Featured Post

The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Friday, December 8, 2023

Belatedness with Chinese Characteristics


I recently came across this poem by the Ming poet Tang Yin (1470-1524) that was written in response to a well-known preface and poem written by the Tang poet Wang Bo (650-676).  Almost 1,000 years separate these two men and yet, as often seems to be the case with Chinese poetry, a remarkable sense of cultural continuity makes their dialog both possible and rewarding.


First, my translation of a few lines from Wang Bo’s preface, followed by Tang Yin’s response.


Wang Bo (an excerpt from Preface to Prince Teng’s Pavilion)


A lone bird flies towards the setting sun

Autumn water and broad sky merge as one

A fisherman’s song echoes dimly across the lake

Startled, a flock of geese break the stillness

With trembling calls as the cold draws near

Along the shoreline








Tang Yin

Untitled Poem


Expressing yourself

Something always

Remains concealed

Or omitted

A lone bird, the clouds at sunset

Autumn waters and broad sky

In this auspicious place

Mountains and lake

Without blemish


A thousand years

Pass by in an instant

Just ask the people on the water

How the Emperor’s pavilion

Looked back then












It may help your understanding of the interchange between these two poets if I share a bit of background.  Wang Bo was part of the first wave of great poets during the Tang Dynasty.  He was a child prodigy who started writing his own poems at the age of 6 but whose life was cut short when he drowned at sea at the age of 26.  Even so, he left a lasting mark on the history of Chinese poetry, not just for his body of work, consisting of 76 poems, but also for his contribution to poetic theory. Wang is generally credited as one of the first major proponents of the idea that a poem ought to directly reflect the poet’s own state of mind (言志). This was a novel idea at the time but soon became accepted as a fundamental part of the Tang esthetic, essential to the art the great Tang poets who followed in his wake, from Li Bai to DuFu to Wang Wei, all of whom adopted and adapted Wang Bo’s precept in their own way.  This view of poetry as a deeply personal mode of expression is what makes Tang poetry so accessible to us today.      


Wang Bo’s contribution to poetic theory is one of the keys, I think, to understanding the subtlety of Tang Yin’s response.  The first line of Tang Yin’s poem (兴发总关情) may be best understood as a gloss or further refinement on Wang Bo’s view of poetry as direct personal expression.  Whatever a poet reveals, something always remains concealed.


There’s alot going on here, including historical references,not all of which I fully understand.  Both poets stood in the same place, more or less, when they wrote their poems, on the shores of the Gan River, looking towards a monument known as Prince Teng’s Pavilion.  This is one of the most well-known structures in southern China, originally built in 653 by a younger brother of the Tang Emperor Taizong. But in the intervening years between Wang Bo’s poem and Tang Yin’s, the Pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt more than 25 times.  I think this is part of Tang Yin is thinking about in the second stanza of his poem – Prince Teng’s proud tower standing as a monument to cultural continuity, destruction and change.


What I find so compelling about Tang Yin’s poem is how it’s imbued with this strong sense of belatedness – a later day poet puzzling over his own place in a long-standing cultural tradition.  But this is belatedness with distinctly Chinese characteristics, as opposed the way Harold Bloom used the term.  Tang Yin as a later day poet is not so much struggling to make his own mark by overcoming his predecessor poet. The grand monuments in Chinese culture are always being built, destroyed and rebuilt, just as the grand poetic tradition is never complete (because no personal expression can ever be said to be complete) but remains ever evolving.  A sense of belatedness is no cause for struggle but rather stands as an invitation to participate in the long sweep of Chinese culture. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Belatedness Abounding

Expending oneself

To what end I wonder

Writing bluesky haiku

What used to matter

So much it wanted

Constant rephrasing

What of the sunset

Used to feel

Praise worthy 

Beyond mention now

Passes without notice

Belatedness abounds

Even for those unable

Or unwilling to speak

Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Poem About Middle Age (by Tang Yin)

 Here’s my translation of another poem by the Ming artist Tang Yin. I’m just beginning to read his poems and I find myself once again falling under the spell of Chinese poetry. What a wonderful spell it is. 

