Arthur Sze:

On Wen Yiduo

Wen Yiduo (1899 – 1946) is a crucial poet in early twentieth century Chinese poetry. Although he had enormous erudition and knowledge of classical Chinese literature, Wen Yiduo chose to write in the vernacular. Although he only published two volumes of poetry—Red Candle in 1923 and Dead Water in 1928—many of the poems in this second collection are landmarks.

For many years, an appreciation and assessment of Wen Yiduo’s accomplishments as a poet have been delayed, due to circumstances surrounding his tragic death. In Kunming, on July 15, 1946, Wen gave an impassioned speech denouncing the Guomindang government and was assassinated later that day. His work was banned in Taiwan until the lifting of martial law in 1987; whereas, in the People’s Republic of China, he was extolled as a patriotic poet, but the subtleties of his poetry were ignored.

It is time to reassess Wen Yiduo’s accomplishments. In 1926, he developed a theory of poetry that proposed a confluence of music, painting, and architecture, and these three strands are very much at work in Wen Yiduo’s Dead Water. In this collection, the musicality to his poems is haunting and effective; and, as a translator, I have had to struggle to create a memorable rhythm in English. It has been said that when one translates from one language to another, the first, most immediate loss is with sound. In Chinese, the simple, repeating phrase, ye xu, “perhaps,” informs the poem, is its pulse and won’t go away. For a reader well-versed in the tradition of classical poetry with five or seven characters to a line, Wen Yiduo’s nine-character line feels spacious, rhythmically potent, yet architecturally sound. Although the poetic tradition always exerts pressure behind Wen Yiduo’s work, it is also subverted and transformed. Instead of stock phrases that might pick up on “cool breeze,” one is startled by “earthworms digging in the mud” or by the sound of “root hairs of small grasses sucking up water.”

In the last stanza, Wen heightens the musical effect by repeating phrases that intensify the experience. For instance, in the next-to-last line, the placement of “lightly, lightly,” is almost in parallel position with “slowly, slowly” in the last line. In the tradition of classical poetry, repeating characters tend to come at the beginning of a line. A famous example from a Han dynasty poem is: “Green green, river bank grass.” In Wen Yiduo’s poem, the repeating phrase and repeating characters occur toward the end, but not at the very end, and they provide a rhythmical key. Charles Simic once said that “the secret wish of a poem is to stop time,” but I think Wen Yiduo wants to attenuate it. By prolonging the rhythmical moment, one experiences it more intensely, and one is also haunted by it.

As I mention in my introduction to The Silk Dragon, when I begin a translation, I like to write out the characters to a poem, stroke by stroke, in my own awkward handwriting, so that I can experience the unfolding, inner motion of the language. To demarcate a field of energy around each character, I write a word or cluster of words, then I begin to work with the lines and rhythms to discover what might work best as a poem in English.

When I checked my notebook to look at the beginning draft for Wen Yiduo’s “Perhaps,” I noticed that I used a lot of dashes to try to notate a rhythmical motion. In Emily Dickinson’s work, dashes are part of her musicality. However, as I worked on “Perhaps,” I ended up shedding most of those dashes, or saved a few for the very end. In my notebook entry, the following first version is a sketch more than anything else:

      —perhaps—you really are weep, cry –out   too tired
      —perhaps—perhaps you want, ought —sleep a bit—
      —then,thus—let night hawk/s  —not—cough—
      frog/s—not—call out, howl  —bats—not fly

      not allow, let   sun light open—your—eye  curtain, blinds
      not let  cool breeze brush on   –your—eyebrows
      —no matter what—whoever all-not-able startle wake you
      open an umbrella —pines dark— shelter your sleep

      —perhaps—you hear,listen these—earthworms—turn over mud
      hear, listen these small grass/es ’s   root hairs suck up water
      —perhaps—you listen –ing   this sort   —music—
      compared to  that swearing, cursing of men sounds  still more beautiful

      —then—you first  close, keep—eyelids—shut tight
      I  then, just  (will) let you sleep, I (will) let you sleep
      —I (will)—yellow dirt, earth   lightly lightly—cover—you
      I (will) let   paper money   —slowly slowly—fly

From this rough sketch, I brooded on the mournful pulse—“Perhaps” is an elegy Wen wrote in memory of his young daughter, Liying, who died in 1926—wrote then put aside, wrote then put aside, and over several months developed the following translation, which, I hope, honors his rhythmical effects:






“Perhaps,” by Wen Yiduo

Perhaps you have wept and wept, and can weep no more.
Perhaps. Perhaps you ought to sleep a bit;
then don’t let the night hawk cough, the frogs
croak, or the bats fly.

Don’t let the sunlight open the curtain onto your eyes.
Don’t let a cool breeze brush your eyebrows.
Ah, no one will be able to startle you awake:
I will open an umbrella of dark pines to shelter your sleep.

Perhaps you hear earthworms digging in the mud,
or listen to the root hairs of small grasses sucking up water.
Perhaps this music you are listening to is lovelier
than the swearing and cursing noises of men.

Then close your eyelids, and shut them tight.
I will let you sleep, I will let you sleep.
I will cover you lightly, lightly with yellow earth.
I will slowly, slowly let the ashes of paper money fly.