In just a few short weeks, on November 8, thousands of Americans in at least nine cities will take to the streets to “scream helplessly at the sky.” You can probably guess the reason: It’s to mark the one-year anniversary of the election of Donald Trump.
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand
Bless what there is for being
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?
— W.H. Auden, “Precious Five”
In his book Destination Zero, Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, wrote a poem called “A Rose for Solitude” which contained a stanza that has always stuck with me:
And if, as I pass,
I should look you in the eye,
do not be afraid. I want
only to glimpse the emptiness
at the center of your heart,
I want to reach for you
because I know,
as you do,
we might never have met.
I discovered Hamill’s book Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry in a small bookstore twenty-two years ago. I picked up this pocket-sized book from a basket near the register, a glance through turned into absorption, and I sat cross-legged right there on the floor and read the whole thing before buying it. I’ve returned to it countless times over the years, enough so that the binding has loosened and pages have started to fall out. I can still recite many of the poems from memory, including one of my absolute favorites by Li Po, “On Dragon Hill”:
Drunk on Dragon Hill tonight,
that banished immortal, Great White,
turns among yellow flowers,
his smile spread wide
as his hat sails off on the wind
and he dances away in the moonlight.
(“Great White” was his courtesy name, and “banished immortal” was one of his many nicknames — more explanation here for anyone interested.)
For me, that is such a perfectly contained image, almost haiku-like. Innocent, intoxicated joy, surrendering to the moment, while subtly hinting at the tragic, fleeting nature of existence. I marvel at it every time I revisit it. And yet, where does Li Po end and Hamill, as a translator, begin?
Here’s the same poem as translated by David Hinton in Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, with the alternate title “9/9, Out Drinking on Dragon Mountain”:
9/9, out drinking on Dragon Mountain,
I’m an exile among yellow blossoms smiling.
Soon drunk, I watch my cap tumble in wind,
dance in love — a guest the moon invites.
Now, granted, I’m not a scholar, but speaking just as a sentient being with a rudimentary sense of appreciation for rhetorical rhythm and imagery, what the hell is that? I’m tempted to say that Google Translate could have made it sound less awkward and stilted. And granted, I probably imprinted on Hamill’s versions of these poems to the point where I could never be fair to any competing translations, but I don’t see how anyone could honestly prefer Hinton’s. If Hamill’s version conveys graceful, flowing, dance-like movement, Hinton’s steps on its own shoelaces and does a faceplant.
It’s frustrating as a lay reader, having to depend on intermediaries for interpretation. The tendency upon finding a translation that resonates deeply is to cling to it like a drowning man to a life preserver. I don’t want anything to spoil what feels to me like revealed truth. Similarly, with Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy’s majestic translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, I’ve refused to even look at any other versions. How could they improve on perfection? Even if you told me that neither Barrows or Macy knew how to read German and actually made up their “translations” out of thin air (like Stephen Mitchell’s version of the Tao Te Ching), I’d shrug and reimagine the poems as Barrows and Macy’s work “as inspired by” Rilke. I still wouldn’t care enough to go read an “authentic” version to see what he really meant.
I kid — sort of — but I do shudder to think what I might have missed had I read Hinton’s translations first and concluded that Li Po was too much of a tongue-tied dimwit to bother with. So much beauty in that book, so much recurring joy those poems have given me, and yet, like the man said, we so easily might never have met.
The concept of Rationalia began when Taylor Milsal insightfully mentioned at a cocktail reception of the Starmus Science Festival in Spain’s Canary Islands (July 2016) that, perhaps, a new virtual country should be created: “Rational Land”, containing member states that, by and large, embrace rational thinking in their conduct and policies. This idea was prompted by how much irrational conduct currently drives world politics.
Goya warned us that
monsters rise when reason dreams.
Neil deGrasse Tyson,
with “the evidence”
brandished like a crucifix,
strides on, unafraid,
into that dark night.
Superstitions like the rest,
history’s ghosts are
banished with a snort
of contempt. Enlightenment’s
glow will permeate
all dark corners of
the mind, the heart, the halls of
power. Let it shine!
Oh, the irony,
the poor Cassandra critics,
their words unheeded.
It turned out that his
idea of reason is
The kind of proof he
wants to see is only found
It’s almost as if
evidence is an inkblot
not a diagram.
But this study reminds us that there is a vast difference between knowingness and knowledge. Knowingness can be achieved simply by scanning your Twitter account. Knowledge requires more discipline, direction, and—the quality perhaps most absent on social media—patience. Knowledge is power; knowingness, by contrast, risks creating a world of Know-Nothings.
Trash collected by the eyes and dumped into the brain;
Discriminate, said Schopenhauer. Learn when to abstain.
(He might say, were he here today, of media old and new:
Give a book a face and it might gaze back into you.)
Monkeys chatter, bluebirds tweet. Withdraw and go your way.
Restore your soul with knowledge and let knowingness decay.
