Sonnet 2

Feng Zhi (1905-) 馮至


Whatever can be shed we jettison

from bodies, let return again to dust

—a way to compose us for age. And thus,

like leaves and like late flower blooms that one

by one when autumn comes the trees release

off of their forms into the autumn winds

so they can give themselves with naked limbs

to winter, we compose ourselves to lose

in nature, like cicadas abandoning

behind them in the dirt their useless shells.

So we compose ourselves for death, a song

that though shed from the music’s form still sings

and leaves a naked music when it’s gone,

transformed into a chain of hushed blue hills.

什么能从我们身上脱落, 我们都让它化作尘埃: 我们安排我们在这时代 像秋日的树木,一棵棵 把树叶和些过迟的花朵 都交给秋风,好舒开树身 伸入严冬;我们安排我们 在自然里,像蜕化的蝉蛾 把残壳都会在泥里土里; 我们把我们安排给那个 未来的死亡,像一段歌曲 歌声从音乐的身上脱落, 归终剩下了音乐的身躯 化作一脉的青山默默。

Note on the Translation: This was a particularly fun poem to translate. It is one of a sequence of sonnets written by the great 20th century poet Feng Zhi, and for an American poet who writes both free and formal verse it was a pleasure to have the challenge to translate a Chinese sonnet into a sonnet in English. Now, the original is written in a ten character line, and so I translated it into a pentameter (10 syllable, 5 beat) line in English, and chose to use in English a broader palette of sounds to make the rhymes work. My ideas here are laid out in greater detail in my “Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet (http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/06/december/barnstone_e.html). [/blue_message]

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.