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Empty Hills—Deep Woods—Green Moss: William Carlos Williams’s Chinese Experiment

By Jonathan Cohen

The object of art is not the outer representation, the seeming, but the informing spirit.
—William E. Gates, in
Early Chinese Painting (1916)


Throughout his career William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) crossed the borders of poetry by means of translation when he needed to find new ways to make poems. His lifelong quest was for a workable form. Starting in 1910 he turned to translating poetry to experiment with poetics at the advice of Ezra Pound, following his first book of poems which had come out the previous year (poems he later called “obviously bad”). He described the motive of his initial foray into the world of translation this way in a letter to his brother Edgar: “I’m going to begin work on a translation from the Spanish [of sixteenth-century master poet Fernando de Herrera]. . . . No kind of practice is better than just such translating work.” Over the course of the next four decades, Williams made translations of poetry and also fiction from both Spanish and French—languages he had heard at home while growing up; in fact, his father and mother served as his collaborators in various translation projects. It was in the mid-1950s that he found himself at an impasse with his poetics, and subsequently set out to translate a group of poems from classical Chinese, with the help of a young poet-translator from China named David Rafael Wang (1931–77; known as David Hsin-fu Wand in academe). Wang claimed to be a direct descendant of the famous Chinese painter-poet, Wang Wei (701–61), and soon after meeting Williams, he proposed their collaboration. Not all that surprisingly, Pound—famously described by T. S. Eliot as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”—brought them together.

Williams had thought his invention of the triadic line that he used in The Desert Music (1954) and Journey to Love (1955) was the “solution of the problem of modern verse.” His masterpiece “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” which appeared in the latter book, is a good example of this form, as shown in these excerpts from the poem:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                 like a buttercup
                                  upon its branching stem—
save that it’s green and wooden—
                 I come, my sweet,
                                  to sing to you.

                            . . .

                                  It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                  for lack
of what is found there.

But one month after the book’s publication, he confided to his friend Cid Corman that he found his stepped-down triadic-line poetry “overdone, artificial, archaic—smacking of Spenser and his final Alexandrine.” He kept using the triadic descending form and variations of it, for lack of a good alternative, in Book V of Paterson, which he was working on at the time. The prominent Williams scholar Christopher MacGowan observes the “impasse of the 1955–57 years is characterized by Williams’s need to develop his poetics beyond the triadic line—that he now felt made too much of a concession to the past and to the place of memory in the imagination’s confrontation with the world—while at the same time retaining the formal advances he felt he had discovered in his recent poetry.” Williams’s health problems following his two strokes a few years earlier were making his efforts at creative innovation all the more challenging.

Early in 1957 the voices of poets from ancient China called to him, in the form of the free renderings (Pound style) of a small group of poems written during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and Song dynasty (960–1279) that Wang published in the February issue of Noel Stock’s Edge. Williams had a long history of engagement with Chinese poetry. Pound’s publication of his Cathay translations in 1915 captivated him. He was immediately taken by them. Soon after the book’s publication, Williams wrote to Harriet Monroe of Poetry: “Pound’s translation from the Chinese is something of great worth well handled. Superb! . . . the Chinese things are perhaps a few of the greatest poems written.” Williams subsequently plunged into reading classical Chinese poetry, as well as reading about it. In 1916, he bought a copy of Herbert Giles’s A History of Chinese Literature, ostensibly as a gift for his mother (the inscription in it says, “For Mammie, from her son, Willie—for the gentleness of the ancient Chinese poets—knowing how you love all gentle things”).

Giles was a British diplomat and sinologist. For thirty-five years he was the sole professor of Chinese at Cambridge University. Among his many works were translations of the Analects of Confucius, the Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching), the Chuang Tzu, the widely published Chinese-English Dictionary, and, in 1901, his History of Chinese Literature, the first such survey to appear in English. Williams was undoubtedly drawn to the section on the poetry of the Tang dynasty, one of the golden ages of Chinese cultural history, where Pound was mining poems with great success. Here is what Giles explained to Williams:

Brevity is indeed the soul of a Chinese poem, which is valued not so much for what it says as for what it suggests. As in painting, so in poetry suggestion is the end and aim of the artist, who in each case may be styled an impressionist. The ideal length is twelve lines, and this is the limit set to candidates at the great public examinations at the present day, the Chinese holding that if a poet cannot say within such compass what he has to say it may very well be left unsaid.

