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). His most recent book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017.



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 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, December 18, 2014

If I Had to Edit the Bible


...there’d be some changes made. I would start by entirely omitting the Old Testament. I think two thousand years of trying to construe patriarchalism as spirituality has been enough. Look what it has done for us, or done to us...
       But then. The New. To begin with, I would delete practically all of the first two Gospels. I would make an exception for Chapters Five, Six, and Seven of Matthew so as to get the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer. (And why is the Lord’s Prayer so specifically important? My reference on this is a line from the philosopher Max Scheler: ‘God was not a father till Jesus called him one.’)
Of Luke’s Gospel, I would keep the beginning and the end, those being the sections which emphasize the primary role of women in the Salvation process.
Of John, the most or the only philosophical gospel, I would need to make a more extensive selection. It would certainly include the beginning of the first Chapter – but not without retranslating the all-important first sentence.
The traditional version, so well known that it is used and misused in all sorts of totally secular writings and contexts, is ‘In the beginning was the word.’ I do not have a scholar’s or even a good knowledge of  Greek, but I have studied this passage sufficiently to know that ‘word’ here is way wrong. It is one of the most influentially misleading translations ever made. Whatever exactly the Greek logos means here – and it can have many meanings – it certainly cannot be just ‘word’ in anything like the ordinary sense.[1]
My own version of that passage, the so-called Prologue, is this:

In the beginning was the sense
and the sense was of God,
bespeaking God from ever.

All things have become of that;
nothing not of that becomes.
And the sense is alive:

its life is the light of the human,
breaking the hold that the darkness would have had.

The true light comes into the world
with every one of us,

comes upon its world
that was not aware before:

the sense becoming human,
dwelling where we are.


Going on with John, I would maintain Chapters 15 and 17. By doing so, I would preserve the key passages about the relativity or transcendability of the human person – its ability to morph and merge, hence transcend, in resonance with another person or persons.
       But there are other chapters of John that I would also include – 4, 6, 8, 13, and 18, so as to include Jesus’ famous (or infamous) predicateless ‘I am’ sayings. I wonder if I could resist the temptation to retranslate them so as to sound even more as if they applied not only to Jesus but to every one of us who says ‘I am.’
       But then it would seem strange to exclude the other ‘I am’ sayings, so I suppose I would have to add Chapters 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, and 19. And would it then make much sense, having put in 16 of the 21 chapters of John, to leave out the other five? So, I guess I would maintain all of John.
       If you are now wondering ‘if you substantially leave out three of the four Gospels, why do you still call it The New Testament at all?’...I’ll just tell you the answer straight out. I do not believe the essential import of the New Testament really comes out in the so-called ‘story of Jesus’ or Synoptic Gospels (i.e. the first three). For me, it is in what comes after: in parts of John, in that thrilling and I think quite believable story we call the Acts of the Apostles, and in the superb, ever-haunting, humanly plausible Letters of Paul.
       I know that in many people’s minds, Paul is the great perverter (or great pervert – ‘didn’t he have something against sex?’) – the one who distorted a supposedly pure-and-pristine ‘real’ Christianity into an alien philosophy. To me, he is the one who made Christianity worth more than passing attention, more than the world’s so-manieth system of unworkable moral pronouncements based on myth-like stories of a bygone Wonder Worker. Paul brings up the side that was lacking in the Gospels: the inner and experiential dimension, the notion of a personal and psychological growth. Above all, he points us to a sophisticated notion of ‘body’ such that the mere individual ‘body of this death’ is subsumed in the surviving, still-growing Body of Christ in which we all, even now, participate. (If you don’t believe this, read 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and the one in which it is all ‘colossally’ expanded to include the cosmos – Colossians.)
       But what about the question of ‘authenticity’: whether the historical Paul of Tarsus was really the one who wrote the texts attributed to him? I say: ignore this. If you don’t, you will lose the glories of the Epistle to the Hebrews, including its Chapter Eleven, the so-called Faith Chapter, in which we are urged to carry on regardless, since even the great champions of faith in the Old Testament never really lived to see their faith fulfilled.
       Faith is not a matter of fulfilment. It is about a sense in living. The living of a sense. A sense that is known in the living of it.

--Lloyd Haft



[1] Obviously I am not the first person in history to think this. Erasmus, in one of his own versions, treated it as the Latin sermo, meaning something like ‘conversation’ or ‘discourse.’ Many Chinese versions use Dao which in the first instance suggests not so much a ‘word’ as an overall ‘way’ or ‘principle’ or ‘guiding view’ of something. The modern Dutch translator Pieter Oussoren makes it not ‘word’ but ‘speaking.’ The 20th-century Dutch theologian Miskotte once wrote ‘word is a happening between persons.’

