever with the Yi Jing (易經).

Now, this really is a good joke, and fully deserves the insider’s laugh which it invariably evokes. But I’m afraid you have to be a rather ‘funny’ kind of person to appreciate just how funny it is. You have to be...a Sinologist.
        The second and third points are amusing to insiders because they remind us of the particular arrogance that many of us picked up, or at least learned to pretend to pick up, in the process of becoming initiates in this field. The idea is that the Dao De Jing and the Yi Jing, perhaps the only two Chinese books that non-sinologists really are fairly likely to have heard of, may even in some sense ‘believe in’ – are by that very fact too vulgar to be worthy of a true scholar’s attention. Perhaps there is also a hint that a ‘true’ Sinologist should have nothing but the purest, most abstractly intellectual interest in ‘the field’ in strict separation from personal life: he or she should have absolutely no personal or ‘private’ involvement along the lines of ‘believing in’ Chinese philosophy, ‘consulting’ the Yi Jing, or the like. (Writing these lines, I now wonder whether my own form of this ‘elitist’ approach comes out in the way that even after more than forty years in ‘the field,’ I still prefer to eat Chinese food, if and when I am compelled to eat it, with a knife and fork rather than with chopsticks...)
        But what about the first point? What would be so strange about inventing a new transcription system? To begin with, the full, obvious, and hopeless pointlessness of it. I have not gone to the trouble to conduct a survey among my colleagues on this, but let’s just suppose I did. Suppose I sent a hundred sinologists the question: ‘If one of our most famous colleagues, after decades of study and research, invented a new and improved system for spelling Chinese words and names in our alphabet...would you be interested in learning it and, potentially, starting to use it in your own publications?’ I would be amazed if even two out of the hundred responded in the affirmative. (Actually, to be honest, I would be surprised if even ten of the hundred responded at all. It is part of the standard ‘professional’ image nowadays not to have time to respond to emails.) The 98 who, like me, would immediately dismiss the whole idea as idiocy would reason thus:

(1)   there are already too many different competing transcriptions in the world; and
(2)   there is not, nor will there ever be, any such thing as a really satisfactory one for all purposes.

As for there being ‘many different’ transcriptions, I would not venture to say how many there are; perhaps nobody knows; but it would seem practically every Western language has produced at least one new system of its own. In Dutch alone, there are at least three that I know of. The title of the Song-dynasty philosophical handbook 近思錄, which Olaf Graf called ‘The Song-Confucianist Summa’ and which is one of my favorite books in Chinese, appears in Graf’s German translation as Djin-sï lu. In the present-day official standard transcription used in Mainland China, called Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音or just pinyin, it would be Jinsilu. In the transcription I learned when I started studying Chinese at Harvard, it would be Jinn-sy Luh.
        To an experienced Sinologue, of course, there is no difference between Djin-sï lu and Jinsilu or Jinn-sy Luh, just as he or she can see at a glance that Zhu Xi, Ju Shi, Chu Hsi, Tchou Hi, Dschu Hsi and Tsjoe Sji are all the same – nothing but variant spellings of the name of 朱熹 (1130-1200), the all-time kingpin of ‘straight’ (i.e. non-New Age) Chinese philosophy and the more famous of the book’s two editors.
        In the course of time, due to the ever-growing influence of Anglophone culture on the world scene since the nineteenth century, the quaint-looking English transcription called the ‘Wade-Giles System’ came into widespread use even outside sinological circles. [1] The orthodox Wade-Giles spelling is complex and cumbersome: not only are many consonants followed by an apostrophe which it is totally inadmissible to delete (tang and t’ang are two entirely different words), but the apostrophe itself is supposed to be turned around to face in the opposite direction to a normal apostrophe – a typographical gymnastic which I do not even know how to do on a computer. In addition, there are supposed to be ‘circumflex’ and ‘breve’ accent marks above certain vowels; these contribute nothing to the distinctive identifiability of the syllables and are often quietly deleted.
        In practice, the Wade-Giles ‘system’ has become a loose family of systems more or less following the overall rule that an apostrophe is used to distinguish what are called the ‘aspirated’ consonants from the ‘non-aspirated.’ (Since even this supposedly crucial feature is often actually not observed, perhaps we are left with the fact that certain syllables begin with hs- as the one and only universal touchstone of Wade-Gilesness. (On second thought, that won’t work either: Graf uses it in his German transcription as well...)
        In practice, a slightly simplified version of the transcription, using a regular rather than an inverted apostrophe and deleting the superfluous diacritic marks over the vowels, is the most common form of ‘Wade-Giles spelling’ still used today. A sinological writer who adopts these simplifications is not truly ‘inventing a new transcription’ – hence not, at least by the three criteria mentioned at the beginning of this little essay, ipso facto in need of immediate psychiatric attention.
        It is not always easy to tell what constitutes a truly ‘new’ transcription. A few months ago I experienced a spectacular example of this. I was aware that Sir Joseph Needham, author of the incomparable 24-volume Science and Civilisation in China, used an unusual transcription. Where in the Wade-Giles system a consonant would have been followed by an apostrophe (e.g. T’ang, Ch’ing), Needham used not an apostrophe but a letter h, even when it led to doubling (e.g. Thang, Chhing). For decades I had assumed (following the unwritten axiom ‘since only brilliant people specialize in our field to begin with, anybody seemingly making an elementary mistake must have a well-thought-out reason for making it’) that Needham had dug deeply into the ancient history of the Chinese language and had concluded, based on abstruse linguistic considerations, that an h was more correct than an apostrophe. In 2010, I finally set about reading the biography of Needham by Simon Winchester. I was relieved (because it took me off the hook of presumably being ‘stupid’ for not knowing the exact reason why Chhing should be any more correct than Ch’ing) to read that when Needham began writing, the key for the apostrophe on his typewriter was broken. The h, in other words, got started as a stand-in for an apostrophe, and as time went on, nobody bothered to change it!
[to be continued]    