This must have resonated with Williams in view of his developing modernist poetics, together with the ideas of imagism that helped guide him in the kind of new poetry he was writing at the time—the poems he was publishing in Others for the most part, which would form his next book Al Que Quiere! (1917), the first to present his distinctive voice. Imagism’s debt to Asia is clear, largely through Pound. Giles further detailed for Williams:

The eight-line poem is also a favorite, and so, but for its extreme difficulty, is the four-line epigram, or “stop-short,” so called because of its abruptness, though, as the critics explain, “it is only the words which stop, the sense goes on,” some train of thought having been suggested to the reader. The latter form of verse was in use so far back as the Han dynasty, but only reached perfection under the Tangs. Although consisting of only twenty or twenty-eight words, according to the measure employed, it is just long enough for the poet to introduce, to develop, to embellish, and to conclude his theme in accordance with certain established laws of composition.

Giles concluded his description of this classic four-liner by saying that “the third line is considered the most troublesome to produce, some poets even writing it first; the last line should contain a ‘surprise’ or dénouement.”

Over the years since his early encounter with Chinese poetry via Pound’s Cathay and Giles’s History, Williams’s own poetry showed influences of Chinese poetry and its techniques, which are beautifully documented by Zhaoming Qian (see his Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams and East-West Exchange and Late Modernism: Williams, Moore, Pound). Of Williams’s 1923 work Spring and All, Qian writes, “[It] was the Tang dynasty Chinese poets who influenced him to rearrange several lines in square-looking stanzas on the page.” This is just one of his many observations of how Chinese verse helped shape Williams’s poetics.

In 1957 the voices of Chinese poets once again had a potent effect on Williams. He responded so enthusiastically to Wang’s translations that he wrote to Pound: “I do enjoy EDGE—the last translations . . . by/of David Rafael Wang are worth the trip half way round the world to have encountered.” Pound in turn told Wang, who had become one of his disciples, to write Williams, and he replied to Wang: “For heaven’s sake! I’ve been looking for you everywhere since I read those Chinese translations in the last EDGE. Pound wrote me one of his unnecessarily cryptic cards telling me you were in New York. . . . Of course come out and see me.” Two weeks later, with the advent of spring, Wang visited Williams at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.

Chinese poetry became a refuge for Williams, like the green mountains to where its poets would retreat. In June he published a review in Poetry magazine of Kenneth Rexroth’s recently translated One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. This review further demonstrates the appeal Chinese poetry had for Williams, who claimed that so far as he knew, “nothing comparable and as relaxed is to be found . . . in the whole of English or American verse, and in French or Spanish verse.” He said Rexroth’s collection was “one of the most brilliantly sensitive books of poems in the American idiom it has ever been my good fortune to read.”

At the end of the summer, Wang proposed to Williams that they work together on translating a group of Chinese poems. Williams liked the idea very much and hoped a book would result from it. An aspiring poet, Wang recognized the value of doing a project with a master like Williams, and the old poet who needed a retreat recognized the value of doing a translation project with the young writer, telling him he was “looking forward eagerly to an acquaintance with the great poets of China through one of their direct descendants.”

The collaboration began in earnest on January 17, 1958, when Wang made the trip to Rutherford once again. He later told Pound he “spent whole afternoon and most of evening at Doc Williams’s” to plan the project and start the work. Wang would provide Williams with a translation and some critical points. Williams would take it from there. The first poet they worked on was Wang Wei, the legendary Tang poet, painter, and musician—one of the most famous men of arts and letters of his time. Two stop-short poems were chosen, including what may be Wang’s most famous individual poem, known in English most commonly as “Deer Park” (after the place in India [Sarnath] where Buddha gave his first sermon after Enlightenment).

First, David chanted it for Williams, sounding it something like this: “Kong shan bu jian ren / Dan wen ren yu xiang // Fan ying ru shen lin / Fu zhao qing tai shang.” Then, he wrote down the poem in Chinese, and gave him this character-by-character translation:

Image: From the William Carlos Williams Papers at Yale University. Used with permission of the Estate of William Carlos Williams.

It is very likely that Wang explained to Williams that a single Chinese character may be a noun (unspecified as singular or plural), verb, and adjective, and may also have contradictory meanings clarified only by context. This poem has no first-person singular—no “I”—like most of classical Chinese poetry.

Concerning its form, the poem is a model of the popular Tang form known as jueju (literally, cut-off lines; or “stop-short,” as Giles calls it), which comprises four lines of five or seven words/characters each, and is divided into two couplets. Each couplet is generally a distinct unit. In his brilliant study 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which focuses on multiple translations of this particular poem, Eliot Weinberger explains: “The couplets often, but not always, exhibit some kind of parallelism (in this poem, not see people / hear people, and the words for return at the beginning of both lines 3 and 4).” In addition to line structure, poets using jueju had to meet certain expectations of tonal meter, as with other forms of Chinese poetry, alternating level and oblique tones both between and within lines. The jueju is to be chanted or sung.

