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THE SELECTED POEMS OF DU FU, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, 174 pp., $17.50 (paper).

Du Fu (712-770 A.D.) is one of the most honored of Chinese poets. He has been called (by Kenneth Rexroth who early translated him) one of the greatest poets “who has survived in any language.”

He is certainly one of the earliest. To lend a parallel time frame: the year Du Fu was born Japan was just compiling its first “history,” the “Kojiki”; when he was 40 the first version of the enormous Todaiji Buddha was being cast; the year he died Japan’s first major poetry collection, the “Manyoshu,” was being compiled.

Some 1,400 poems have been attributed to him, although his fame rests on a mere hundred or so. The poems’ excellence is attributed to his masterly mix of both literary and demotic language, his unusual realism, his virtuosity in combining all the poetic forms then available, and his innovative and experimental style.

To this description his present translator, Burton Watson, adds “profound moral sincerity.”

On the river, day after day so much rain — dreary, desolate, the Jing-Chu autumn.
High winds strip the leaves from the trees; through the long night I hug my marten-fur coat.
Political accomplishments? I stare at the mirror.
Wisdom in conduct? Alone, I lean from an upper floor.
In these perilous times, how to repay my Sovereign?
Old and frail, I can’t stop thinking of it.

Hugging his very realistic coat (marten, no less), he is, at the same time, concerned with idealistic speculation — in this case Confucianist, the debt owed those in authority. But the sincerity that Watson notices is not restricted to political concerns.

I lie on my back, river pavilion warmth, intone poems, gaze over the fields.
Flowing water — my mind doesn’t try to keep up;
lingering clouds — my thoughts match their slowness.
Silently, silently, spring about to end;
Joyful, joyful, each thing in its own nature.
Can’t go home to my old woods yet — to battle gloom I make myself write poems.

The wide swings of emotion in this poem (joyful, joyful, battling gloom) disdain the expected regularity of lesser poetry. Rather, we experience the extremes felt by the poet, which forced him to write poems.

Another poem, also on the river, is pure observation, something the poet prized and that later writers both in China and Japan would emulate.

River moon barely a foot or two away from us, a windblown torch lights the night, nearly third watch.
Along the sand, roosting herons bunched together, silent;
by the stern a fish leaps up, comes down with a smack.

In his introduction to this collection (135 poems in all), Watson — the pre-eminent translator of Chinese and Japanese poetry — talks about the sheer difficulty of rendering Du Fu into English. Indeed, “any attempt to achieve a translation of his poetry that is wholly satisfactory is an exercise in the impossible.”

True, but at the same time the poetry itself is so straightforward in its complicated way that the sensibility of the poet remains. As W.H. Auden said in another context (he was speaking of Constantine Cavafy), reading a poem in the original one may admire verbal manifestations “but when one is reading a translation, all one gets is the sensibility.”

And that, when as faithfully and fully interpreted as it is here, is often enough to bridge the centuries and to show us how the poet felt.

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