A Review of
The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry
Eliot Weinberger, ed.
New Directions, 2003 (paper, 2004)

One of the great pleasures of Weinberger's anthology is his inclusion of more than one version of some of the poems, enabling the reader not simply to get a more complete sense of the original by way of the translators' variations, but also to compare the abilities of the translators to bring a Chinese poem, far removed in time and linguistic structure, successfully into English.
Ezra Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter", a version of a poem by Li Po and justly famous for almost a century now, continues to lead the pack as an English language work. His imagery may not be as faithful to the Chinese -- he was not a scholar of the language, after all, as David Hinton is -- but his version flashes individuality and grace in ways that Hinton's and William Carlos Williams's versions do not. The wife's remembrance of the childhood she shared with her husband-to-be is both surprising and homely, a bit of Americana in ancient China, in Pound's version. "You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse," she says of him. How freshly this simple picture calls up a sense of mischief in the play, as the boy implicitly towers over the girl, as well as suggesting the inequality of their status as marriage partners. Williams and Hinton share a presumably more accurate, but less pointed, sense of Li Po's words. Williams gives us, "You came riding a bamboo stilt for a horse," and Hinton, "and you came on your horse of bamboo," neither of which elevates the boy or grants him the nimble grace of the stilt-walker, even though Williams retains the word. Likewise their shared "I became your wife" is functional and perfectly acceptable, but I miss the sly wit of Pound's "I married My Lord you," which again points out the boy/man's station but also evidences the girl's own personality and strength, her willingness to poke at what may be her husband's inflated sense of self.
Pound and Hinton, on the other hand, are linked in emphasizing the young husband's reluctance to leave his wife, toward the poem's end, an emotional touch Williams omits. Where Williams gives us simply, "The footprints you made when you left the door," indicating nothing of the husband's state of mind, Hinton offers the rather conventionally poetic, "At our gate, where you lingered long." Pound, however, with his often perfect ear and eye, has the wife note, "You dragged your feet when you went out," expressing reluctance without either poeticism or specific statement of the husband's emotions.
It is, however, Hinton who ends with the most explicit expression of the wife's determination and power when she tells her husband to send her a letter before he begins his return trip home. "I'm not saying I'd go far to meet you, / no further than Ch'ang-feng Sands," she says, precisely informing him of her intentions and forcing the reader to square this bit of willfulness with her earlier and rather more loving sentiments. Both Pound and Williams have her merely delineating how far she will come without expressing the distance as a limitation of time and effort.
In other cases Weinberger gives the reader the opportunity to compare the work of Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder alongside that of Williams. For a poem by Meng Hao-Jan, Williams offers a direct and mostly effective

Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descend while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs over lower than the treetops.
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.

True, that "misty islet" almost makes one wonder if one has stumbled into early Yeats, and "my sorrows grow" seems a bit blatant, even though the appearance of something similar in the versions of Rexroth ("nostalgia") and Snyder ("my loneliness") indicates the importance of the idea to the original. But notice that carefully placed colon at the poem's midpoint, tying the increase of the poet's sorrow to the approach of night. In the versions of the other poets, sunset and feeling coincide but are not explicitly linked. In fact, Rexroth's "As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia" seems both prosaic and overwrought. Snyder opts for indirection and concision, "Sunset, my loneliness comes again," which introduces the repetition of the poet's emotional state. Where Williams gives us a "vast night", which is certainly more thematically appropriate to the central sky imagery of the poem, Rexroth tells us, "The plain stretches away without limit", and Snyder, "In these vast wilds". Williams is most evocative in regards to the sky's proximity: by hanging lower, it becomes not a void, not an empty space, but an active presence which can interact among the trees. Rexroth's "The sky is just above the treetops" is utterly flat, which I don't intend as a negative critique in this case -- his sky mirrors his plains, as does the river which "flows quietly by." Snyder's sky, like Williams's, is active, but in a much more "poetic" way -- "The sky arches down to the trees" -- poetic, yes, but ineffective, bland while vivid. In a certain sense, the three poets's final lines are almost equivalent. Williams's is quoted above; Rexroth's is "The moon comes down amongst men"; and Snyder's "In the clear river water, the moon draws near". It's worth noting that Williams provides us with a lake instead of a river, stasis in lieu of flux, and also that Williams and Snyder reduce the power of the moon by making it a reflection which approaches. Rexroth's moon, conversely, is virtually a character coming to visit humanity, like a goddess in disguise. And yet Williams's Americanism, "coming close", is both more colloquial than his colleagues' slightly poetic diction (Rexroth's "amongst" and Snyder's "draws near") and peculiarly suggestive. "Coming close" doesn't just mean "approaching" to us; it also means "on the verge of achieving something", an idea which makes Williams's version open up in a way the other two do not.
In addition to almost two hundred pages of translations, the Anthology also includes Weinberger's ten-page introduction, twenty pages of prose about Chinese poetry by the translators, and a translation of Lu Chi's "Rhymeprose on Literature". A valuable and pleasurable volume.