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The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In the admittedly rather small world of Chinese literature in translation, J. P. Seaton is a superstar: but even by the standards of those who cater for this niche market, he's always played hard to get. His relatively few but varied publications, always themselves small in scale, frequently in small editions, usually brought out by little presses, and often also small in physical size, have been snapped up by the cognoscenti and subsequently much sought after by those who missed out on their first appearance. His early contributions to Sunflower Splendour were easily the most readable and `literary' translations that this important but frequently tin-eared anthology was able to offer its readers. He has always been one of that small but influential band of American scholar-translators of Chinese literature whose work delights as much for its elegance and skill as for its accuracy.

We are at long last being treated to a liberal sample from the best of these. Shambhala have amassed a magnificent `Selected Translations' from the pen of the master, calling it, perhaps a little mischievously, The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry. Well, it certainly does cover a huge span of time, ranging from some of the earliest recorded poems (dating from perhaps one and a half millennia BCE) right up to the first three decades of the last century; but it would be fair to say that it remains a delightfully quirky and idiosyncratic miscellany.

It's divided into just four sections (which is in itself a witty and audacious feat). From Before: the Beginning (thirty pages) takes us up to the end of the Han dynasty. A Time of Trials (fifteen pages) fast forwards through the next three turbulent centuries or so. The Golden Age (fifty-six pages) encompasses the Tang dynasty's own three centuries of major achievement, and represents the very heart of the book. In Part Four, A Few Strong Voices Still Singing (sixty-eight pages), the succeeding dynasties from that founded by the first Song emperor to that bloodily created by the ill-fated Guomintang's Generalissimo whizz by. Of Mao's even more monstrous and destructive régime (despite its hideous progenitor's own much-vaunted love of classical poetry) nothing is said, and none of its poets are represented.

Each of these sections contains many imperishable gems, revelatory and exemplary translations, not a few from the hands of lesser-known writers (often culled from China's long and venerable Chan-Buddhist tradition) as well as just a few space-fillers, which I can only hope are early exercises. Seaton's version of Zhang Ji's Moored at Maple Bridge, for instance, inserts a quite gratuitous simile: `like a stone struck'--which certainly can't have been derived from any of the seven characters that occur in the original fourth and final line, and which is wholly uncharacteristic of this translator's usually minimalist approach to his work (however, it's immediately preceded by a quite brilliant rendering of the much less famous Coming at Night to a Fisherman's Hut). I've my doubts, too, about Seaton's recourse to archaisms (mainly `thee's, `thou's and `thy's) in his first section: this is presumably modelled on what Pound did with the Shi Jing towards the end of his life, in an interesting, if not wholly successful attempt to recreate for the English reader what the modern Chinese reader experiences when confronted with verses of such great antiquity. But Pound had started off as a Victorian, and could speak the Romantic Gothic lingo like a native; Seaton, by contrast, is not at all at ease with so alien a style, and handles it much less adroitly. On the whole I think translators should remember that no poem was old-fashioned to its first readers, and should endeavour to make it fresh and new again for us.

Normally, however, Seaton's peculiar grace and simplicity when handling the English language suggest, perhaps more than in the case of any other translator, except perhaps for Sam Hamill, an essential sweetness of personality: partly diffidence, and partly mellowness . . . a laid-back approach that is as far from the high-octane verbal gymnastics of, say, Hinton, or the relative authoritativeness and gravitas of Burton Watson (possibly his only real rival in greatness, after the earlier stunning achievements of Pound, Waley, Bynner and Rexroth). Of course, this may well be a carefully cultivated illusion; but I suspect not. If one were to assume, however, that Seaton dashes off his translations in the sort of mildly drunken ecstasy so frequently praised by the many bibulous poets who are perhaps over-represented in the pages of this anthology, then one would be making a serious mistake: almost every one of them has, I would guess, been highly wrought and lovingly polished over the decades. This is the art that hides art. The rhythmic inflections and internal rhymes are subtle, confident and persuasive. On almost very page Seaton presents us with cool, lucid, moving poems in a colloquial modern American idiom that are destined long to outlive him. This is an important publication, and no lover of Chinese literature should be without it.

There are many old friends here; but it's the newcomers that astonish you and take your breath away. Seaton's Du Fu translations, for instance, were unknown to me. How lucky we are to have them in print. Likewise, his Ruan Ji, his Wang Fan-zhi and Han Shan . . . and so many others. I can honestly say that my hands were trembling as I turned the pages and kept on discovering fresh evidence of his sensitivity not just to the nuances of Chinese, but of the target language too. These are vivid, colloquial, gutsy, humorous and poignant glimpses into the vanished worlds of Imperial China across three millennia. Yes, he does limit himself to a certain kind of Chinese poem: the short, meditative, imagistic lyric. One can't imagine Seaton tackling a fu prose-poem, or a yue-fu ballad (though he may well have done so in private, so learned and versatile is he).

My only further wish is that some enlightened publisher (perhaps one of those bearing the imprint of an American university) should, in the not too distant future, present us with a true `Collected Translations', preferably in a hardback edition. In the meantime, this handsome paperback will have to do--and who could reasonably complain?
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
VLADIMIR: You should have been a poet.

ESTRAGON: I was. (looks at his rags.) Isn't that obvious? (silence.)

