SELECTED POEMS OF SU TUNG-P'O : Translated from the Chinese by Burton Watson. 148 pp. Port Townsend, WA : Copper Canyon Press, 1994. ISBN 1-55659-064-4 (pbk.)
Burton Watson has always struck me as an eminently civilized scholar and as a fine translator. Unlike certain others, he wears his scholarship lightly, and doesn't overburden the text with extraneous matter. His many translations from Chinese and Japanese Literature are of uniformly high quality, and are well worth having as they are books one often wants to returns to.
The present book, after a typically brief but interesting and informative introduction which provides all we really need before diving into the poems, gives us translations of 105 of Su Tung-p'o's poems, lightly annotated and beautifully printed on spacious pages.
Su Tung-p'o is one of China's greatest poets, and Watson has outdone himself here. The wrapper includes a highly laudatory appreciation by Gary Snyder, and it's easy to see why. Watson has always been a brilliant translator, and a true artist with words, but in this book he has lifted himself into the ranks of the very best, and has produced translations indistinguishable in quality from those of Snyder himself.
Here, as an example of his marvelous control of tone, thought, feeling, image, rhythm, and sound, are the opening lines of poem 52 (with my obliques added to indicate line breaks) - 'Reading the Poetry of Meng Chiao' :
"Night : reading Meng Chiao's poems, / characters fine as cow's hair. / By the cold lamp, my eyes blur and swim. / Good passages I rarely find - / lone flowers poking up from the mud - / But more hard words than the Odes or Li Sao - / jumbled rocks clogging the clear stream, / making rapids too swift for poling. / My first impression is of eating little fishes. . . . " (p.70).
What we find here is what Burton Watson, in his 'Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry' (1984), has described as "a freshness and immediacy that is often quite miraculous" (p.3).
Not poems about airy notions and exalted abstractions, then, but poems describing events from daily life, poems recording the scenes of a journey, poems expressing grief, joy, boredom, or irritation as here, poems both serious and funny and by someone who is in many ways like ourselves.
Su Tung-p'o's is a wholesome poetry, a poetry that cleanses and refreshes the sensibility, and that translates us from the technoid madness of our own chaotic world to something more human and hence more nourishing. There's real food for the spirit in these poems. Watson has done them full justice. Sensitive readers would be unwise to pass them by.