Thursday, October 9, 2014

On Ongoing Presence


These days I miss, but am also very aware of the continuing presence of, my Spiritual Advisor. (She departed this physical frame about three years ago at the age of 78.) She was a non-resident or external member (the technical term is ‘oblate’) of a Benedictine monastic organization. Her monastic name was Mary Magdalene. In what follows I will call her Madeleine.
        Before her retirement, in worldly life Madeleine had been active in the world of education as a counselor, administratrix, and textbook editor. She was successful and well known in that world. All this fitted in well with her brand of spirituality, which I would say was of the Active Service rather than the Contemplative type. (Since my own natural bent is incurably the opposite, we sometimes had to work at translating our spiritual experiences into each other’s terms.)
She was tremendously critical of the official Catholic hierarchy and was not afraid to confront even high ‘prelates’ face-to-face. On one occasion, she was talking to one of our notoriously conservative Dutch bishops while both were looking at an Eastern Orthodox icon of the Crucifixion. This type of icon shows the crucified Christ flanked by his mother Mary and St. John the Evangelist, who is traditionally also called ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’[1] Madeleine said to the bishop: ‘You don’t like this one, do you? The ones closest to Jesus are a woman and a homosexual.’
        She once told me she believed Jesus himself had been bisexual. She was proud of the legends associated with her monastic namesake, the original Mary Magdalene, which say that she had been a prostitute. In general, she took a bread-and-butter rather than an exalted view of sexuality. I remember once when I ‘confessed’ to her that in my own prayers I much more often addressed myself to Mary than to Jesus, she said: ‘Well that’s just natural, after all, you’re a man and Mary is a woman!’
        But as far as I know, this matter-of-factness never implied anything outside the straight-and-narrow in Madeleine’s private life. She was a married woman and had vowed to interpret the traditional monastic vow of chastity as commitment to a ‘special’ relationship with her own husband. I think she was one of those people who are perceptively open to all manner of erotic potentials without falling into the trap of thinking they must be put into physical practice at any cost. Personally, I also thoroughly support both clauses of this traditional Pauline attitude (1 Corinthians 6:12) that all things are allowable but not all are expedient.
        The same practicality applied in her approach to etheric and mysterious and invisible things. She believed in them, hoped for them (isn’t that really the same?), and had no problem with her own role in making them actual. Regarding the human personality’s survival of bodily death, she told me frankly that while out driving her car, she often talked out loud to her long-deceased father. And as for the existence of God, to me her classic statement was ‘I just plain want God to exist!’
        Like many people in my church, at home she was liable to pray while standing in front of an icon on the wall. I can still see her (I never saw it objectively) getting up in the morning, feeling as she put it ‘amazed to be still alive,’ pouring her first cup from the automatic coffeemaker, stepping with that cup of coffee in her hand right up to the nearest icon, and greeting the Presence at the beginning of a new day.


--Lloyd Haft
October 2014



[1] The Bible passages used to support this association, whether or not they are historically valid, are John 19:26, 20:2, 21:7 and 21:20.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What My Religion Is


My religion is not a system of beliefs. It is a collection of practices.
The practices include attending mass, taking communion, prayer, reverencing images of the Mother of God, and abstaining (or trying to abstain) from certain behaviors which I think to be, at least for me, immoral.
The practices are not props or self-suggestive devices intended to reinforce or strengthen beliefs or ideas. They are not intended to (supposedly) ‘improve’ or ‘perfect’ me as a person, a member of society, or whatever. They are an autonomous area of experience to which I voluntarily subject myself because I don’t seem well able to do without it.
The practices do not lead to increased subjective certainty. They very definitely do conduce to an increased subjective acceptance of uncertainty.

--Lloyd Haft
September 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nog op het kerkhof staande (gedicht)


Waar weg is
beweegt het nog,

zie ik voor mij uit:
in wind boven de graven

vlam die flakkert.
Ik die hier nog handen heb

houd nu voor ons beiden vast
de ene kaars,

ene vlam,
eendere als toen wij samen

kwamen,
zagen,

waren.
Nu jij weg bent

houd ik je bij mij bewezen,
ik die mede bewogen

meega in weten:
hier

in de vlam die verteert en vergadert
zag ik je komen,

zie ik je gaan.


--Lloyd Haft

Monday, August 4, 2014

Writing from the Writhe


William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is one of my favorite poets. He is also one of my favorite people, which is of course not at all the same thing.
        Or...is it? In the long run, do I re-read his poems because I am inspired by his person, or do I semi-idolize the person because of what he wrote?
        I admire the man and his poems for the same reason: a particular quality of transcendence which for me is present in both.
        What? (I hear every sophomore saying)...Williams transcendent? Didn’t he write ‘no ideas but in things’?
        Yes, he did. And that notion, badly misunderstood, has been repeated ad nauseam and put poorly into practice by writers of the kind of poems that I call Fact Sheets – the endless, uncontemplative (and I would say not-worth-contemplating) passages of mere description that make so much twentieth-century American poetry so dull.
        But he also wrote:

Only the imagination is real!
        I have declared it
                time without end.
If a man die
        it is because death
has first
possessed his imagination.[1]