He asked if the books were for class. I told him they weren’t. He asked if I was selling them. I told him I wasn’t. He asked why I had so many.
“Because I’m reading them.”
“All of them?”
“Why carry them all? Why not just get a Nook or a Kindle?”
A trap, Yahdon! Don’t answer that!
His premise is flawed. The logic is pat.
Resist the urge to justify;
Instead, reply with Bartleby,
“I would prefer not to.”
Turn the tables, flip the script,
No, flip the tables, scatter wide
the coins of realm, and thus equipped
with self-respect, retort with pride,
“What sort of man are you?”
Why truckle like a serf to please
the monarchs of our modern age?
Convenience and Efficiency
still lock their subjects in a cage
with no aesthetic view.
Why trickle like a stream pursuing
least resistance to the sea?
One of us should be reviewing
options, but it isn’t me.
Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?
Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich, while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.
Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?
Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.
You know I lurve me some Sam Hamill. Interviews with him aren’t exactly in abundance either, so I have to give thanks to 3QD for being the type of site to publish one of them. (Like I said before, you might want to consider supporting them if you’re able; they do some great work.)
It is in the nature of poetry to be short. If we agree with James Wood that a poem is “the most realized form of intention,” then brevity becomes an important part of the point. Heaney’s claims for poetry, for the government of the tongue (and other poets have made equivalent claims), become in this way also a claim for the poetic aesthetic, for the fact and promise of brevity. In this way, poetry does not become the only way to regard life, but it does become the pithiest and richest way to marry experience, language and meaning. It highlights the point that new experience, the experience of new knowledge, is, by definition, invariably brief. The knowledge stays with us, but the first encounter with — and the apprehension of — such knowledge happens immediately. Immediacy is the point of phenomenology. Immediacy equals intensity. Intensity is one of the purposes of life.
But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. We see Mr. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”
Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.
Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)
So this dude really hates the movie Dead Poets Society. Some of his complaints seem rather uncharitable, but stewing over a movie for a quarter-century can curdle a fellow’s spirit, I suppose. At any rate, I can see one of his points. If I read a poem that grabs me, even if only a certain section of it, I consider it, well, almost a courtesy to find out what the author intended to convey. I’ve long thought that it was a shady dodge when, say, lyricists are deliberately ambiguous about a song’s meaning, saying that it’s more important what the listener makes of it. Goddammit, I already know what I think; that’s not interesting to me at all. I want to know what you were thinking when that came out, I want to be possibly surprised with a different perspective. You were the master craftsman who created that phrase, so I feel like I owe it to you to take a moment and try to inhabit your worldview. This has been a constant theme in my criticism of the SNR phenomenon — look to occasionally challenge what you think; don’t just reinforce it. Whether you’re reading a book or studying an exotic belief, don’t just look for the parts that echo what you already think.
But this pedantic table-pounding over how wrong, completely wrong it is to take a phrase out of context and thereby change the implications of it, well, isn’t that just another form of linguistic prescriptivism? Is that essentially any different than grammar and vocabulary snobs pursing their lips and clenching their buttocks every time popular usage plucks a word away from its roots and pins it upon a lapel? Not to get all postmodernist up in here, but isn’t language and meaning a bit more unstable and free-flowing than that? Granted, it can be annoying to hear a bastardization of meaning due to lack of effort and attention (as a Nietzsche fan, I know this all too well), but on the bright side, doesn’t that just open up an opportunity for a scholar to present an in-depth, soon-to-be-viral article about how “Everything You Think You Know About Whitman And Frost Is Wrong”? And isn’t that spark of passion for the way words can move you the necessary precursor to caring enough to study poems and literature more in-depth?
Besides, the movie, as I remember it, was more broadly about the idealism and romanticism of youth on the brink of conflict with “the way things really are” (possibly about the romanticism of “golden age” myths, too, e.g. “kids today don’t know or care about poetry the way we did in my day…”). Poetry was more proximate than ultimate subject. Keating was attempting to get these high school kids to passionately care about something before the responsibilities of adulthood smothered the opportunity, and poetry happened to be the vehicle he used in this setting. Knox, for instance, is inspired to pursue the girl he thinks is out of his league. Neil is inspired to defy his father and indulge his passion for theater. Todd, the meek wallflower, is inspired to simply assert himself for once. None of that required scholarly precision about a poem’s meaning. In fact, we can just go ahead and connect that final dot and note that Dettmar is actually doing exactly what he’s complaining about — reading his own perspective into the movie, making it say what he wants it to say. The story was about, as Rilke said, how
We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen.
Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
and look at one another, saying nothing.
Oh, wait, Rilke was specifically talking about the beginning of the 20th century, with an ominous hint that suggests an uncanny prescience about what tremendous upheavals were to come. Ye gads, what have I done? What sin have I committed against original context? What if, by giving a misleading impression of Rilke’s subject matter, I have set some poor reader up for eventual disillusionment? I can hear Dettmar’s buttocks furiously clenching from here.