[1] According to Yuen Ren Chao 趙元任 in the introduction to his Mandarin Primer, the system was first published by Sir Thomas Francis Wade in 1859, subsequently revised, and adopted in Herbert Giles’ 1912 Chinese-English Dictionary.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Naar Psalm 130

Waar ik u aanroep is diepte:
hoor dan mijn stem.
Laat uw oor zich verstaan
met de stem van mijn verdriet
want eeuwig is zij als u.
Wat is mijn angst anders
dan uw weidsheid?
Achter mijn zwijgen
zoek ik uw woord:
maak dan van mijn hoop
uw dageraad
en van mijn duur uw dag.

--Lloyd Haft (uit De Psalmen in de bewerking van Lloyd Haft, Querido 2003; herdruk Uitgeverij Vesuvius 2011)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Preface to Discovering Bian Zhilin (發現卞之琳)

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 7)

[This is an English version of the new preface written for my 發現卞之琳, published in Beijing by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in 2010, which is a Chinese translation of Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry, published by Foris Publications in 1983.]

On the occasion of this Chinese translation of my book which has long been sold out in its English edition dating from 1983, the publisher has agreed to let me write a new preface explaining the perspective in which I see this virtually unchanged Chinese edition after the passage of more than a quarter century. As far as I have ever been able to determine, mine was the first published book-length study in any language focusing exclusively on Bian’s life and work. That fact in itself may make it meaningful to preserve it in more or less identical form in this Chinese edition: aside from whatever intrinsic merits this book may have as an introduction to Bian Zhilin’s poetry, it may be interesting to present-day Chinese readers to see how this outstanding 20th century Chinese poet appeared to a young Western reader in the 1970s and 80s, what constraints were imposed by the specific scholarly and political conditions of those days, and what influences from my own background shaped this study.

