Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poetic Interlude: Du Fu

reflecting on friends and form

When an understanding deepens, reflect on its origin.  Some days ago, I found comfort in the form practiced by Du Fu, the renowned 8th c. poet from China.  He practiced a traditional form which, in one rendering, uses a total of eight lines.  Two lines set the scene, the middle four advance the poem and the last two conclude.  I find peace in the structure, not unlike Wordsworth’s “Nuns Who Fret Not” find peace in their confinement.  This Chinese form depends heavily on concrete images, as well as on syntactical and semantic parallels.

In this peace, I remembered the friend who introduced me to Du Fu’s poetry.  This friend had recently returned from China.  From his visit to Du Fu’s house, he brought me a book of poems.  He also gave me small commemorative plates, each with its own wooden tripod-stand.  Atop our poetry bookcase at home, we have put the larger plate and its portrait of Du Fu in the center—flanked by two smaller ones that contain the original text of a famous poem.  The comfort and energy I draw from Du Fu’s poetry make me want to regularly remember the friend who introduced me to this glorious gift.

For now, without comment or historical context, I offer one translation of Du Fu’s poem that appears on the commemorative plates.  Afterwards, I include one of mine.  I have helped students write these, too.  They follow a series of steps, starting with a grid into which they insert individual words or phrases, trying as best they can to capture the English equivalent of a Chinese character.  This exercise particularly suits the more visual learners.

Gazing in Springtime

The empire is shattered but rivers and peaks remain.
Spring drowns the city in wild grass and trees.
A time so bad, even the flowers rain tears.
I hate this separation, yet birds startle my heart.
The signal fires have burned three months;
I’d give ten thousand gold coins for one letter.
I scratch my head and my white hair thins
Till it can’t even hold a pin.

                    Du Fu
                                c.757 C.E.

Barnstone, T. and C. Ping. Eds. The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to
    Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition
.  NY: Anchor, 2005.

While Waiting for the Storm   

Deep blue-gray clouds hover far away.
A gleaming school building, white as clean, weathered bone, sits contentedly atop the neighborhood hill.
Students stand and wait, while trucks rumble past.
Sometime in the future, a bus will be arriving, stuffed with people holding on.
A soft, salmon pink appears on the eastern edge
of clouds directly overhead, accompanied by a quiet, still song.
Canadian geese nibble grass by my feet, so close that I can touch them.
The Golden Gate Bridge burns bright orange, reflecting this morning’s sun.

                        Bill Brown
                                       December 2007