Not only the words are transcendent, or are about transcendence. Williams himself while writing them was already ‘transcending’ a series of huge health setbacks of the heart attack-stroke-cerebral hemorrhage kind. Normally we do not expect a survivor of strokes (that’s right, plural) to be still capable of writing poetry at all, let alone writing what many think is his finest and most lasting work. But Williams did it. As I see it, there was something in him that still wanted so badly to write those late poems that even serious paralysis could not deter him. And the result was so successful that scholars ever since have been studying and analyzing the ‘variable foot’ or ‘triadic-line’ form, characterized by very short lines, in which he wrote them.
        Not long ago I ran across what was for me an intriguing added perspective on this. In his very well-thought-out 1973 book William Carlos Williams: The Late Poems,[2] Jerome Mazzaro surmises that it was not despite but because of the strokes that Williams wrote in this form: ‘Since the conscious discovery of the line coincided with a recovery from a cerebral attack, there is some reason to connect the two...the new line may well have been devised to compensate for the physical effects of the strokes which made it difficult for the poet to return his gaze quickly to the left margin of a page. The staggered margins of the triadic line were almost imperative as a corrective...’[3]
        This idea – that the form in which Williams expressed his soaring thoughts, which later attracted all manner of highfalutin scholarly analysis, was in fact due to the mere mechanics of bodily disability – reminds me of a parallel case, again involving one of my very favorite writers.
        John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) has often been called one of the greatest 20th-century novelists in English, but to me he is one of the all-time great writers of Autobiography in the true sense. What I mean is that he writes real auto-BIO-graphy, i.e. an account of his life, not just the surface living of it. This is exactly what is so lacking in so many books of the ‘autobiography’ or ‘memoirs’ type. I call them Laundry Lists because their authors evidently think they are doing enough simply by screen-dumping an accumulation of facts – ‘and then I went there and then I did that.’[4] Who cares about all the theres and thats if they never turned out to mean something to somebody?
        If I began giving examples of ‘transcendent’ quotes from Powys’ works, the list might never end. There is something in the whole tenor of his writing that somehow lifts you right up out of the workaday chair. But if we must have an example, let it be: ‘...everything which the mind touches is modified and changed by the mind.’[5]
        As for Powys’ writing style, again many things might be said, but the one feature everybody agrees on is his penchant for writing very long sentences. As Brahms is the master of the long phrase in music, Powys is the supreme practitioner of the long sentence in English.
        This feature, like William Carlos Williams’ ‘triadic’ form, has not escaped medical diagnosis by an admiring biographer. One of the most ‘remarkable’ (I’ll just say) books about Powys is the study written in Flemish by Ernst Verbeek, a former professor of psychiatry at Ghent University in Belgium.[6]
        I doubt Verbeek’s book is very well known even in the tiny countries where Dutch or Flemish is read. My own copy was discarded by a major public library two years after its publication in 1989, and it seems not to have been translated into English. For a while Verbeek was investigating epilepsy in relation to psychiatric symptoms, but his work in that field was not uncontroversial. Besides the biography of Powys, he wrote a number of other ‘pathographies’ – studies of writers from a medical and psychiatric angle – on Samuel Johnson, Rimbaud, and Tolstoy among others.
        Verbeek [pp. 147, 208] cites evidence, which I personally find impressive, to show that Powys suffered from a chronic epileptic disturbance. One symptom of this was his ‘long, rambling sentences’. Fortunately, though Verbeek takes a medical view of Powys’ ‘pathology,’ he is anything but denigrating or skeptical of Powys as a writer. On the contrary, the tone of his book is almost adulatory. The result of reading Powys is, he says on the last page, a sense of ‘spiritual cleansing.’
        Let’s be thankful that in this world there are not only Fact Sheets and Laundry Lists preying on our attention and trying to distract us from the very thought of anything better. There are also a few good Pathographies. What we learn from them is that we need not rack our minds trying to figure out exactly how to transcend. Our body itself cries out for transcendence, and in doing so it supplies us with, prompts us to use, whatever for us are the ways and means. For Williams, a shorter verse line which cuts away what was trying unduly to possess us. For Powys, a ‘rambling’ sentence which by its very length inaugurates a new time frame, sets a new stage, lets us see right out beyond the hedges.