When I was a student at Harvard College in the summer of 1967, two things happened which combined to change the course of my life. I met a beautiful Chinese girl, and I discovered Buddhism. The girl came from Hong Kong and was a native speaker of Cantonese. Our meeting was ephemeral, but it kindled in me an interest in her language. I immediately checked out Y. R. Chao’s 趙元任 Cantonese Primer (粵語入門) from the Harvard-Yenching Library. It was a book after my own heart. The Introduction was one of the most immediately fascinating discussions of the Chinese language that I have ever seen; its treatment of the language was set against a vibrantly imaginative background of allusions to everyday life in the Chinese world, curiosa of older European scholarship in this field, and surprising comparisons between Chinese and other languages. In short, it was an introduction not just to the ‘field’ but also to what I can only call the ‘romance’ of Chinese studies. Another romantic feature was that it was written in a phenomenally complex and unusual transcription system, appearing on the page almost like a secret code waiting to be deciphered, which the author had invented ad hoc, and which to my knowledge was never again used elsewhere.
        Again that summer, I stumbled upon a copy of Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen. It had some features which I would soon learn to pretend to disdain as ‘amateuristic,’ starting with its cover design which was dominated by a big Chinese character meaning 'Zen' . But sometimes it is the enthusiastic amateur rather than the routine-stiffened professional who can teach us most. What we need to know may be not only the officially or bureaucratically recognized body of fact and theory, but the more elusive factor of why the whole subject is worth studying at all.
Watts’ book introduced me once and for all to the idea – to me at the time a real revelation – that a very significant portion of the human race do not idealize the same ‘ego’ concept, the same notion of what the word ‘I’ should mean, as ourselves. This fact is often glossed over or underestimated by Western students of Chinese, but nothing in traditional Chinese life can be understood without it.
        So that fateful summer, the girl from Hong Kong enlarged my concept of Beauty, and Alan Watts, of Truth. I soon began following Harvard’s intensive course in Chinese as an auditor. My teacher was Y. R. Chao’s daughter, Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭. The textbook we used was written in her father’s transcription of Mandarin, only slightly less complicated than the Cantonese one; in my personal note-taking I have continued to this day using this quaintly elegant system which projects upon the language a beautiful formal symmetry beyond even what most native speakers perceive in it. The study of the Chinese language seemed to me to involve a pursuit of beauty and truth, and in those days, especially at a private university like Harvard, perhaps there really was still some room within the academic world for such romantic ideals.
The following year (1968), when I went to the University of Leiden, The Netherlands to pursue further studies in Chinese, I discovered a still more fabulously highbrow style of sinology. Instruction in the modern spoken language was just getting started in earnest, and in any case was treated as a mere practical tool, an almost demeaning concession to modern vulgarity which deflected our time and attention from the main business of sinology, which was philology, historical studies, and Classics. (Even if we had wanted to, in those days we could not go to Peking to learn to speak Chinese because in China the Cultural Revolution was on and there were severe restrictions on foreigners entering the country. Perhaps that ‘faraway’ or ‘inaccessible’ quality actually added, in my mind, to the sense of Chinese studies as a ‘romantic’ pursuit involving values beyond the everyday.) Our introductory textbook of Classical Chinese was written in German by a scholar who was also a renowned expert on Manchu and Mongol. There was a course in Tibetan taught once a week by a teacher who specially drove up from Paris in a sports car for the purpose.
Modern languages in general were considered trivia. In The Netherlands in those days, secondary-school students coming to the university were routinely expected to be competent in English, French, and German in addition to their native tongue. (This was aside from the Latin and Greek which they had also been required to study.)
        In this exquisitely genteel atmosphere of Old-Worldly tradition, one fine day in 1970 I sat down with a copy of Kai-yu Hsu’s 許芥昱English-language anthology Twentieth Century Chinese Poetry and discovered Bian Zhilin. For me, in those poems and that book, the elements of Beauty and Truth suddenly came together. In retrospect, I think that impact was largely owing to Hsu’s great gifts as a translator. (I was not the only one to think him gifted. The great Czech sinologist Jaroslav Prusek, in an otherwise rather stodgy review of Hsu’s book, commented on the unusual ‘esthetic pleasure’ which it had given him to read it.) He himself once described the translator of poetry as a person ‘speaking others’ dreams in your own voice, or...your own dreams in other’s voices.’[1] Perhaps he also felt a special affinity with Bian Zhilin’s poetry because he had been a student of Bian’s while both were at National Southwest Associated University in Kunming during World War II.
        I was intrigued not only by Bian’s poems but by Hsu’s hint that although Bian had ‘been writing very little since the end of the war,’ he was ‘one of the most promising modern Chinese poets.’ The practical mechanics of ‘doing a Ph.D.’ are such that in the beginning one must search for a subject on which some literature does exist, but which has not yet exhaustively been described by anyone else. In the 1970s, Bian Zhilin’s poetry fit this bill perfectly. Neither in Mao’s China nor in Taiwan would scholars have been encouraged to publish on the details of his poetry and life. In the Western world, aside from Kai-yu Hsu’s book and two other anthologies dating from the thirties and forties, there were few useful sources on contemporary Chinese poetry. Here, it seemed to me, was a world of potential Beauty and Truth waiting to be filled in and made accessible. I began to study Bian Zhilin in earnest.
Reading Bian Zhilin’s poetry in the Leiden of the 1970s, I was very much hearing my own dreams in Bian’s voice. Even the circumstances of my everyday life were full of elements which could readily be associated with his texts. Dutch houses, like many houses in the old Peking, typically had no front lawn between the front entrance and the street; the lawn or garden was in back of the house and often surrounded by a fence or wall. I was living in an 18th-century house with a walled-in courtyard-like garden where, whenever the weather allowed, I sat with my books. In Chinese, it would have been conceivable to refer to that garden as the Han Yuan 漢園 or ‘Haft’s Garden’; the poems by Bian Zhilin which Kai-yu Hsu translated were taken from a Chinese anthology titled Han Yuan Ji or The Han Garden 漢園集 . Where Bian wrote in a poem

