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.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

In memoriam Lloyd Haft 漢樂逸墓誌銘

‘In life there are no fixities,’ Lloyd Haft often said. If anybody could know, he could. In 2004, sudden financial convulsions at his university enabled him to take early retirement from his job as a teacher of Chinese at Leiden – a job he had originally been offered after the sudden death of another staff member. By then he had already changed fathers, fatherlands, creeds...
        Even the supposedly fixed frame of a person’s life – the dates of birth and death – he dismissed as ‘perspective-dependent.’ In an article published in Tirade in 2007, he claimed he had changed his own horoscope retroactively by the manner in which he had lived his life. At times he gave his own age according to the Chinese reckoning which, depending on the time of year, made him one or two years older than a reader of his American birth certificate would say.
It typifies the man that even the most basic details of his decease, including its place and time, are still unavailable or still being disputed. ‘There are various ones of me,’ he had written; ‘and they will undoubtedly vary as to how long they last.’
        In his later years, he regarded neither the human being nor the cosmos as a unity. In his view, both were composed of many and various ‘being-components,’ inexpressible in language, which however exactly they came together, could give rise to very different constellations in time and space. He was aware of the similarity between this notion and the Buddhist concept of dharmas, but he rejected any ethical or moralistic explanation of how it all had come about.
        This brings us to a lasting inner ambivalence in Haft’s character. On the one hand, he admitted he felt ‘repugnance for his roots,’ and at times he went to maudlin extremes in demonstrating his supposed liberation from what he called ‘American moralism.’ Yet his own attitude in living was supremely moralistic, and he knew it. The moralism showed up in his rigid, at times downright arrogant rejection of activities and situations which he did not think contributed to his own or anyone else’s ‘consciousness’ (in his poems often called ‘light’). Throughout his poetry-reading life, one of his favorite lines remained the passage from William Carlos Williams:

...advance the light –
call it what you may!1

In any case, he did not regard himself as a nihilist; he even claimed he believed in God ‘in spite of it all.’ He often quoted Rilke to the effect that we never see God because God and ourselves are facing the same way, and the suggestion by Max Scheler that we should be ‘not slaves but friends and allies’ of God.
        Everydayness bored him utterly. He was interested in what he called ‘motives’; working them out in practice seemed to him banal and time-wasting. This explains his near-total lack of interest in novels and the theater. From the beginning, what he read and wrote were poems, mostly with a meditative slant.
        It might have seemed strange that Haft, who took badly to small talk and went out of his way to avoid ‘goalless gregariousness,’ should feel it was most meaningful to write poems in the language of his daily environment, which starting in 1968 was Dutch. But so he did. (Perhaps another motivation was also involved: the possibility of evading direct competition with the poets he had worshipped as a young reader in his native language.) He even translated his favorite American poet – Wallace Stevens – into Dutch, thereby making him his own (and maybe less unapproachably sacrosanct).
        But although his poetry in Dutch was well received, it proved difficult to find a Dutch publisher for his quasi-autobiographical stories and novellas. Modern Dutch publishers may have objected to his perennial tendency to foreground contemplation at the expense of ‘mere’ narrative. In any case, 2009 was a turning point in his career. At the very time that the manuscript of his collected stories was being rejected by more than one Dutch publisher, a Chinese publisher offered to come out with a translation of one of his earlier prose works: a strongly philosophical study of the modern Chinese poet Bian Zhilin.
It is not clear whether these developments played a role in the decision he took soon thereafter: to leave Holland and settle permanently in Taiwan. In any case, he began writing in Chinese. By 2008, the year in which Haft declared he could no longer accept any form of Christian belief, he was reading medieval Chinese philosophy. One of the key ideas he found in it was the indivisibility of spirit (as opposed to ‘the’ spirit). The idea that spirit does exist, but potentially everywhere as a quality which is not limited to or delimited by specific ‘bodies,’ probably provided the inspiration for one of his still-unpublished poems:

Prayer at Seaside

Thanks to the one
who let this sea appear,

maker here who never made
but brought together

out of all the strands: this sand,
this hour, this man,

end of all land:
two feet, one shore:

none need other.

In him we have lost a seeker, one who feared nothing so much as what many would call ‘finding’ – but is he really lost? Not according to his own words. He often said he positively looked forward to what he called ‘the coming through.’ A typical quote: ‘The question is not whether there is life after death, but whether the madhouse we’re in here and now is really worthy of being called life.’ And another: ‘The word “death” belongs to the vocabularity of fixities. I can’t tell you what it means. You won’t hear me talking about my own death.’
        On his gravestone (whose location is still a matter of dispute), the inscription is said to be his own version of John 1:9:

The light that comes into this world
with every one of us:
that light is true.

--Lloyd Haft [an earlier version of this piece appeared in Dutch under the same title in Tirade 438 (mei 2011), pp. 41-43.]

1 From the ‘coda’ to Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.