Thursday, April 4, 2013

NPM: Zhuangzi and Merton

Liu Maoshan, The Harbor at Dawn

Well, my plan for today was to serve up that short Wordsworth poem about the daffodils along with two signifying pieces by contemporary poets. After reading the two contemporary daffodils poems and realizing I don't like them as much as I remember, it was on to plan B: a Bruce Bawer sonnet of which I'm fond. Then I remember I'd already posted it during 2011's National Poetry Month extravaganza.

So my only recourse was to open up The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry in a panic and just pick the first thing that caught my eye. That thing ended up being some words by ancient Taoist Zhuangzi translated by Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, mystic, and author.

I remember last year we looked at a few poems by Li Po and mentioned some of the difficulties of translating Chinese poetry in English -- when the languages are so tremendously different, a true translation of poetic text becomes almost impossible. Merton, however, did not understand Chinese, and used older English translations as his source. This, then, is really more like a posthumous collaboration in which Merton reinterprets old interpretations of Zhuangzi. Merton may not have been a translator of literature per se, but he was a poet and a mystic, and no stranger to the Tao sage's way of thinking.

(The whole collection is available under the title The Way of Chuang-Tzu.)

The Breath of Nature
Zhuangzi (369 B.C - 286 B.C.)
Trans. Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds
Which, noiseless in themselves,
Awaken voices from other beings,
Blowing on them.
From every opening
Loud voices sound. Have you not heard
the rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood
on the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks
Like snouts, maws, and ears,
Like beam-sockets, like goblets,
Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water:
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,
Shouts of command, grumblings,
Deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly,
Strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings
Empty out their last sound.
Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.
What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.
What is this power?

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