Written on the Boat, Going Home

Yuan Mei

From Suchou to Nanching
I thought I’d rent a boat
Willows here to see us off…
peaches there to greet us…
Three days of bicker-bargaining
and we hadn’t left the pier.
Now one night of Spring-tide
strikes the stern,
and love-birds, intertwined,
asleep beneath the sheets,
Have sailed a hundred miles
of Southern stream.
The master boatman calls for wine,
as I prepare some tea.
Never fear, though it’s not here.
don’t you hum and sigh so,
With the wind, against the wind
we’ll make it home.

J.P. Seaton

Broken Boat

Tu Fu

All my life I’ve had my heart set on going off
to the land of the lakes-the boat was built for it,
and long ago too. That I used to row
every day on the creek that runs by my rail gate
is beside the point. But then came the mutiny,
and in my panic I fled far away, where
my only concern was to get back here
to these familiar hills.
The neighbors are all gone now,
and everywhere the wild bamboo
sprouts and spreads and grows tall.
No more rapping its sides as I sing-
It’s spent the whole autumn underwater.
All I can do now is watch the other travelers-
birds sailing off in their westward flights,
and even the river, embarrassing me
by moving off eastward so easily.
Well, I could dig up the old one,
and a new one’s easy enough to buy,
but it’s really the running away that troubles me-
this recent escape and so many before-
that even in this simple cottage
a man cannot stay put long.


On Board Ship: Reading Yuan Chen’s Poems

P’o Ch’ui

I take your poems in my hand and read them beside the candle;
The poems are finished, the candle is low, dawn not yet come.
My eyes smart; I put out the lamp and go on sitting in the dark,
Listening to waves that, driven by the wind, strike the prow of the ship.

Arthur Waley

Snowy River

Liu Tsung-yuan

The birds have vanished
from a thousand mountains.
On a thousand trails,
not a single human sign.

A little boat,
a bamboo hat and cloak~
the old man, alone,
fishing the snowy river.

Sam Hamill


Written to the Tune of  “An Immortal Approaching the River”

Su Tung-p’o

Wine at East Bank tonight, sobered up
then started over, getting drunk again.
Got home, a little fuzzy maybe close to three,
and the houseboy was snoring like thunder.
I knocked at my gate, but nobody answered.
I leaned on my cane and listened to the river.
I hate it!-that even this body’s not mine alone
Someday I’ll give it all up.
The night moves, the breeze writes
quietly in ripples on the water.
A little boat, leaving here and now,
the rest of my life on the river, on the sea.

J.P. Seaton


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.