A Few Notes on Nick Admussen's "I Am an Axe: Chinese Poems that Made English Poetry"
By Canaan Morse, published
Wednesday’s talk was given under a specific heading, the “Public Intellectual Series Number 1,” and therefore carried a mandate as well as a topic. I won’t say more to that standard beyond that its mandate was fulfilled by a clear, cohesive and relatively comprehensive lecture. Take “lecture” for its older meaning: that form of academic art that distinguishes the professors you remember from the ones you don't.
Before the talk started, Nick distributed to the audience a packet of twelve literary excerpts composed of Chinese poetry, English translations and Chinese-inspired original English poems. The list (copied directly):
Axe Handles, by Gary Snyder
Preface to Wen Fu, by Lu Ji, trans. Achilles Fang
Hearing a Bell in the Mountain Night, Chinese original (Zhang Shuo) and Nick’s translation
Nowhere to Go, Gone by Nick Admussen
Nine Quatrains of Casual Interests (the seventh), by Du Fu, Nick’s translation
In a Station of the Metro, Ezra Pound
DEATH BY WATER, from The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot
Drip from the Eaves, by Xia Jing, trans. Silvia Marijnissen
Allusion, by Nick Admussen
Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake, by Frank Bidart
Ballad of Lovely Women, by Du Fu, trans. David Hawkes (!)
I Had Come to the Four-Doored Room, by Nick Admussen
With excerpts in hand, he took us on a tour of the unique qualities of Tang Dynasty poetry—parallelism, condensation, allusion—that segued into the historical connection of Chinese poetry with English-language poets. Then the influence of Chinese poetry in English from translation to rendering to new subconscious—that is to say applied—effects. I’ll warn you now that I am a poor listener, and there will be plenty lost between the cup and the lip.
In The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound cites his student Basil Bunting’s “greatest contribution to contemporary criticism,” which he “found while fumbling around with an old German-Italian dictionary,” namely:
DICHTEN = CONDENSARE “Dichten” being the German verb "to compose poetry."
The realization of this truth in Tang poetry occupied the first station in Nick’s talk. Language with all of the prepositions, conjuctions, time indicators, all of the fat and ligaments gone; the above suggested by the guidelines of parallelism (this I particularly appreciated, the point that parallelism is a tool for creating syntax, because I’d done it but never been conscious of it as such); art formed in the empty spaces. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been saying this to myself for years, and it was energizing to hear somebody else say it. To summarize, the poems highlighted in the first third of the talk—Hearing a A Bell in the Mountain Night, In a Station of the Metro, Axe Handles, Nowhere to Go, Gone, and Nine Quatrains of Casual Interests were meant to suggest the extent to which Chinese poetry moved English poetry away from the long narrative form toward DICHTEN = CONDENSARE.
Du Fu’s Nine Quatrains of Casual Interests: Number Seven Nick had pieced out into a one-word-per-character draft and followed with a linked translation. In the interests of space I’m going to spare you the draft and give the original and the last translation.
Willows scattered on the narrow path spread flowers in a white carpet;
lotuses dotting the creek repeat their leaves in copper coins.
Among the bamboo roots, a pheasant’s offspring goes unseen by human eyes,
on the sand, little ducklings sleep beside their mother.
If Nick ever uses this again—it would make a good lecture for undergrads—may I suggest he consider adding Ma Zhiyuan’s “Autumn Thoughts” (秋思), which begins: 枯藤老树昏鸦，小桥流水人家 (Dry vine, old tree, evening crow; small bridge, flowing water, a home), a great example of creating verbs with empty space.
He moved up from the first major platform of the lecture with one of his own poems, “Nowhere to Go, Gone,” which was inspired by “Hearing a Bell in the Mountain Night” and was an experiment in “language with all the time words taken out,” as is the case in that poem. But, Nick, English is an inflected language, so time is narrated internally through verb tense instead of by independent particles and context. Poetically speaking, English verbs carry their own time, while characters are timeless. Wouldn’t true imitation of the Chinese voice require us to somehow free ourselves from tense?
In the second stage of the talk, Nick looked briefly at the problem of allusions in Chinese poetry, particularly what to do with pieces of information that demand the footnote that kills the presentation. His observation that problems like this produce poetry piqued my interest, though my own interpretation diverged from his intent; I thought he meant that, necessity being the mother of invention, obscure references forced the translator to be inventive. Instead, he produced an original poem of his called “Allusion,” which was inspired by the problem.
I might complain that this portion was heavy on roundabout description and fairly light on practical insights, but as I gradually come to understand the extent to which general artistic problems can only be approached through personal solutions, I become more grateful for examples than advice. Thus, Nick’s introduction of David Hawkes’ ＊A Little Primer of Tu Fu*, a text which this layman had never heard of before, was (or should be) significantly valuable. Apparently, the ‘Primer’ approaches the problem of exclusive background from quite the opposite direction that we contemporary translators do, i.e., it moves into every detail unique to a Du Fu poem instead of moving away from it. And guess what? It was reprinted recently, which strongly suggests that people are still reading it. Let us not be too hasty to repeat Herr Goldblatt’s words and dismiss all kinds of annotations.
After annotation came interpretation. How does the translator make the language fit, or the poet, who is once removed from the original? What happens to the thing itself? The centerpiece of this last section was Du Fu’s 《丽人行》Li Ren Xing, as translated by David Hawkes and then re-envisioned by contemporary poet Frank Bidart in his poem “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake.” Again, space concerns make it impossible to put either of these texts up here, although you can find Bidart’s piece on several websites, like that of the Boston Review. Hawkes doesn’t seem to be available; I’ll put up an excerpt later if I have the time. The work of analyzing 《丽人行》together with David Hawkes and Frank Bidart is deserving of its own post and I won't shortchange it here.
For me, the most memorable phrase of the entire lecture came at right about this point: “Almost all contemporary American poets of note are university professors.” It struck a ninth chord somewhere in my chest cavity that I have a hard time explaining or admitting to.
Looking over this summary, it still looks like a sheaf of incomplete notes and disorganized thoughts; but I figured that if I didn’t put it up soon it would be too late. The attention span of the internet is so short.