I’ve been re-reading Kenneth Rexroth’s excellent volume: One Hundred Poems from the Chinese and although I know this book as an old friend, there are moments of readerly reception that still surprise me after more than thirty five years. Rexroth’s rendition of Tu Fu’s poem about a willow tree first affected me when I was 17 years old and was hospitalized for severe depression. The poem, taken from classical Chinese, rendered into English, is still, for me, the most perfect evocation of our frail human affections for nature and our mortal understanding that natural forces know nothing of us. This is not existentialism but really the site of human consciousness, the place from which all opportunity for spiritual awakening derives. Here is the beautiful poem:
My neighbor’s willow sways its frail
Branches, graceful as a girl of
Fifteen. I am sad because this
Morning the violent
Wind broke its longest bough.
As John Donne would say in western parlance: “No man is an island” and he would add: “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were.”
Ah but Tu Fu and Rexroth have grace. To which I will simply add, “no man is a sermon” and I’ll add “no woman too” and assert that poems can save us from many a churchly hour and all that timorous rhetoric.
Now I must go and put on my timorous pants and go into the rhetorical world. But I will have Tu Fu under my shirt.