--Lloyd Haft



[1] From the ‘Coda’ section of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.
[2] Cornell University Press.
[3] p. 79.
[4] A superlative example of the opposite extreme, a hyper-contemplative autobiography in which you really have to work hard to discern what a few of the facts of the life actually were or might have been, is C. G. Jung’s.
[5] from The Complex Vision, London: Village Press 1975, p. xiv.
[6] Ernst Verbeek, De goden verzoeken: John Cowper Powys, zijn persoon en zijn werk [Tempting the Gods: John Cowper Powys, His person and his work], Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1989.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sonnets by Zhu Xiang 朱湘十四行詩選譯

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 25)


Sonnets by Zhu Xiang 朱湘十四行詩選譯
translated by Lloyd Haft

Zhu Xiang 朱湘 (1904-1933) was one of the great pioneers of modern Chinese poetry. In the years after World War I, Chinese poets were struggling to find ways of writing a new poetry that would go beyond the Classical Chinese tradition and do justice to modern developments in both language and thought. It was not easy for them to get an audience for their experiments. The prestige of Classical Chinese poetry, and its prominent social role in a Confucianist culture which exalted the written word in time-honored forms, made Western-style verse seem at first more like an amusement than a legitimate literary form.
        Among a small circle of young enthusiasts, however, Zhu Xiang had admirers. Widely read in both traditional and modern literature, he published his first book of verse in 1925. It might have seemed that he was on his way to a bright literary and academic career. His sensitive and disharmonious character, however, led him to break with one promising environment after another. Originally associated with Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 (1897-1931) as one of the ‘Crescent Moon’ group of poets, he eventually fell out with Xu and published vituperative attacks on him, calling him a ‘fake poet’ who wrote ‘banal’ and ‘nauseating’ verse. He tried going to America for study, but at both Lawrence University and the University of Chicago, he soon found reasons to quit school in protest. Returning to China to become a department head at Anhui University, he soon quit his job in anger. His marriage – ironically, a supremely traditional match which his parents had arranged for him even before he was born – proved disastrous, and at the age of 29, unable to solve the personal and financial problems that dogged him, he committed suicide.[1]
        Zhu Xiang’s strong interest in Western poetic forms is reflected, among other things, in his metrical translations of Shelley’s verse. His posthumously published collection The Stone Gate (石門集) includes 71 original poems in the sonnet form, making him the most productive Chinese sonnetteer of the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the 'sonnets,' like English Sonnet 6, deviate from the normal 14-line form in a way that is reminiscent of the 'curtal sonnets' of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The typography of the originals is rather strange: each sonnet appears as two blocks of seven vertically printed lines without stanza divisions, one block above the other. Symmetrical and neat though this arrangement was, it obscured the precision and intricacy of the stanza structures and rhyme schemes which Zhu Xiang had so carefully observed.[2] In the Chinese versions of the sonnets I have translated below, I have rearranged the typography so as to read horizontally and from left to right. I have done my best to edit the pronunciation, which is not always clearly legible in the original.


English Sonnet 6

If there had been no quake, there would remain
no precious ruins, records of Pompeii.
Columbus was a pirate: greed for gain
that gave us a bigger map, where more land lay.

The same Bible held millennia civilized
they almost murdered Galileo by.
Science fermented: hell grew authorized.
Saturn seen, disasters drop from the sky.

Hard to discern the cycle of man’s lot...
Growth from wreck, evil in good begot.

沒有地震,那滂佩伊故墟
便無從留下珍貴的文獻。
科倫布是海盜;他的貪慾
卻拏新版圖加上了地面。
「聖經」 撐起有千年的文化,
幾幾乎拿蓋里留給殺害—
科學釀成了地獄的批發,
都是土星見了,降下天災。
人事的循環太難於捉摸……
建設來自破壞,善產生惡。


English Sonnet 16

A single sickle moon bringing a couple of stars.
Cool. Unbound. The marketplace, on the night set:
a dog barks in the distance. Through the street’s heart, cars
rush but rarely; dimmed is care, quiet is fret.

Suddenly the breast is awash, an ancient longing swells.
And all around, an ancient scene, seeming sight
of wilds, frogs, willows, elms where the tiller dwells
and rivers unfold from foothills, out of the dew of night.

The mountain spirit whispers: there’s a stream about.
As if forever. Pine, pagoda. Cypress, shrine:
they welcome not the traveler, nor cast him out.
If he has come, let him sit on the stone incline

and gaze on the always far and ancient – I’m imagining,
facing a couple of stars and a single sickle shining.

只是一鐮刀的月亮,帶兩顆星,
清涼,灑脫,在市廛定下來的夜;
遠方有犬吠,車輛奔走過街心,
寥落的;擾攘與喧囂已經安歇。
古老的情思驀然潮起在胸頭,
以及古老的意境。仿佛有群蛙
搏動在原野內,榆柳,田舍河流
展開在夜露之中,在山麓之下。
山靈的喉舌微語著,一條山溪。
仿佛是終古的,松柏,寶塔,寺廟;
它們並不迎迓遊客,也不嫌棄,
要是他來了,坐在石磴上,閑眺。
總是這麼古老,悠遠的,我幻想,
對了兩顆星,與一鐮刀的月亮。


Italian Sonnet 2

I’d lay aside all wide of sky or sea
if you’d leave me but one small tenement,
the way a seed in the fruit’s core is pent,
to hide me from the outer world’s cruelty

and the true road of living let me see:
emerge reborn as pine cone’s subtle scent,
almond smooth, walnut rich but prudent.
Some go feeding the common gluttony,

some in spring sun overfly the peaks
and only then set roots and petal, slow,
after a hundred years reach out, clawed

(what their deep cry by day and night bespeaks)
to clench green, that ripened it not go:
and harden with that, while the four winds maraud.