The day after their meeting, Williams sent Wang his versions of the two poems they had worked on, along with a note that said: “This is what I can offer you now. . . . Nice to see you—though it was rather exhausting for me.” Here is his rendering of “Deer Park”:

Empty now the hill’s green
but a man’s voice refracted
from the deep woods livens
the green of the moss there

Williams included his working draft, which shows his attempts to find equivalents and his struggle recreating the poem:

Image: From the William Carlos Williams Papers at Yale University. Used with permission of the Estate of William Carlos Williams.

One of the curious features of Williams’s version is the absence of the sunlight and the closing image of it in the moss. He probably didn’t grasp that the moss is up in the trees, as Wang’s literal translation only indicated “on” and not its alternative meaning of “above.” Perhaps he felt it had to go in order for him to achieve an equivalent of the compression in the original poem.

Wang responded a few days later: “I am afraid that you have changed the meaning too much. Here is the literal version”:

In the empty mountain with no trace of men,
I hear reverberation of human voices.
I follow the refracted light into the woods
And find it a spotlight on the green moss.

He told Williams, “I am quite certain that you can make more out of it.” Three days later, in another letter, Wang told him this about Wang Wei: “E. P. calls him the Jules Laforgue of eighth-century China. I am sure that once you know him better you will do a most wonderful job translating him.” Williams kept working on his translation of “Deer Park,” disregarding most of the literal, including the element of light. He thought compression was more essential. And so, a month after receiving Wang’s encouragement, he sent this distilled version, reduced by twenty-five percent in word count:

Across the empty hills
in the deep woods
comes a man’s voice
the green moss there

Qian observes that Williams “omitted ‘no man seen’ and ‘light,’ thus eclipsing the odd pairings of no man/voices and deep woods/light in the original.” Qian adds, “The odd pairings are meant to signify Zen illumination, with the unexpected human voices and the piercing sunlight symbolizing the sudden leap to enlightenment.” Williams was compelled to condense the poem to a trinity of images he thought gave the poem its meaning, as he had done famously in his “Red Wheelbarrow,” in the manner of imagism, or as he liked to say, “no ideas but in things.”

Williams knew he was sacrificing some things in his very spare “empty hills—deep woods—green moss” version. Along with his new attempt at translating the poem, he said in his letter to Wang: “You can’t translate it and give its brevity and overtones that are given in the original language.” Indeed, he felt defeated. This note was, in a way, a postscript to the letter he had sent Wang the day before, on February 25:

I have struggled with the poems but I cannot get a replica of the ancient language. Certain what you have put down is not it. Maybe it’s impossible to put down in any semblance of what I feel. It’s too far away. Too difficult for me to wrestle with.

You were very kind to have come out to read to me the wonderful old language which no one has been competent even faintly to reproduce. To my mind it is futile as Pound has done to reproduce the ideographs which are so beautiful in themselves. They can mean nothing to an English-speaking reader.

The sound of the ancient language is lacking. . . . The only thing is to return the poems to you. It is an ancient poetry whose very feeling is too far away from us to be captured by us. If I should immerse myself, provided I could, in the language it would be an exhaustive job that would take me a lifetime. I haven’t at my age the time for it.

He ended this letter by saying: “I am glad to have met you. I wish you good luck in your studies [Wang had just enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Maryland], forgive me.”

Before throwing in the towel on the translation project (though he continued to respond to translations Wang showed him), Williams had better luck with his recreation of Wang Wei’s ballad “The Lady of Lo-Yang.” It is remarkable as a demonstration of Williams’s really going to town, so to speak, with the translation process as an act of poetry. Three days after Wang sent him his literal translation of “Deer Park,” he sent Williams his version of the ballad—what he called “an imitation of Wang Wei” based on the Chinese:

The lady of Lo-Yang lives across the street.
By her looks she’s about fifteen years of age.
Fitted with jade and silk her husband’s horse is ready for parade.
In golden plates she is served sliced herring and caviar.

Her painted screen and roseate stairs rival in their hues.
The peach blossoms and willow shades spread outside her room.
Through gauze curtain she glides into her perfumed sedan chair.
’Midst feathery fans she enters her sequined mosquito net.

Her husband is a budding young, haughty millionaire;
His extravagance puts Mark Anthony even to shame.
Pitying her maids she teaches them the classic Chinese dance.
Tired of gifts she freely gives her corals and pearls away.

By her crystal screen she blows the light off her velvety lamp.
The green smoke rises like petals bourne upon the waves.
Filled with fun and laughter she has no regrets.
With her hair done up in a roll she sits by the candle case.

In her circle of friends are men of pedigree and wealth.
She visits only the king and aristocrats.
Can she recall the girl who was pure as ivory
And used to wash her clothings by the creek not very far away?

