BURTON WATSON, TRANSLATOR
NEW YORK: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2000
172 PAGES, PAPERBACK, ISBN 0-231-11839-2
This anthology of 128 poems and a short prose piece by Po Chü-i offers valuable insight into the work and ideas of the T’ang bard. To date, more than 2,800 poems have been attributed to Po, leaving translators with a substantial selection from which to present a choice personal image of the man. Watson selected a range of themes, from religious issues such as Buddhism and Taoism to less devout depictions of drinking and joviality alongside verse on melancholy. In his early years of literary activity, Po thought of poetry as a means to vent criticism of social and political problems. Later he preferred to recount everyday activities. Accordingly, Burton Watson writes that he puts special emphasis on such “poems of everyday life, which portray a man of quiet contentment” (x). As well as making reference to Po’s celebrated simplicity of language, especially in comparison to Tu Fu or Li Po, Watson writes of his “abiding desire to portray himself . . . as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particularly in the years of old age, with an air of humour and philosophical acceptance.”(ix)
Both Po’s simplicity and his daily life have been gracefully conveyed into English. The original low-key atmosphere of introspective modesty composed with joie de vivre and a sense of self-irony veritably comes to life in Watson’s rendition. As Watson is undoubtedly an expert on both Po’s work and Chinese literature in general, with numerous translations published to great acclaim, there is no doubting the calibre of this compilation.
The only point of contention with the book could be that Watson failed to include Po’s most well-known narrative poem, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” citing the existing wealth of English translations. We can only regret this decision as the Ch’ang-hen ko had an inestimable influence on Japanese literature,1 and Watson’s forte lies in his studies of Chinese literature in Japanese.2
Watson’s insight into Po’s life and his clear presentation of the poet’s thoughts and visions, with chronologically arranged well annotated translations of the poems fully enhanced by his reader friendly style, assures this volume a place amongst the treasures of undergraduate and secondary school teaching materials.
1. See Masako Nakagawa, “The Consort and the Warrior: Yôkihi Monogatari,” Monumenta Nipponica 45 (Spring 1990) 1: 1–26.
2. See Burton Watson, trans., Japanese Literature in Chinese: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers (Translations from the Oriental Classics) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975)