How many patches of blue sky over how many courtyards...


he could have been writing about the pastel blue Dutch sky framed by the high wall of my quiet garden.
        My knowledge of Chinese was pitifully inadequate, but this did not deter me from doing the best I could with Bian’s poetry. I took comfort in the words of T. S. Eliot (one of the writers whom Bian translated): ‘I was passionately fond of certain French poetry long before I could have translated two verses of it correctly.’[2] In those days it was not easy even to find the originals of Bian’s poems – Mary Fung’s 張曼儀 admirable bibliographies had not yet been published – but in Chinese literary magazines of the 1930s which our library in Leiden possessed, I did manage to find a few. Eventually Mr. H. W. Chan 陳慶雲 of our library pointed out to me a new Hong Kong reprint of Bian’s only collected edition as of then, Poems of Ten Years 十年詩草. Unbeknown to me, it contained many serious misprints. Nevertheless, for the obsessed reader, even a defective text is better than none.
        Sometime in the 1970s, I began to correspond with Kai-yu Hsu. In his characteristically encouraging way, he said he believed what I was struggling with could turn out to be ‘a publishable undertaking.’ In the unhurried academe of those days, this idea remained in suspension for a couple of years. The precipitation occurred in 1978. Just returned from a summer in Taiwan which was my first sojourn in the Far East, I discovered among the accumulated mail a letter from Hsu saying that he was just finishing up the manuscript of a thick anthology he was editing, Literature of the People’s Republic of China, and that if I could send in translations of a couple of Bian Zhilin’s poems from the 1950s, they could still be included if I sent them in before the deadline. Meanwhile I had been gone for so long that the deadline was already long past. But I was too thrilled not to make one desperate effort to leap aboard regardless.
        Within twenty-four hours, I went to the library and photocopied the pages from the 1958 Poetry Journal 詩刊 containing Bian’s Poems on the Ming Tombs Reservoir Project 十三陵水庫工地雜詩, looked up in dictionaries the words (many!) which I did not yet know, translated and typed out five poems, consulted Chinese colleagues, revised the translations, and typed the final versions.
        Hsu did include my translations in his anthology, though not without a bit of discreet editing on his part. In the poem 'Embracing the Flood' 和洪水擁抱, where I had thought to see a sexual allusion in the phrase

We'll fix up a lake-bed in the valley
and embrace the Great Water - make it our mirror...


