Dead Ducks and Dead Poets


The days grow long, the mountains

Beautiful. The south wind blows

Over blossoming meadows.

Newly arrived swallows dart

Over the steaming marshes.

Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand.

Almost as famous a favorite son of Chengdu as the panda is the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712 – 770), praised by Kenneth Rexroth as “The greatest non-epic non-dramatic poet to survive in any language.” His “thatched cottage,” or rather a reconstruction of it, is, with the surrounding park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, though it is also popular among residents. For the benefit of foreign tourists a sign points the way to “Exhibition hall of poetic saint is famous through all eternities.”

On one occasion I was talking with a Chinese man, a lawyer, telling him how much I appreciated Chinese students’ ready familiarity with their country’s poetry. With a somewhat surprised look, he said, “Of course. Poetry is the heart of civilization.” It would be tempting, but wrong, for us to think that they just memorize poems without understanding them. While that may be true in some cases, it was emphatically not true one day in my Theory of Knowledge class.

That class of young Chengdudes (I don’t suppose that is the real demonym for inhabitants of Chengdu) was reading Rexroth’s translation, given above, of one of Du Fu’s most famous poems. My students knew the original. I asked them what the translation conveyed of the original. They fell on it like lions and tore it to shreds. They were most severe with it for losing much of the original’s allusive character, of which they tried to give examples, reserving their strongest contempt for the last line. The problem, they said, was that nothing of what the line and the rest of the poem imply about love and faithfulness remains. They were particularly hard on the ducks. After class one bright student-artist, now studying in the animation department at the University of Southern California, said that it was a nice poem but not a good translation of Du Fu[1]. Traduttore traditore[2].

But that saying (translator traitor) implies another kind of faithfulness. Though in a translator we accept some license to bring a poet’s original work to a language foreign to it, it is harder to dismiss errant reading in one’s own language. (Denis Dutton offers a partial explanation in “Why Intentionalism Won’t Go Away”.) We may allow that some poems, like Shakespeare’s funeral song in Cymbeline, change their meaning in time[3], and that these changes may result in good poetic readings; but not just any reading on any occasion will do. I remember one 9th-grader offering his opinion that Penelope Lively’s story “At the Pitt-Rivers[4]” was about fish, and I have had a posting about the smut of Emily Dickinson. Both these errant interpretations needed to be corrected, not by ukase but by discussion of how to read closely.

Unacceptability in readings includes, dare I say it, misreadings such as those one finds in Dead Poets’ Society. We are approaching the 25th anniversary of that movie—a movie I saw during my second year of teaching and never saw or wanted to see again.  I didn’t like it then because it seemed false to what teaching is really like, and I fear I wouldn’t like it now because it seems false to what poetry is really like. Never mind that no such critic as Dr. Pritchard, Mr. Keating’s scholarly antagonist, existed or could exist: Keating, as the article linked above notes, is “forever reading in the book of himself.” Whether Keating was a reader-response theorist before the fact or a narcissist, he seriously misreads Frost, Whitman, and Wordsworth, turning them into a “Song of Keating’s Self.”

In this claim we come some distance from the commendable wish of the translator that the Other might in some fashion cross the barrier of language, however imperfectly. We are now in a terrain of self-regard whose inhabitants say, “This interpretation is right because it is mine: there is no Other.” If all that matters in teaching poetry is ratifying what a fourteen-year-old says, simply because he has said it, why is a teacher even needed?

[1] While writing this posting I discovered that old Burton Watson, now 88, published a scholarly translation of Du Fu when he was 75. I just placed an order for it with Powell’s Books.

P.S. (Some time later): The book arrived and is fine, though Watson himself says that Du Fu is “the despair of translators” and recommends reading as many translations as possible of his poems.

[2] Though Kenneth Koch thought good poems that were flawed as translations still warranted study, too, e.g. Chapman’s Ovid and Pound’s Li Bai.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, pp. 121 – 122.

[4] Set in a natural history museum, not an ocean or an aquarium.

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