我情願拿海闊天空扔掉。
只要你肯給我一間小房—
像仁子蹲在果核的中央,
讓我來躲避外界的強暴;
讓我來領悟這生之大道,
脫胎換骨,變成松子清香。
核桃內豐外嗇杏仁潤涼……
有的去給世人越吃越要;
有的,趁陽春飛越過山嶺
那時候,生根著葉起來,慢,
很慢的……百年後他伸手爪
[ 他高呼,低喚在黑夜,白天 ]
要抓住那青,成年不變換,
與那硬,任風在四邊騷擾。


Italian Sonnet 16

In curious dream’s arena I caught sight,
in body’s shell evolved, of two of me:
the left a singing, innocent beauty,
the right a sword dancer, robed in light.

Radiance on all sides guarded them with white
nor granted a single sorrow-splash entry,
yet sorrow added watering waves, musically,
to measure grander, mood more rich and right.

Of this frame’s remnants I’ll not deign to reck
– distinguish as ye may the ‘life,’ the ‘wreck’ –
for the eternal mates you’ve never found the word:

separate east and west their journeys seem.
Only in sky will song accord, in dream,
with the rise and falling of the shadow sword.

在一場奇特的夢裏,我瞧見
軀殼中化出來了一雙自我—
美麗,天真,左邊的她正唱歌;
右邊的,光芒繞體,他舞寶劍。
那護身的白光關照到四面,
不容煩惱灑的水絲毫透過,
同時,煩惱澆上音樂的波,
那情調更豐富,節律更莊嚴。
這一架的殘剩我毫不關懷;
儘由你們去分了,「人生,」「破敗!
你們抓不住那永恆的一雙……
雖說他們的途徑各自東西,
唯有在天空上,唯有在夢裏,
歌聲才叫得應那劍影低昂。


Italian Sonnet 22

Proffering its sixty rings of jade, the soul
pays its respects at the shrine of life, where true
and false – the variously carved blossoms – through
circling months and years are threaded whole.

The modest temple plays its earnest role:
all beings’ offerings are accepted, yet there do
remain but precious few, each strung onto
a necklace, or hung from a pavilion pole.

More than the sands in the Ganges, for all time
jade rings will be (be praised!), in fragrance,
in splendor and peace, in the reverence of descendants:

and even the souls be decked in lanterns green
while they gaze on old toils borne, old dreams seen –
till the whole body sinks in sweat and grime.

捧著六十塊圓璧,魂靈呈獻
有人生的龕上:有真也有假;
有精也有粗,那雕鏤成的花
盤繞過小周的月,大周的年。
並非無量大的,這廟宇莊嚴……
衆生的敬奉雖是全部收下,
存留的卻並不多;它們懸掛
在楹柱上,或是佩戴在胸前。
不作恆河的沙,長此有圓璧
〔這是多麼可欽!〕陪侍著芬芳,
光采,恬靜;長此供後人瞻仰;
魂魄也能燃著碧色的燈籠,
常來眺望往昔的辛勤,幻夢,
一直到全身頹圮入了汗泥。


Italian Sonnet 34

He shouldn’t have been born, the writer of verse.
I’ve duly undergone my share of shame,
swallowed the bitters of the human game –
compared to certain others, I’m the worse:

the Muse’s retinue. I’m not averse
to falling short of an Average Man’s name.
Whatever this heaven-given tongue exclaim,
it’s never of my own. The words are Hers.

Far be it from me to hope for more
as long as why one here endures this span
– that it was all for Her – the Muse infers.

Nor shall I be disturbed if man curse,
call me a beggar. For a goddess one can
never force; one only can implore.

作詩的原不該生下,
應分的我受盡羞辱,
又吃世間各種的苦—
比起有些人來,還差。
詩神的侍從,我不怕
遠離了作一個凡夫;
這天賜的舌頭說出,
並非我的,是她的話。
旁的我並不敢希望,
只要這番堅忍,詩神
能以知道,是爲了她。
我也不理會人唾罵
爲一個乞丐:向神靈
只好去求,不能勉強。


Italian Sonnet 52: “Homer”

Blind prophet! You who saw the light
in darkness – inseparable: two and one;
seeing the two-faced god: and seeing the prone
worshippers’ toning voice and shadowed sight

born of a single sound, a sound so slight.
You sang the riddle revealed by the god of the sun,
told of the expedition’s exultation
and how bitter returning wisdom’s plight,

told how life begins in a beautiful grapple –
and another kind of beauty when it’s done.
Between are storms and slaughters, mire and rest.

So it is, at the honored gods’ behest.
And when it’s finished?...Blind man, I mean their fun.
You’ve no idea. That’s another apple.