Tang Yin is the real deal as a great Tang poet, except that he lived about 900 years too late to be considered among their dynastic rank. He falls into the category of what I like to call the Later Day Tang Poets, in that he writes imbued with the spirit of Tang but, at least in Tang Yin’s case, from a much more modern (or more accurately, a pre-modern) point of view. It’s a bit like feeling young at heart but in an older person’s body - which is perhaps a good introduction to this untitled poem, by a great Later Day Tang Poet, Tang Yin, about being middle aged.

Untitled - by Tang Yin

To remain sleeping without relish

In middle age the mood’s gone missing

Most of us wake up to the rooster’s cry

Without thought of pursuing fortune or fame



残睡无多有滋味     中年到底没心情

世人多被鸡催起     自不由身为利名

It might help you better appreciate this poem if I explain the reference to pursuing fortune and fame in the last line. This is considered to be the Confucian ideal. But that was not Tang Yin’s path, as I’ll further explain in a subsequent post.  He came from the school of roustabout Later Day Tang Poets, in the company of such kindred spirits as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Little Taste of Tang Yin

 I've just discovered a Chinese poet named Tang Yin.  He was apparently best known as a painter during the Ming Dynasty.  Like Wang Wei before him, he became a master of both arts.  His dates are 1470 - 1524.  So far I've only read and translated a few of his poems but they really fit my current mood.  Tang Yin has a casual, almost flippant style to his poetry, with a very mordant wit.

Here is one from a series of untitled poems that I started translating earlier today:

Untitled – 2


Remove the yoke of the Imperial City

Unkempt I return to lie in an old thatched hut

Where there’s barely room to stand, don’t laugh

Ten thousand li of mountains and rivers flow

Through my brush and come to life




解皇都第一名 猖披归卧旧

莫笑无余地    万里江山下生

I particularly love the last line (which I've rendered in two lines) as a description of an artist through whom the life force is fully flowing.  The way Tang Yin expresses it, it's unclear if he is speaking of painting or poetry, either way, the mountains and rivers flow through his brush ....


Thursday, November 23, 2023

Dream from the Mountaintop (Bai Juyi)

It's been almost a month of illness, starting with a bout with Covid, which brought on a debilitating knock-on infection thanks to the cytokine storm.  Now, after two weeks of antibiotics, some semblance of good health has been restored.

Translating a poem seemed like a good way to celebrate.  Somehow when I scroll through the online anthology of Tang poems, I often find a poem perfectly suited to my mood, and that certainly proved to be the case today with this poem by Bai JuYi.

Dream from the Mountaintop  

By BaiJuyi 


I dreamed of climbing Mt. Song

Alone, carrying a plant and staff

A thousand cliffs, ten thousand ravines

Wandering the whole terrain


I dreamed my feet were flawless

Vigorous as in the days of youth

The magic spirit had restored

Everything as it once was


I sensed the spirit indwelling

Ill appearance gave way to health   

Outer and inner realms a mere fantasy

When I woke both seemed unreal


 Now in daytime I walk as a cripple

At night I proceed with ease and grace

Night and day are evenly divided

Between all that’s lost and gained





夜梦上嵩山    独携藜杖出

千岩与万壑 游览皆周毕


梦中足不病    健似少年日

既悟神返初    依然旧形质


始知形神内 形病神无疾

形神两是幻 梦寤俱非实


昼行虽蹇涩 夜步颇安逸

昼夜既平分 其间何得失



Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Autumn Poem

The world is either

Ending or not so simple

As all that on an October day

Perfect in all respects

The asters collectively

Glowing in the afternoon light

The crickets laying claim

To possession

Of whatever remains

Of the earth when

We’re good and well

Done with it Amen

Fall is far more prescient 

Than any other season

Of our species being

In thr age we presently live

The cumulative weight 

of worlds not so different 

From our own

Death too has its own beginning

Middle and end

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Everywhere I Look

Everything I touch

Falls apart just as it should

In the compost pile

I’m at that stage in life

Where decay is

Everywhere I look

And that’s okay because

Creation is too