Hsu quietly toned my text back down to academically acceptable proportions. (Even at this distance in time, I am still not quite convinced I was wrong.) So a translation of those poems, in some ways so un-typical of Bian Zhilin’s work, became my first publication in ‘the field.’
        About a year later, I had the long-awaited opportunity to go to the PRC for three months of research; my official topic was the current status of Western literature in the educational and publishing worlds of the PRC. When I got to Peking, once again I found myself associating the present-day environment with the decors and images of Bian’s poetry. Walking down West Chang'an Street 西長安街, I was reminded of Bian’s poem of the same name. Waiting in line to buy candied haw sticks 山楂糖, I had associations with Bian’s lines

The hawker cries 'Candied haws!'
swallowing a mouthful of dust...


The ‘patches of blue sky’ and the ‘courtyards,’ as I now could actually see them from the window of my room in the Minzu Hotel, were very much as I had always imagined the ones Bian wrote of in the 1930s.
This was 1979, not long after Mao Zedong’s death, during the Chairmanship of Hua Guofeng, when Deng Xiaoping’s policies were already decisive. Though the country was beginning to open up to foreign visitors, in many ways foreigners, and their languages and culture, were still politically suspect, so much so that in Peking I occasionally had the experience of people on the streets preferring not to answer me when I asked for directions, presumably because they did not wish to be seen talking to me.
        Under these circumstances, I thought Bian Zhilin might feel uncomfortable if I told him straight-out that I was planning to write a book about him. Instead, I said I wished to talk to him about his famous modern Chinese verse translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies. When I finally did manage to see him, I asked him question after question about his own poetry, furiously taking notes. He subsequently arranged another meeting and gave me an advance copy of the then-forthcoming revised edition of his collected poems, the first since 1942. That thin little book contained a long preface in which Bian detailed and evaluated his development and career as a poet; together with my notes on our conversations, it gave me enough substance to start writing my dissertation when I returned to Leiden.
        The writing process, done mainly under a pastel-blue Dutch sky in the summer of 1980, I remember as one of the happiest periods of my life. It was an opportunity to fit together intuitions and inspirations dating as far back as my Harvard days with a whole new body of facts and written materials coming from different epochs and, so it seemed at times, different worlds. My dissertation advisor, Professor W. L. Idema 伊維德, taught me much about how to maintain focus and coherence during this challenging and at times rather emotional process of evaluation and synthesis. I also received much valuable aid from John T. Ma 馬大任, then director of Leiden University’s Chinese library. James C. P. Liang 梁兆兵 helped me through numerous problems in translation and interpretation.
        The dissertation was finished and I received my Ph.D. in late 1981. At that time, the Dutch businessman Mr. Nico van Rees 萬理士, who had been an early pioneer in importing products from the PRC, provided financial and other assistance enabling Bian Zhilin to travel personally to Holland to attend my dissertation defense. Kai-yu Hsu also flew over from California to be present as External Examiner. Bian stayed in Leiden for several days, which we mainly spent discussing my dissertation in detail. He corrected some minor errors or misinterpretations and supplied much additional information. The result was that in 1983 I was able to publish a revised commercial edition, which I have always felt more or less carried Bian’s imprimatur.
        A quarter of a century went by.
        Then one morning early in 2009, sitting at my computer in Taiwan, I was astounded to see an incoming email from John T. Ma, who now lived in America and whom I had not seen for many years. The gist was that he was now nearing ninety, had recently been in Peking, and had already discussed with the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press the possibility of bringing out a Chinese-language edition of my book about Bian Zhilin.
        After that, things moved very quickly. Lan Xiaoluan and the other staff at the FLTRP have been wonderfully helpful in facilitating the practicalities of publication. One aspect of this was putting me in touch with the translator Li Yongyi 李永毅. From an early stage, Li Yongyi’s knowledge of English, background in literature, and affinity with my own style of reading have made it a delight to work with him.
        Obviously one of the first decisions to be taken was whether I should try to revise or expand my text in the light of more recent scholarship on Bian Zhilin. With the agreement of the publisher, I decided not to attempt this. For one thing, although in recent decades several new books on Bian have appeared, at the time my book appeared his poetic oeuvre was already virtually complete.[3] In that sense, I was walking on solid ground in basing my interpretative framework on his works as they were available to me at the time. I see no reason why that framework now should be considered any less valid than it was.
        In a very few cases, passages which contained explanations of problems involved in the English translations of Bian’s poems which I quoted, or of similar specifics of English concepts and vocabulary, have been deleted or slightly revised here.
        It is true that my book was entirely uninfluenced by forms of critical theory, of ‘literature about literature about literature,’ which in certain circles later came to assume what I have always felt to be a rather dubious position of intellectual dominance if not actual dictatorship. From the first, I deplored the tendency to treat literary works as footnotes upon critical writings rather than the reverse, and I could not with any sincerity or effectiveness suddenly try to imitate that style of thinking and writing. As for the trend toward subsuming discussions of literature within a generalized discourse about social, historical, or even demographic trends, I can only reiterate that I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to ape such an approach.
        But there is something else. In the days when I was writing this book, it was perhaps more generally accepted than now to view poetry as a distinct type of language use which far from merely echoing the rest of the surrounding social discourse, might very importantly contradict or question or supplement that discourse. In short, poetry was not merely one more affirmation of what was already being affirmed by other sectors of society; poetry might be a vital factor encouraging continuous re-evaluation of those sectors and of the individual’s stance relative to them. I have already used the word ‘romantic’ in relation to my own approach, and I do not think any great shame need attach to avowing that position, in the sense of an attitude stressing the importance of subjective experience and the value of factors in living beyond the merely utilitarian. In this sense, the viewpoint from which I have approached Bian’s poetry is an integral part of what I think I have to say about it, and it is this, rather than any specific factual detail which might have been added, which I hope my book can still offer now that it is coming into an unexpected rebirth in another part of the world.
        I wish to thank John T. Ma very specially for his continuing confidence in the value of my work, and for translating that confidence into an initiative which has led to the publication of this book in Chinese.
        Bian Zhilin passed away in 2000. It is lamentable that he could not have been present to see this book, to which he contributed so much, published in his own country: all the more reason to thank the FLTRP for getting the book out in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth this year.
Lloyd Haft
January 2010