啊,盲目的先知者,看見光明
在黑暗之中,分不開,二而一;
又看見那一身兩面的神祇,
與頂禮膜拜者的聲調,形影。
一個聲音生的,便只是聲音—
你歌唱出日神所宣示的謎:
說遠征的「熱烈」是如何快意。
「智慧」的歸家又是多麼艱辛;
說人生開始於美麗的攘奪,
說人生終結在另一種美麗,
中間是風浪,屠宰,溷濁,鬆弛……..
如此,遵照了神祇們的意旨,
它完了……至於他們的那遊戲,
盲人,你並不知道怎樣結果。




[1] See the chapter on Zhu Xiang in my The Chinese Sonnet: Meanings of a Form, published in Leiden by the Research School of Asian, African, and American Studies, 2000.
[2] The edition I have used was published in Shanghai by the Commercial Press in 1935. My translations, used here with permission, have appeared earlier in The Chinese Sonnet: Meanings of a Form.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Great Mavericks of Chinese Poetry


(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 24)

Great Mavericks of Chinese Poetry


The above title for the following piece is, I realize, problematical. It raises questions: to begin with, aren’t all the ‘greats’ of poetry in some sense ‘mavericks’? No, at least not in China. In traditional Chinese culture, there is not this great assumption that the poet or artist must almost by definition be an Outsider. On the contrary, he or she is the model Insider. I have written a short piece on this called ‘On the “Revelations” of Art,’ which can be found in the March 2011 archive on this blog or at


        But more importantly, it might be normal to assume that the ‘greats’ of Chinese poetry, maverick or otherwise, are Chinese poets themselves. What I actually mean in this case is a couple of Western translators of Chinese poetry whom I consider great, but who for one reason or another are regarded by Western academics as mavericks, eccentrics, gate-crashers, unqualified fellow-travelers, or the like.
        I am referring to Ezra Pound and Johan W. Schotman. Pound (1885-1972) is of course one of the great 20th-century American poets; he also produced a full translation of the ancient Chinese Shijing 詩經 or Book of Odes.[1] Schotman (1892-1976) is the Dutch translator of Sji Tsjing: Het klassieke Boek der Oden.[2]
        These two outstanding mid-twentieth-century translators have some curious points in common. One: they were both involved with psychiatry. Schotman was a medical doctor who for years practiced psychiatry; Pound was a psychiatric patient and actually wrote his version of the Odes while in a mental institution.
        Two: both produced their translations of the Odes within an almost unbelievably short span of time. More on this below.
        Three, but this is entirely personal: I do not hesitate to say that taken as a whole, the Odes versions of both are better poetry than their original poems, again taken as a whole. I don’t think many Dutch readers of Schotman’s original poetry would argue with me on this point, but it is of course very bold and brash of me to say that Pound’s ‘ancient Chinese’ poems are actually better than his lifework the Cantos.
        Or...is it really? As early as 1961, the critic George P. Elliott published an article evaluating Pound, I think quite fairly, from various points of view.[3] He said Pound had been ‘oversold,’ and that the Cantos could be seen as a ‘large, occasionally splendid, disintegrating bundle of poetry and mutter.’ He recommended reading a radically short selection.
        The thing that originally inspired me to sit down and write about Pound and Schotman was that I found Schotman being treated unduly as a maverick. Not long ago, there appeared an extensive piece in Dutch about the history of Chinese literary studies in The Netherlands. It mentions many translators including myself...but not Schotman. I was sufficiently upset by this to contact the author, politely asking him what had happened to Schotman. The answer was that Schotman was ‘perhaps more of an occasional translator.’ I can only guess that in this case ‘occasional’ means he translated only a single book, albeit one 483 pages long that is the only full Dutch translation of a perennially-quoted classic which the Chinese themselves regard as the fons et origo of their poetic tradition.
        I suspect the real reason is other and more banal. It is that Schotman committed the Twin Sins of (1) not holding an academic degree in Chinese studies and (2) not being affiliated with a university.[4]
        As for Pound, I cannot begin to summarize the wide-ranging factors that enter into any attempt at evaluating him. Like Schotman, he was not academically trained in Chinese. Unlike Schotman, he was already recognized as one of the poetic giants of his generation decades before his work on the Odes. Politically, his standing was and still is debated – he lived in Italy and supported the Axis during World War II.
There is much good background material on Pound. I have at hand the biographies by Noel Stock, Humphrey Carpenter, and A. David Moody, and I particularly hope Moody’s second volume will come out soon. Mary Paterson Cheadle’s Ezra Pound’s Confucian Translations is an indispensable study of the specifically Chinese things. Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, though written in a tediously florid style, is also an excellent source of information on Pound and his writings including those based on Chinese sources.
        But confining our attention to Pound’s Confucian Odes when read and approached as poetry, I do not hesitate to say it is ‘great’ and my favorite among the author’s works.[5] It is the only version I have ever seen in English that I can take seriously as poetry. I think the necessity of working to the pre-existing frame of an ancient Chinese poem gave Pound a steadying counterweight to the manic brilliancies of his own mind. In most of his own Cantos there was no such guiding anchor.[6] The result was that the loyal reader – I am one of them – has to find, select, and treasure up limited passages in which the memorable high points are not drowned in what seems almost meaninglessly extended rambling.
Curiously, Carpenter says in his biography[7] that Pound’s version of the Odes was ‘made during 1949,’ which sounds as if the whole text must have been written inside a single year – phenomenally fast, I would say, for such good writing. (Carpenter does not share my enthusiasm for it; on the following page he says that although there are ‘many good passages,’ the ‘collection as a whole’ is ‘not the product of concentrated energy.’ I personally, as I have suggested, would rather apply that criticism to Pound’s original Cantos ‘as a whole.’)
        According to Schotman’s presentation of himself in Het Boek der Oden, the publication of his book in 1969 fulfilled the dream of more than half a lifetime. Proudly referring to his six years of residence in China, he relates how in the 1920s in Beijing he bought the Chinese classics in translations by Legge and Couvreur, resolving at an early stage to produce his own Dutch version of the Odes. He has ‘finally,’ he says, ‘after forty-six years, gotten around to it.’ Reviews in the Dutch media included one titled ‘Chinese “Bible” is Johan Schotman’s Lifework.’ In actual fact, according to a newspaper interview summary reproduced in Huussen’s biography,[8] most of the actual writing was done in a period of only thirteen months when Schotman was long since living in retirement in Holland. Speaking of ‘concentrated energy’! Dividing the total number of odes by the number of days in thirteen months, we arrive at a rough figure of 0.7 odes completed per day...an impressive tempo indeed.
        In any event, both Schotman and Pound initially found top-grade academic publishers for their versions. Schotman’s was published by Kluwer, a venerable house in Deventer, and Pound’s by the Harvard University Press. Schotman’s work was honored with a publication subsidy by the Dutch government Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work.
        But lest anyone think Schotman the ‘maverick’ had finally broken through into mainstream respectability, eventually the very fact that his book had to be reprinted led to what was probably a fall from grace in the eyes of intellectuals. The 1976 reprint was issued not by Kluwer but by Ankh-Hermes, well known as a publisher on esoteric and occult subjects. Their other books included the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Dao De Jing, and the I Ching or Book of Changes, none of which self-respecting academics in those days would have touched with a ten-foot pole.  
        But now, given that both these translators ‘had’ their knowledge of Chinese from unorthodox sources, let us look at an example of their work. Pound’s version of Ode 42 begins:

Lady of azure thought, supple and tall...

goes on to praise her:

...red flower flamed less
than thy delightfulness.

and says in reminiscing:

fair as streamlet did she pass.

In the original, the poem’s beginning makes no reference to ‘azure thought,’ or to any kind of ‘thought.’ The adjective used for the girl, jing , is usually translated in this context as something like ‘demure’ or ‘well-behaved.’ (In other contexts it just means ‘quiet.’) But in Pound’s theory of translation from Chinese, it is legitimate to take visual sub-components of the written characters into consideration as if they were independent characters functioning as notes or supplements to the text. In this case, for example, the character jing could be dissected into its left and right halves; qing is in itself a word for ‘blue,’ while zheng means ‘compete or struggle for’...so that together they might seem to be saying ‘blue struggling’ or ‘struggling for blue.’
        Pound himself did read this character this way. In his version of the The Great Digest or Da Xue 大學, one of the basic Confucian moral texts which formerly all Chinese students had to learn by heart, one of the first passages involves jing in the sense of ‘quiet.’ In Chinese, it is 知止, 而后有定, , 而后能靜...The classic translation by James Legge, titled The Great Learning, reads this as:[9]

The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to.

In Pound’s version, which pre-dates his Confucian Odes, this passage reads:[10]

Know the point of rest and then have an orderly mode of procedure; having this orderly procedure one can “grasp the azure,” that is, take hold of a clear concept...

