Monday, August 11, 2008

A Little Han Shan (ish) for Your Classes

We've been watching the Olympics here pretty much non-stop since Friday. Four years ago, when my kids were younger, they were inspired to stage their own "games" in the family room, which was about as adorable as it gets. This year they slump on the couch, but who can blame them? Exhaustion aplenty, chez nous: insomnia here, a virus there, lassitude and ennui.

And that's the pre-teen set! We grown-ups have our own crosses to bear, more on which (no doubt) anon.

In honor of the Games, here's a Chinese poem--or, rather, a poem written "after" one by the great Chinese poet Han Shan. Like some of you, I read him first in Gary Snyder's translations, which you can find (with an introductory essay) here; more recently the poet Red Pine has published a set of translations (well, Copper Canyon did the publishing, but you know what I mean), and there are other respected versions in English, most of which you can find linked here. (To show your students variant translations of another poem, check out the essay on the challenges of translating Han Shan here.)

The text this poem is based on comes from Burton Watson's Cold Mountain: 100 Poems, which came out back in the 1970s. In that collection, it's number 28, a little riposte by Han Shan to a scholar who's dissed his efforts. (Specifically, it's all about an error in prosody.) In his version, which was published in the endlessly heartening "Bliss" issue of Poetry East (number 60), James P. Lenfestey turns the text into a debate over what is of value in poetry, and by extension in literature more generally:

Making Poems

I laugh when I make a poem, I go to bed
at night chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
I wake in the morning chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
Years later I wonder: Why no prizes, why no money?
Maybe it's true, only sighs and tears make critics smile.
Must I now grieve for the joy I feel every day,
the fern dripping with dew,
the basket of sunshine placed every day before me?

Lenfestey has a book of these responses: A CARTLOAD OF SCROLLS: 100 POEMS IN THE MANNER OF T'ANG DYNASTY POET HAN-SHAN. Worth a look--there's probably more to be mined for classroom use, as well as for simple enjoyment.

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