[1] See the ‘Dedicatory Poem’ in his Literature of the People’s Republic of China.
[2] From his Selected Essays, London 1961, p. 199.
[3] In the collected edition of Bian’s poems published by the Anhui Jiaoyu Chubanshe in 2002, there are only nine poems dating from after my study, as compared with more than ninety from before.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kelong: Drie zeegezichten (gedichten)

(1) Kelong: aan zee

Mijn keel, mijn longen –
waardoor anders zal nog
steen ademen,
rots aan weten komen?

Boven het bar geblevene,
tegen het stomme kloven plant ik
deze voeten,
plaats mij in het steen dat van de wind al

galmde, weergalmde vóór ik
hier kwam met woorden
en met adem: van alle woorden
moeder, alle zin.

In dit geziene
zal mijn vraag beklinken:
bekend aan deze rotsen,
langs deze dag gesteld.

(2) Kelong: langs de kust

Boven mij en onder
twee lijnen die liggen:

hemel en aarde, gepaarde

lippen van een nog ver-
zwijgende baarmoeder

daarin ik sta te komen
met in mijn buik

het woordeke mijn ja,
jakkend tegen boven mij

en onder mij nog stil –

(3) Baai bij Kelong

Zo weinig is het
dat mijn knieën nog uiteen
houdt, handen apart, ogen
twee in zoeken.

Breedte van een duim
mijn ingeblevene –
mijn hart, mijn valk,
mijn dreunend taleken:

blijf mij tussen,
houd mij nog uiteen –
mee in de brede baai, mee
in de glim van de klippen.

Zie nog niet sluitend,
laat nog niet dicht dit twee-
lid dat rekt, reikt,
zint naar weerskanten.

Houd mij beide ziende,
laat niet over deze blauwe
sikkel, deze zonneboog
de lange slinger slaan.

