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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Life Without Surplus (by Bai Juyi)

No one should be surprised
By my humble home
Nor feel envious of
The handiwork
So unadorned
There’s a simple reason for
Living without surplus
Once you start writing
You feel unconcerned

Green bamboo leaves
Make a fine sleeping mat
Simple black muslin
Makes a good washcloth
Everything else is
Just fine as it is
Enough of a tribute  
To my bodily needs


家居窄     无嫌活计贫

青竹床簟     乌纱独幅巾
皆称是     亦足奉吾身

We tend think of the struggling artist as a uniquely modern character, pursuing his or her creative vision notwithstanding the indifference of bourgeois norms  – This has been an important part of the identity and myth of the modern artist ever since the advent of the industrial era – equally true for the painters and poets whether they were sharing their day old crusty loaf in a cold Parisian garret or in a dingy walk-up on the Lower East Side.

But really there’s nothing unique to modernity in this story.  That’s part of what I find beautiful in this poem written by Bai Juyi in the first half of the 9th century, which I translated this morning.   Apparently artists have been willing and content to live on the edge for quite a long time.  This was just as true during the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was exalted as a form of artistic expression, as it is today, when it is more or less relegated to the margins.  Perhaps we should consider it as approaching a universal truth -- once you start writing poetry it's much easier to be content with a crust of bread and glass of cheap red wine. 

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