Chinese Poetry in Translation by Kenneth Rexroth

Winning Writers subscriber Wesley Willis recently discovered Kenneth Rexroth‘s translations of ancient Chinese poetry and was so enamored of them that he shared these poems with me. They’re taken from Rexroth’s anthology Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1970). I was moved by their meditative quality; each moment is simply observed, each feeling simply described, so that the reader naturally slows down and becomes immersed in the poet’s present experience. Read more selections on the Bureau of Public Secrets website.

by the Poetess Chu Shu Chen (late Sung Dynasty, 13th c.)

The white moon gleams through scudding
Clouds in the cold sky of the Ninth
Month. The white frost weighs down the
Leaves and the branches bend low
Over the freezing water.
All alone I sit by my
Window. The crushing burden
Of the passing days never
Grows lighter for an instant
I write poems, change and correct them,
And finally throw them away.
Gold crysanthemums wither
Along the balcony. Hard
Cries of migrating storks fall
Heavily from the icy sky.
All alone by my window
Hidden in my empty room,
All alone, I burn incense,
And dream in the smoke, all alone.


Amongst the Cliffs
by Han Yu (768-824 AD)

The path up the mountain is hard
to follow through the tumbled rocks.
When I reach the monastery
the bats are already flying.
I go to the guest room and sit
on the steps. The rain is over.
The banana leaves are broad.
The gardenias are in bloom.
The old guest master tells me
there are ancient paintings on the
walls. He goes and gets a light.
I see they are incomparably
beautiful. He spreads my bed
and sweeps the mat. He serves me
soup and rice. It is simple
food but nourishing. The night
goes on as I lie and listen
to the great peace. Insects chirp
and click in the stillness. The
pure moon rises over the ridge
and shines in my door. At daybreak
I get up alone. I saddle
my horse myself and go my way.
The trails are all washed out.
I go up and down, picking my
way through storm clouds on the mountain.
Red cliffs, green waterfalls, all
sparkle in the morning light.
I pass pines and oaks ten men
could not reach around. I cross
flooded streams. My bare feet stumble
on the cobbles. The water roars.
My clothes whip in the wind. This
is the only life where a man
can find happiness. Why do I
spend my days bridled like a horse
with a cruel bit in his mouth?
If I only had a few friends
who agreed with me we’d retire
to the mountains and stay till our lives end.

12 comments on “Chinese Poetry in Translation by Kenneth Rexroth

  1. Steve says:

    “Why do I spend my days bridles like a horse with a cruel bit in his mouth.” I just ordered this book.

    I used to hang around the poetry stacks in college, particularly on delicious melancholy autumn days, and read Rexroth, among others… I was hundreds of miles from the love of my life, struggling with my art, and feeling ferociously alive.

    • John Pendrey says:

      Prior to reading these comments after a mad paranoid period I read 50 of the poems and overcame became happy.

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