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, 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. 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 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: 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’ 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 ‘ 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.’