In a job I used to have, Chinese New Year always meant writing a speech, and, in that job, that meant finding a poem. I loved the glimpses I caught then of very old Chinese poetry (I posted one here) and so I was delighted to pick up at last weekend's book fair The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse - in English, which is all I'm capable of. It's a slim, aged volume, and the cover has red ink characters stamped on a dark background. It's quite beautiful, and full of brief, lyrical poems that suggest a world of elegance and quiet longing.
Here are two lovely things, both from the ninth century.
“Going up to the capital on an autumn day”
Red leaves rustle in the twilight;
In the long pavilion is one gourd of wine;
Fading clouds go home to the T’ai-hua mountain;
Light rain passes the Chung-t’iao hills.
The colours of the trees stretch from the frontier gate;
The sound of the river as it meets the sea is distant.
Tomorrow I will reach the Emperor’s domain,
But I still dream of fishing and wood-cutting.
“Inviting a friend to spend the night”Silvered earth without dust, and the golden chrysanthemum in bloom,
Purple pears and red dates falling on the lichen moss;
A shaft of Autumn water, and a round moon -
On such a night, my old friend, are you not coming?
There's such a sweet blend here of courtesy and elegy, civil life and passionate nature. In the first poem, the speaker is torn between the two, but in the second, nature is the ground and grace of human friendship. There's a sense of course in which no poetry can exist in translation, but here, what's left is lovely, whatever might be lost.