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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 74-78

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How I Strayed into Asian Poetry

Willis Barnstone

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

When I began to write poetry in 1948, I felt an affinity with the poetry of Spain, China, and India. I had studied Hebrew and knew Spanish and French. Then in 1949, near the end of Greece's civil war, I went to live and work a few years in Athens. There Greek joined the list, at first modern, then ancient. In 1952 I wasted a year at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London as a full-time student in Bengali. During that season I saw Sir Arthur Waley almost every day, standing about and talking to colleagues and students, dressed formally except for his bicycle clips, which he never removed from his striped trousers. His translations of the classical Chinese poets had first drawn me into the imagery and overheard poetry of China. Waley, who set his friend Ezra Pound on the path to Cathay, introduced Chinese and Japanese poetry to generations of English readers in his books. But I was timid and never dared speak to the wonderful man who had been the hermit of the British Museum's Oriental Sub-Department of Prints and Drawings and who was later remembered in the title of a book of tributes as "Madly Singing in the Mountains." I lost the chance of my life to enter Chinese poetry with the poet-scholar whose sensibility for China's poets and philosophers gave us a civilization. I chose wrong between India and China.

Although I felt closer to Chinese poetry than to any poetry I had been exposed to, it seemed futile to study the language, since it was then not [End Page 74] possible to visit China and my notion was to get lost someplace in Asia, learn its ways, and translate its poets. So, as a result of the encouragement of Arun Mitra, a Bengali friend in Paris who had been my classmate at the Sorbonne, I went to SOAS, hoping it would get me to India. It would have been better to have gone directly to the subcontinent. Instead, I learned in London to read Rabindranath Tagore in his language and discovered that he was not an Edwardian-English misty poet, as he had translated himself to be, but a radically modern Indian poet, with mystical dimensions.

When I returned to the States after five years in Europe, I was soon drafted, classified by the U.S. Army as "an oriental expert," and sent to Fort Devins, Massachusetts, where I was to enter a radio spy outfit (they never told me more than the group's initials). However, being married to a Greek national during the McCarthy period, I couldn't pass the purity clearance, and so they shipped me back to France for two more years. Bengali faded and so too the hope of a romantic immersion in India.

But back in early 1949 in Paris, I had a major Chinese experience that was to nudge me for the rest of my life. I met Robert Payne, a prolific English novelist, biographer, and translator who had spent five years in southwest China during World War ii. He had just returned from China, full of stories. He was especially excited about a talented poet whose poems he was the first to translate. The poet had been living in a cave, holed up with his army in Shensi Province after the disastrous Long March. It was Mao:


At bluegreen twilight I see the rough pines
serene under the rioting clouds.
The cave of the gods was born in heaven,
a vast wind-ray beauty on the dangerous peak.

But Robert spoke not of the war nor of the politics--though later he was to do an inclusive biography of Mao Zedong--but of the poet. At the same time, he urged me to translate the poems of the Spaniard Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca (actually, as a result of his prodding, I worked...


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