AN IDLE 9/9 AT HOME
By T’ao Ch’ien
Translated by David Hinton
Spending an idle 9/9 at home, I think fondly of how the day’s name sounds like it’s saying ever and ever. Autumn chrysanthemums fill the dooryard. But without wine, their blossoms promising ever-lasting life are useless, so I trust my feelings to words.
Life too short for so many lasting desires,
people adore immortality. When the months
return to this day of promise, everyone
fondly hears ever and ever in its name.
Warm winds have ended. Now, dew ice-cold,
stars blaze in clear skies. And though
the swallows have gone, taking their shadows,
calling geese keep arriving. Wine dispels
worries by the hundred, and chrysanthemums
keep us from the ruins of age. But if you
live in a bramble hut, helplessly watching
these turning seasons crumble – what then?
My empty winejar shamed by a dusty cup, this
cold splendor of blossoms opens for itself
alone. I tighten my robe and sing to myself,
idle, overwhelmed by each memory. So many
joys to fill a short stay. I’ll take my time
here. It is whole. How could it be any less?
T’ao Ch’ien (365–427 A.D.), also known as T'ao Yuan-ming, stands at the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition like a revered grandfather: profoundly wise, self-possessed, quiet, comforting. T’ao was the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own. And in the quiet resonance of his poetry, a poetry that still speaks today’s language, they recognized a depth and clarity of wisdom that seemed beyond them.
T’ao Ch’ien dwelled in the Great Transformation (ta-hua), earth’s process of change in which whatever occurs comes “of itself” (tzu-jan: literally “self-so,” hence “natural” or “spontaneous”). But T’ao was much more than a romantic enthralled with the pastoral. He settled on his secluded farm because earth’s Great Transformation was perfectly immediate there, because there he could live life as it comes of itself, as it ends of itself. When he spoke of leaving government service and returning to the life of a recluse-farmer, he spoke of “returning to tzu-jan.” He took comfort in death as an even more complete return, a return to his “native home.” Although he grieved over loss and dying because he knew the actual to be all there is, he also knew that whatever is alive, himself included, ceases to be as naturally as it comes to be.
T’ao’s return to tzu-jan was also a return to self. His poems are suffused with wonder at the elemental fact of consciousness, and at the same time, his poetry of dwelling initiated that intimate sense of belonging to the earth which shapes the Chinese poetic sensibility.
I hope the above poem written on the day 9/9 of Chinese Calendar exemplifies all the essential aspects of his poetry. How many of us feel the whole in the surrounds we live?
Ref: Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien. Translated by David Hinton. Copper Canyon Press