Thursday, December 17, 2015

A mad poem addressed to my Nephews and nieces

A mad poem addressed to my Nephews and nieces

by Po Chu-i (772-846)

Translated by Arther Waley

The World cheats those who cannot read;
I, happily, have mastered script and pen.
The World cheats those who hold no office;
I am blessed with high official rank.
Often the old have much sickness and pain;
With me, luckily, there is not much wrong.
People when they are old are often burdened with ties;
But I have finished with marriage and giving in marriage.
No changes happen to jar the quiet of my mind;
No business comes to impair the vigour of my limbs.
Hence it is that now for ten years
Body and soul have rested in hermit peace.
All the more, in the last lingering years
What I shall need are very few things.
A single rug to warm me through the winter;
One meal to last me the whole day.
It does not matter that my house is rather small;
One cannot sleep in more than one room!
It does not matter that I have not many horses;
One cannot ride on two horses at once!
As fortunate as me among the people of the world
Possibly one would find seven out of ten.
As contented as me among a hundred men
Look as you may, you will not find one.
In the affairs of others even fools are wise;
In their own business even sages err.
To no one else would I dare to speak my heart.
So my wild words are addressed to my nephews and nieces.

This poem was written in 835AD when the great Chinese poet Po Chu-i was in his late sixties. In Imperial China everybody who could read and write tried to get into the civil service. Those who succeeded were guaranteed a job for the rest of their working days and a substantial pension at the end of them. This is a lovely poem about contentment in life (As fortunate as me among the people of the world/ Possibly one would find seven out of ten./As contented as me among a hundred men/Look as you may, you will not find one). 

Since there is an element of boastfulness in what he says,  it may not all be literally true in the factual sense. But the poet is certainly right in asserting that contentment is the principal ingredient in every happy state.

Thursday, December 10, 2015



Kaneko Mitsuharu 

Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwait

In my youth
I was opposed to school.
And now, again,
I’m opposed to work.

Above all it is health
And righteousness that I hate the most.
There’s nothing so cruel to man
As health and honesty.

Of course I’m opposed to the Japanese spirit
And duty and human feeling make me vomit.
I’m against any government anywhere
And show my bum to authors’ and artists’ circles.

When I’m asked for what I was born,
Without scruple, I’ll reply, ‘To oppose’.
When I’m in the east
I want to go to the west.

I fasten my coat at the left, my shoes right and left.
My hakama I wear back to front and I ride a horse facing its buttocks.
What everyone else hates I like
And my greatest hate of all is people feeling the same.

This I believe: to oppose
Is the only fine thing in life.
To oppose is to live.
To oppose is to get a grip on the very self.

Mitsuharu Kaneko (1895–1975), one of the most prominent poets of twentieth-century Japan, is unique in many different ways.  He was arguably the only poet in Japan who continued to write anti-war poems during the Second World War. In addition, he was an outsider to the homogeneous Japanese society, spending many years abroad and, more importantly, retaining the eyes and mind of an exile even after returning home. Furthermore, Kaneko was exceptionally intellectual for a Japanese poet, although his vast knowledge of classical Chinese and Western literature was usually concealed by his unpretentious, down-to-earth style.

This poem reflects his anti-establishment and rebellious attitude to everything that is considered as normal by the vox populi.  Each stanza in the poem debate antithetical urges of  the poet and expresses his disdain of all conventions. His outlook is summarised by the lines, “When I’m in the east, I want to go to the west”. These lines suggest his constant longing for what he isn’t already exposed to.

The key to understanding the poem is in the final line, “to oppose is to live”. By opposing against the default lifestyles that have been defined by society as “normal”, a person is able to see the world and live a life from a different perspective and give expression to his true creative urges. Over the years, society has established what is considered as the “normal” way of life. Society established schools, ethics, and what is known to modern man as “right” or “wrong”. The way the world works has mostly to do with what has been created by people as part of different evolutions and revolutions. To subjugate oneself to traditions, rules, conventions and customs is to tame one’s innate spirit. It is this aspect that the poet passionately pinpoints here.

The final line of the poem poignantly expresses his defiant spirit: “To oppose is to get a grip on the very self. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” bears some similarity in its theme to this one.

Friday, December 4, 2015

From the Stoop

From the Stoop

By Tarjei Vesaas
Translated by Roger Greenwald

The shadows creep in across the clearing
like cool, quiet friends
after a burning day

Our mind is a silent
kingdom of shadow.
And the shadows creep inward
with their friendly riddles
and their twilight blossoming.

The first shadow-tips
reach our feet.

We look up calmly:
Are you here already,
my dark flower.

Tarjei Vesaas, one of Scandinavia's greatest fiction writers, has been less well known as a poet. Roger Greenwald, the leading translator of Scandinavian poetry, has impeccably translated Vesaas’ poems in the award winning book ‘Through Naked Branches’.  Tarjei Vessas’  poems are often narrative and carry  symbolistic overtones even when the apparent canvass is rooted in rural landscape. There is a sense mystery and an element of angst apparent in many of his poems. His poems are intuitive and allusive in their theme and development. Aspects such as man’s alienation, search for meaning, gloominess of existence, death, search for meaning in life are captured more with an acute aural sensibility than visual (Roger Greenwald  states in his insightful introduction that Vesaas is more fascinated by the mute and aural elements in nature than visual)  in many of his poems. Through his allegiance to Norwegian  Oral traditions, Vesaas crafts stunning and deeply perceptive poems with sparse vocabulary, pregnant pauses,  mystical and associative imageries, murmurs and assonances. 

This poem starts on a benevolent tone and gradually builds up with playful adjectives and imageries (friendly riddles/ twilight blossoming)  to a somber finale with that racking question –‘Are you here already, /my dark flower.’

From : Through Naked Brances : Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas. Translated by Roger Greenwald. Princeton paperbacks

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


by Mei Yao-ch'en
translated by David Hinton
If I stay home, the gloom only gets worse,
so I go out and wander the festival for fun,
but rich and poor alike stroll beside wives,
driving any joy further and further away.
Once you’re old, anything’s overwhelming
I want to keep on, but it’s wearing me out,
so I go back home to the children, and no one
says a word. You can smell the acrid grief.
Last year they went out with their mother,
smeared on paint and rouge just like her:
now she roams the Yellow Springs below,
and they’re dressed in tatters, faces dirty.
Remembering how young they both are,
I hide my tears, not wanting them to see,
push the lamp away and lie facing the Wall
a hundred sorrows clotting heart and lung.
Mei Yao-ch'en (1002–1060) was a poet of the Sung dynasty. He was one of the pioneers of the "new subjective" style of poetry named 'P'ing-tan' which became the touchstone of Sung poetry. 'P''ng-tan' literally means even 'even and bland' and 'ordinary and tranquil' for a P'ing-tan poem enacts the spiritual posture of idleness in the movement of the poem. Like this poem, it takes experience as it is, without straining to extract from it profound emotional insights. As a result, the poem tends to be realistic, plainspoken, free of exaggerated poetic sentiment, calm and subdued whatever the topic, descriptive and socially engaged.
Mei Yao-ch'en wrote many poems which are celebrations of ordinary life and also touching verses mourning the deaths of his first wife and several of his children. This poem mourns the death of his wife. He visualizes his wife wandering in the Yellow Springs (The Chinese term for Hades or the Underworld), while his children, in the absence of their caring mother, wander bedraggled and unkempt. The poem poignantly paints the plight of a soul saturated with sadness and also the lugubrious ambience that prevails in a home where the mother has passed away, leaving everything in disarray.
From : Calssical Chinese Poetry . Translated by David Hinton