Polishing a grubby art, Duncan Campbell

The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He
Mike Johnson (retrans)
Titus Books, $42.95,
ISBN 9781877441035

By all accounts, the Chinese poet Li He, who died in 816 at the age of 26, was the oddest of the major poets of the Tang dynasty (618-907). He was known in his own times (a label that stuck) as the “daemonic genius”. Du Mu (802-52), a fellow poet, noted of him in a preface to the earliest collection of his poetry and quoting Li’s great patron Han Yu (768-824) that:

deserted kingdoms, ruined palaces, withered grass and grave mounds do not serve fully to express the extent of his rancour and his sorrow; whales spouting and sea turtles whirling, oxen ghosts and snake spirits do not adequately express his air of unreality, of wildness, of extravagance and of illusion.


Picking up on this motif of eccentricity, another contemporary poet, the incomparable Li Shangyin (d. 858), offered the following vignette of the poet and his method:

Gaunt of stature and with connecting eyebrows and long fingernails, he could chant bitterly and wrote at great speed … . Unlike others, he would never compose a poem having first settled upon a topic …. By day, astride a jaded donkey and with an old tapestry bag strung across his shoulders, a young slave boy in tow, he would set out, jotting down a line or two about whatever he happened to encounter and tossing these scraps into his bag. Upon his return home at night, his mother would have a maid bring her the bag and upon opening it up and seeing how full it was, she would exclaim: “My son seems intent on vomiting out his heart before he will desist!” Once the lamps were lit and he had been served dinner, he would take what he had written from the maid, grind his ink and ready his paper, complete the poems he had started that day, before tossing them into another bag. Only when dead drunk or in deep mourning would a day not be spent thus.


Li Shangyin goes on to say that, upon his deathbed, Li He was summoned away to the heavens by a man dressed in crimson robes and driving a carriage drawn by scarlet dragons, by command of the emperor, in order to write the inscription for the recently completed White Jade Pavilion.

This image, consciously crafted, was in large part designed to distance its author from the factional struggles at court that had so blighted Li He’s short life and which go some way to explain his uniquely dense and difficult poetic voice. (He was excluded from the examinations on the spurious grounds of a homophonic word taboo between the name of his father and that of the metropolitan examination, an unmitigated disaster for a man who took seriously his distant family connection with the ruling house.) More generally, it served also to express a level of discomfort that the tradition was to continue to experience with Li He’s poetry, both in terms of what it said (particularly its obsessive concern for death) and the manner in which it was written.

Even in the context of an age in which poetic language became increasingly intricate, he was regarded as the consummate artist; in a poem not included in Mike Johnson’s recent collection, Li He speaks of: “Seeking a structure, picking a phrase, I have grown old polishing this grubby art.” At the same time, however, critics tended to find the products of this artistry to be overly personal in vision, and altogether too grotesque in diction. Nonetheless, and contradicting somewhat the 1100 years of neglect spoken about by Mike Johnson here, some 240 of Li He’s poems were gathered together soon after his death, to be published in various editions over the years and to attract a wealth of (often necessary if occasionally misguided) commentary. By an odd quirk of fate, in the late 1970s, he was even to become the first Tang poet to return to favour after the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao said of him in a letter that his poetry was “worth a read”. This was despite the fact that the label Du Mu had applied to Li He (“oxen ghosts and snake spirits”) was one that had been much employed in the preceding decade by Red Guards in their Big Character denunciations of all things traditional.

Since the 1970s, also, Li He has attracted the attentions of a number of English-language translators, including some of the most noted of the scholar-translators working in the field. Among these is Margaret South who once taught classical Chinese literature at the University of Auckland, where Johnson produced his collection. In his “Foreword”, Johnson, a poet and novelist who knows no Chinese, speaks of his translations as “re-creations” or “secondary translations”, as a “co-creative endeavour” whereby he worked from these earlier English translations of Li He’s poetry and scholarly commentaries on it. This procedure should occasion no surprise. One of these scholars, Angus Graham, has argued that the “best practitioners” of the art of translating Chinese poetry “have always been poets or amateurs working on the draft versions of others”.

This is certainly the case with this collection of 40 of Li He’s poems. Li He has never spoken in English with such force and with such effect. By reducing the weight of punctuation and capitalisation, relegating a limited amount of explanatory material to the back of his book, and excising from his translation parts of the originals that did not lend themselves to translation, Johnson gives us a remarkable “new” Li He. His method is perhaps best seen deployed on his translation of an immensely difficult and important poem that he entitles “heart flower lotus” (usually entitled “Self-Mockery”) and which stands at the heart of this collection (“still-born lusts meet a sad, unholy end/yet this woman’s beauty is its own rose”). However, such is the serendipitous magic of literary translation that, for instance, an otherwise quite unremarkable short poem entitled “Passing by the Palace in the Third Month”, the first line of which in a previous translation reads: “Moat water, vexed with red,/Isolates the palace”, becomes in Johnson’s hands:

the moat, blood red, reflects
a palace in spectacular decay
wind-seducing leaves
mirror the gestures of palace-girls
how many spring darlings seen
from behind drawn curtains
hair whitening to dust?
ten thousand years of pale days
locked away          

In an unnecessarily diffident note, Johnson tells us that:

Those readers of English in search of what Li He “really” wrote will not find it easy, for existing translations vary widely in tone, mood, language, interpretation and even in meaning of some of the poems. Our only recourse, I’m afraid, would be to learn Chinese.


A better way of understanding what is at issue here with this beautiful collection of old Chinese poems, newly minted and graced with the occasional calligraphic version of the originals, is T S Eliot’s comment, in his “Introduction” to a 1928 selection of poems by Ezra Pound: “good translation … is not merely translation, for the translator is giving the original through himself, and finding himself through the original.”


Duncan Campbell is a translator who teaches classical Chinese literature at Victoria University of Wellington.


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