Yes, J.P.Seaton was and still is a poet, although he wasn't wearing rags last time I saw him. But in addition to that, he is a Professor of Chinese with a long and distinguished career behind him. These qualities combine to make him uniquely suited to translating the Chinese scholar/poets of the past, with whom he has a good deal in common. Carolyn Kizer calls him "the finest living translator and explicator of Chinese poetry", and I am confident that many readers, after being entertained and moved by these translation, will agree with her. This book is for scholars and general poetry readers alike; it presumes no pre-acquaintace with Chinese literature and in addition to the splendid poems, provides an excellent and headache-free tour of the history and background of the poetry and poets.

Highly recommended!

Xuan Lin
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
In traditional Chinese culture, poetry was a source of entertainment, instruction, prestige, and even political authority. Ably translated and carefully edited by J. P. Seaton (Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), "The Shambhala Anthology Of Chinese Poetry" is an impressive and scholarly compilation of Chinese poets and poetry from the classic `Shih Ching' era down to the twentieth century. No academic library collection can be considered complete or comprehensive without its inclusion as a core addition to their Poetry and Literary Studies reference shelves. `Moonlight Night': Moon of the night, in Fu-chou,/along in your chamber you gaze./Here, far away, I think of the children,/too young to remember Longpeace.../Fragrant mist, moist cloud of your hair./In that clear light, your arms jade cool./When, again, to lean together, by your curtain there,/alight alike, until our tears have dried. Tu Fu (712-770).
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
My copy of A Drifting Boat has travelled with me and grown battered and dog-eared and well-worn. Now Seaton has given me another volume to read and re-read, for the poetry, since I'm not an academic, and to recommend to other poetry readers. This is a wonderful book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was lucky to be just old enough in 2003 to have entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when J. P. Seaton, then on the verge of retirement, was just young enough to still be teaching. Those were marvelous classes, and his translations, distilled and expanded and brought together with inviting introductions in this anthology, are full of the same humor and erudition that he brought to the art of teaching over nearly four decades.

Seaton has been translating poetry from the Chinese for at least that long. Interestingly though, I remember him mentioning that he began his formal study of Chinese literature not with the poetry of the Tang Dynasty, as one might expect, but rather with the drama of the Yuan Dynasty, specifically the work of Kuan Han-ch'ing (who also, like nearly all those educated in China at the time, wrote poetry - three of his poems are included in this anthology). The emphasis on the vernacular, often bawdy, comic, ironic, punning and playful qualities of language in the drama of that era were clearly not lost on Seaton. I realize now how well it all suits his nature.

As a scholar, Seaton is obliged to be comprehensive. He does in fact go beyond himself to translate and include in the anthology the whole of the Li Sao ("On Encountering Sorrow"), the long, obscure, shamanistic monologue of unyielding piety by Ch'u Yuan. But no translator, no writer at all worth reading, is without a particular sensibility. Consider some of the most prominent translators of poetry from the Chinese: Gary Snyder immediately brings to mind the playful boastfulness of the Buddhist mountain-recluse Han Shan; Kenneth Rexroth, the clear humane sentiment of the Sung Dynasty poets, particularly Li Ch'ing Chao; and David Hinton, an emphasis on ecological philosophy and graphic pattern.

Seaton began publishing translations of poetry from the Chinese in the late 70s with a collection of Taoist drinking songs from the Yuan Dynasty. He has gone on to publish selections of Tu Fu, Ou-yang Hsiu, and Yuan Mei; gatherings of Ch'an Buddhist poems; the two core texts of Taoism - the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu; and, most recently, the Cold Mountain poems of Han Shan, Shih Te, and Wang Fan-chih. The common thread here is the playful, eccentric quality of vernacular, non-institutional, anti-aristocratic Taoism (even the Li Sao inclusion I mentioned above is, not surprisingly, followed by "The Fisherman's Song," a Taoist-tempered reply). The selection in the anthology in large part foregrounds this aspect of the tradition, and when translating just such poets in whom this current runs strongest, Seaton is at his best, and no one can match him.

His translations of the Ch'ing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei are particularly fine: I forget when reading them that they are even translations. I've always been impressed by this with Seaton, as I am with Gary Snyder, whom I know Seaton himself respects - the close sympathy between translator and translated. Reading this anthology, I think of Seaton out down that long dirt driveway off of Chicken Bridge Road, in the backwoods of Pittsboro, NC, living a life in many respects analogous to these poets with whom he has spent the greater part of his imaginative life.

If it's not clear already, I can't recommend this anthology highly enough. If you've already read around some in Chinese poetry, this anthology will come as a wonderful addition. If you're new, curious or even maybe a bit resistant, well, I think you're just the sort Seaton is after. To Chinese poetry (and perhaps to poetry, period - Seaton has collaborated over the years with the likes of Sam Hamill and Ursula K. Le Guin, some of the most significant literary figures of our time) there can be no better introduction.

"So if I wish I were a spirit-being,
or pray Heaven for a few more years...
it's not that I want to dine on dew,
or wander fairylands...
every word that's written,
to read each one, that's all."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Poetry is at the soul of China. From ancient times to modern life, the art of verse has been held in high esteem by the Chinese people, and for very good reasons. Chinese poets have captured in words the essence of the Way (Tao) in a landscape that reflects the universal moods of spirit.

This Shambhala anthology conveys to readers an explanation of subtle Chinese language terms and provides a wonderful selection of poems which often inspire simplicity in life and reflect nature's lessons on how to achieve it.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2009
Format: Paperback
Seaton is a Master. This Anthology must stand among the best collections of Chinese Poetry in English translation. I enjoy every page. His intricate knowledge of Chinese history and the cultural environment of so many dynasties enables him to make the modern reader feel part of a moment that transcends ages. His translations are simple, beautiful, powerful and graceful all with a sense of dignity and a sense of humor!
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