--Lloyd Haft (verschenen in Tirade nr. 437, maart 2011)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

from Atlantis 5 (poems)

(1)   Airport Coffee

Shove a quick elbow
across a table dumb as we,

gather in a coffee cup and weigh,
hold heart-high and right
what blackening feeds.

Swallowing you carry on
your life’s, this time’s calling
of listening for windows:
letting on their own side

all drops fall,
nothing missing
and if I next shall see you

be cup and table
thus, be rain again
so bright my way inclined.

(2)   Large-Leaf Linden

How such narrow tree
could reach me over day,
over shadows on water,

Reach me where staying is
what saying becomes:
say a leaf is heart-shaped
and it is.

I remember how you called me your
leaf. Over summers and shade
sound, sense flapping.
Something it must have been you saw,

out of massed green suddenly
seeming: dim yet
exceedingly one. And what you saw
you said: what later

would reach me and does, touching
where upstairs windows weathering
accommodate the muted glint we call
recall. Knowing back I call today’s wind

toothed and it is.

--Lloyd Haft (from Atlantis, Querido 1993)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Naar Psalm 77

Waar ik God mee aanriep,
die stem was de mijne.
Hij zou naar mij luisteren.
God zoeken was
mijn dag en mijn kwelling.
Ik stortte mijn handen
de nacht in: geen hand kwam terug.
Ik was niet meer te vleien.
Als ik aan u dacht
had ik geen vrede,
mijn ziel was in haar klacht omhuld.
U hield mijn oogleden open,
zo kwam ik op vroeger dagen,
jaren van verhalen.
Ik dacht aan de nachten toen ik zong:
zo was ik met mijn hart
wij onderzochten:
heeft hij voorgoed losgelaten?
geldt de belofte niet iedere generatie?
Vergeet ook hij?
Al is het mijn kwelling,
ik denk aan jaren van zijn rechterhand,
spreek nog van zijn daden,
blijf zijn wonderen op mij nemen.
Zijn dag is de verborgene:
waar zie ik wat ik zeg?
Toch bent u de God
die de zonen van Jakob en Josef
noemden, toen zij nieuw leven kregen.
De wateren zagen u wel,
en beefden
tot in afgronden.
Uit de wolken
kwam zicht voort.
Komen uw stralen verder?
Uw weg blijft een zee,
uw pad een groot water.
U moet hen hebben geleid
als een herder, in de dagen
van Moses en Aaron.

--Lloyd Haft (uit De Psalmen in de bewerking van Lloyd Haft, Querido 2003; herdruk Uitgeverij Vesuvius 2011)

Als een vooraanstaand Nederlands dichter van aanzienlijke leeftijd zegt...(gedichten)

Als een vooraanstaand Nederlands dichter van aanzienlijke leeftijd zegt dat wij maar moeten leren accepteren dat ‘ook onze geschriften’ eens vergeten zullen zijn, denk ik: maar het ging toch om meer dan geschriften?


Niet wat wij penden –
wat wij openden:

een mond met o-,
oog met o-,

woord dat niets verwoordde,

gat in de muur,
venster, raam

dat door ons ademde waar wij
de spraak bestonden

want wij gingen niet alleen,
wij gingen aan,

daagden in de ogen.

Wat anders bracht hier
brood en boom, oog
en dood samen? 

Wij ja amen,
wij ja onze o.


Niet wij verzonnen de wonden.
Wij tastten naar gaten,
tikten zachtjes vlekken aan,

plekken waar ook het steen zou mogen
breken om te ademen.

En waar wij kwamen
waren ze;

wij zagen,
ontwaarden ze.

Waar wij kwamen
gingen ogen open,

kwamen in de stenen muren
ramen van steen.

Waar wij kwamen
waren ze.

En waar wij gingen
lieten we open.


Was er geen gat in de muur geweest
dan was er onder ons geen raam
gebleven – geen opening,

geen zicht waarbinnen
licht in lucht verkerend
tot een fluisteren geraakte,

raakt nóg aan het woord dat zal
ons laatste wezen.
Waar muren niet meer muren,

handen niet meer heffen –
zal nog klinken
muur, mens, hand

--Lloyd Haft (verschenen in Roodkoper 15: 1, februari 2011)