Poetry: T’ao Ch’ien

I came across an absolutely lovely book, The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien in a rather odd way. I first heard of T’ao Ch’ien in John D’Agata’s essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, which has a short selection of his called “Biography of Master Five-Willows.” This is only a few paragraphs long, but I fell in love with it. It’s my habit when I read an anthology selection that I love to hunt down a book by the author, so when I checked D’Agata’s “Acknowledgments” section to find out where the T’ao Ch’ien piece came from, I saw it came from his selected poems. It was strange to find a prose piece coming from a volume of selected poems, but I thought I’d buy it anyway. Why not? It turns out that the prose piece was included in the introduction to the poems. It also turns out that D’Agata’s definition of the essay is wide enough to encompass poetry as well as prose, as his anthology includes Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” one of my favorite poems ever. D’Ataga is perhaps stretching the definition of “essay” beyond recognition, but whatever. I love T’ao Ch’ien’s prose and poetry both, so I’m a happy reader.

T’ao Ch’ien is a Chinese writer who lived from 365-427 A.D. The editor of his selected poems says that T’ao was “the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” There is indeed a very natural and everyday voice that comes through the poems, the voice of a person who is wise and wryly funny at the same time.

A little bit of T’ao’s life story comes through the poems even if you know nothing else about his biography; you can tell that he at one time held a post in government service but left it to live in poverty as a farmer. His poems are frank about the poverty, but he celebrates his life on his farm, even with its hard work. When the work is done, he is free to walk in nature, to sit quietly at home with friends, and, very often, to drink wine. There is a strong Buddhist orientation to the poems (although the frequent references to wine don’t quite seem to fit); they celebrate living in the moment and enjoying what one has rather than grasping for more. The poems have a strong awareness of suffering and death, but rather than being morbid, they call for enjoyment of life while we have it.

But mostly the poems are just beautiful, in a peaceful, meditative way. The descriptions of nature are brief — none of the poems are long — but evocative, and his depiction of a quiet life lived in nature and among friends is moving. But rather than trying to describe them, let me just give you one of the poems:

In all its reckless leisure, autumn begins
its end. Cold — the dew-charged wind cold,

vines will blossom no more. Our courtyard
trees have spent themselves: they stand

empty. Dingy air washed clean, clear sky
heightens the distant borders of heaven,

and now mourning cicadas have gone silent,
geese call out beneath gossamer clouds.

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away — so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
A little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.


Filed under Books, Poetry

9 responses to “Poetry: T’ao Ch’ien

  1. verbivore

    I like the poem, but I love your description of how you discovered it. One ofthe best parts of reading is the connection between works, and all the better if the genre shifts in the transition. Wonderful!


  2. Oh, that’s a lovely poem. I have not heard of T’ao before but I think I am going to have to find a copy of this book.


  3. Hinton is a marvelous translator – I read this book last year, and he has many more similar volumes, collections of later poets. He emphasizes – some (not me) might say, overemphasizes – the Buddhist content of the poets.


  4. Lovely poem, lovely discovery tale. Now I have to search for the book by D’Agata! And re-read Smart’s poem. 🙂


  5. Beautiful. And isn’t it amazing to read poetry written 1600 years ago?


  6. That’s a really lovely poem. Isn’t it amazing considering what he wrote about that this poem still exists and we are all reading it now. I love it when one book leads to another one–it’s like following a trail and finding treasure at the end.


  7. Everything about this is cool. I will have to see what I can do about getting a copy of the book.


  8. Verbivore — reading through essay anthologies slowly and branching out from there into other books has been such a fun exercise, and I’ve found several great authors that way. I never expected to end up with poetry though!

    Stefanie — I think you would like it; it seems to suit your sensibility pretty well.

    Amateur Reader — I thought the translation was good, so I’m glad to hear he has other books out there. I will have to hunt them down because clearly, Chinese poetry is something I like.

    Jenclair — the D’Agata book was a great find, I think, and I’m glad I bought it. It’s different from other essay anthologies I’ve seen out there — more of an emphasis on poetic and experimental writing.

    Lilian — it IS amazing. And especially so since his voice feels so recognizable and familiar.

    Danielle — he writes a lot about how fleeting everything is, which is true, and yet his words have lasted so long! And yes, it’s fun to follow a trail of books — it makes the things I find even more satisfying.

    Emily B. — oh, do get a copy of the book — you will enjoy it, I’m sure!


  9. Pingback: East Asian Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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