In other words, in saying the ‘supple and tall’ girl was possessed ‘of azure thought,’ Pound was simply falling back upon his own understanding of what ‘quiet’ was: it was the attainment of a coveted ‘sky’-clear state.
        As for ‘fair as streamlet did she pass,’ this is an unusually suggestive case of how Pound sometimes threw in something he had seen in a dictionary even if it seemed contextually out of bounds. The original is 洵美而異. Legge[11] reads this as ‘truly elegant and rare,’ adding in a footnote that is ‘here, as often, an adverb, meaning “truly”.’ Another eminent translation, Bernard Karlgren’s which tries to avoid poetic pretensions and stick closely to the original, has ‘truly beautiful and remarkable.’[12] Both Legge and Karlgren take this phrase as referring not to the girl but to a gift, a reed, which she has given to the speaker who is the lyrical subject of the poem.
        In the Mathews Chinese-English dictionary, which was in standard use internationally in the mid-twentieth century and which Pound had at his disposal while working on the Odes,[13] there are three different definitions of. The first is ‘really, truly’; the second is ‘distant, remote’ – and the third is ‘water flowing out from a whirlpool’ or ‘a river in Shensi.’ It seems pretty clear that Pound took up the notion of ‘flowing’ or ‘river’ and applied it to the girl.
Schotman’s Dutch version reads this phrase as ‘fraai en ook heel zeldzaam,’ that is, ‘attractive and very rare as well.’ The words clearly refer to the gift, not the girl. So far so good. But in the passage which Pound made ‘...red flower flamed less/than thy delightfulness,’ Schotman seems to have done some dictionary-inspired emendation of his own. In the original, in 說懌女美 or ‘delighted in the girl’s beauty,’ it is perfectly normal Classical Chinese to read not in its present-day meaning of ‘speak, say, tell’ but as an alternate form of which means ‘enjoy, take pleasure in.’ This usage, and its relevance to this poem, is clearly mentioned by Mathews, which quotes both the original line and Legge’s ‘I delight in the beauty of the girl.’ But Schotman seems to have overridden this, choosing instead the modern Chinese meaning and expanding the passage into

Ik zei, toen zij me ’t rietje bood
hoe mooi ’k haar vond, hoe ’k hield van haar

which means

I told her, when she gave me the reed,
how beautiful I found her, how I loved her.

In the original as ‘correctly’ or academically read, there is no indication that the lyrical subject ever said anything to the girl. If this had been an examination question for a course in Classical Chinese, the teacher’s red pencil would have been justly wielded. Yet...we must assume Schotman knew what he was doing: in his Boek der Oden he appends a list of existing books against which he claims to have ‘carefully checked’ his translations, and one of them is Karlgren’s massive scholarly tome Glosses on the Book of Odes, which contains an extensive philological discussion of this very passage.
        In other words (I think), it was a case of the poet winning from the pedant. In his preface, Schotman points out that even the expert translations by Waley and Karlgren occasionally disagree, concluding that a translator who has empathetically ‘entered into the atmosphere and the sense’ of one of the Odes may well doubt that either of them has got it right.
        But in another respect, I suspect Schotman of having sided with the pedants of this world. It seems to me ‘remarkable,’ to say the least, that Schotman never so much as mentions Pound although his own book came out fifteen years later than Pound’s and I assume he must have been aware of it. Neither in his preface nor in the list of consulted translations does he offer any comment, positive or negative, on The Confucian Odes.
        Was Schotman, proud of his ‘establishment’ publisher and his subsidy from a government ministry, starting to feel that he had now won Insider status that he must uphold? Did he think it unscholarly or unseemly even to be drawn into discussion of an Outsider version like Pound’s?
        We’ll never know. He passed away in the same year (1976) that Het Boek der Oden was reprinted in the arcane-and-occult sector. And by now, it is liable to be only his fellow occasional translator who studies and admires him.

-- Lloyd Haft




[1] I will be quoting from the 1959 New Directions reprint The Confucian Odes: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius; the original publication was Harvard University Press 1954.
[2] Deventer: Kluwer 1969. In what follows I will be referring to it simply as Het Boek der Oden.
[3] ‘Poet of Many Voices,’ originally published in Carleton Miscellany vol. 2, summer 1961. I have read it as included in Ezra Pound: A Critical Anthology, edited by J. P. Sullivan, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1970. The words I quote are on pages 260 and 267 of that edition.
[4] There is an excellent biography of Schotman, and perhaps appropriately, it has its own kind of ‘maverick’ status: privately printed and available only from the author. A. H. Huussen jr., Johan W. Schotman, Oegstgeest 2011.
[5] It defies my imagination why L. S. Dembo, on the first page of his otherwise excellent The Confucian Odes of Ezra Pound (University of California Press 1963) called it a ‘minor work.’
[6] Notable exceptions are the so-called Chinese Cantos (nos. 52 to 61), described in detail by John Driscoll in his The China Cantos of Ezra Pound, Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1983. For some others, see Cheadle, pp. 220-221 and her Chapter 8 in general.
[7] A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, London/Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988, page 797.
[8] Huussen, sections ‘Voorlopige bibliografie...’ p. 20 and ‘Documenten’ p. 106.
[9] I am quoting from the one-volume bilingual The Four Books published in Hong Kong by Guwen Bianyi She in 1962, page 3.
[10] Quoted from Ezra Pound, Confucius, published by New Directions in 1951, page 29.
[11] in the five-volume bilingual set of his The Chinese Classics published by Hong Kong University Press in 1960: volume 4, ‘The She King’, page 69.
[12] Bernard Karlgren, The Book of Odes, Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1950, page 28.
[13] Cheadle, p. 48, says a copy of it was sent to Pound ‘in late 1946 or early 1947.’