And here is Williams’s rendering—as free as Wang’s and more Williams than Wang Wei, but at the same time truer to the original poem in style and tone—which he titled “The Peerless Lady”:

Look, there goes the young lady across the street
She looks about fifteen, doesn’t she?
Her husband is riding the piebald horse
Her maids are scraping chopped fish from a gold plate.

Her picture gallery and red pavilion stand face to face
The willow and the peach trees shadow her eaves
Look, she’s coming thru the gauze curtains to get into her chaise:
Her attendants have started winnowing the fans.

Her husband got rich early in his life
A more arrogant man you never find around!
She keeps busy by teaching her maids to dance
She never regrets giving jewels away.

There goes the light by her window screen
The green smoke’s rising like petals on wave
The day is done and what does she do?
Her hair tied up, she watches the incense fade.

None but the bigwigs visit her house
Only the Chaos and the Lees get by her guards
But do you realize this pretty girl
Used to beat her clothes at the river’s head?

Williams had the good sense to eliminate David Wang’s attempts at domesticating and Westernizing the poem, as with the egregious intrusions of “millionaire” and “Mark Anthony,” respectively. He used American speech—his beloved “American idiom”—which he considered the target language of his translation. Himself the “bigwig” of making poetry out of it, he is on record for saying “I don’t speak English, but the American idiom.”

To appreciate Williams’s achievement with this poem, consider the opening lines of a relatively more literal translation of the poem by Witter Bynner (with collaborator Kiang Kang-hu) titled “A Song of a Girl from Lo-yang” and published in his popular 1929 Chinese anthology, The Jade Mountain, which Williams knew well (he also must have known Bynner-Kiang’s earlier version of this poem published in Poetry):

There’s a girl from Lo-yang in the door across the street,
She looks fifteen, she may be a little older.
. . . While her master rides his rapid horse with jade bit and bridle,
Her handmaid brings her cod-fish in a golden plate.
On her painted pavilions, facing red towers,
Cornices are pink and green with peach-bloom and with willow,
Canopies of silk awn her seven-scented chair,
And rare fans shade her, home to her nine-flowered curtains.

Unlike Bynner-Kiang, Williams used colloquial American speech (no “rapid horse” or “silk awn” or “nine-flowered curtains”) to effectively achieve a directness more faithful to the original poem and, with the simplicity of everyday talk, to create a Zen-like calm at the center of its voice—true to Wang Wei. He actually based his rendering on their translation as well as David Wang’s; for instance, drawing his line “Only the Chaos and the Lees get by her guards” from Bynner-Kiang’s “And day and night they’re visiting the homes of Chao and Li.” Williams’s version was the high point of his efforts to write like a Chinese poet so removed from his own world. The challenges of recreating the ancient Asian poems in “American,” with their vast linguistic and cultural differences, were simply too much for him in the final years of his life.

By May 1958 Williams was completely done with his Chinese experiment. “I quit,” he told Wang in a letter. He explained: “The only possible contact I can have with the Old China . . . is the poetry you are able to put on paper when you face me. It’s up to you and whatever mastery you can muster of the idiom you are using. I can’t go beyond that however much I may want to.” Williams went on to express an essential aspect of his translation poetics: “It is always a translation into the modern idiom of the old language. The edges must remain clear in the phrases you elect to use, never sentimental.” (The previous year he had had a more rewarding experience translating from ancient Greek a single poem by Sappho, who presented him with relatively less daunting borders to cross.) Despite his inability to devote the time and energy he deemed necessary to continue his collaboration with Wang, Williams had learned from him a valuable lesson: “Ying, the female principle, and Yang, as you have pointed it out to me, have done more than anything I have ever encountered to make me realize what the poets are talking about. What you say of the art of physical approach between the sexes is reassuring to me that they among themselves celebrate[d] that art and practiced it, gloried in it and made songs of it.”     

In the end, did William’s brief experiment as a translator of Chinese poetry help him in his quest to find a workable form for his new poems? Soon afterward he turned to a more engaging and more fruitful project for him, translating contemporary Latin American poets (see his By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 and my WWB article “On William Carlos Williams’s Translation of Ernesto Mejía Sánchez’s ‘Vigils’”). That said, his experimentation with the stop-short poems of Wang Wei and others reaffirmed for him the value of their square-looking poems using the jueju form. This design is seen in his poem “The Chrysanthemum,” first published in 1960 in the New Jersey-based magazine Now and later in his final book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

how shall we tell
the bright petals
from the sun in the
sky concentrically

crowding the branch
save that it yields
in its modesty
to that splendor?

The twenty-seven words of this poem, in which the poet contemplates how to distinguish the petals of a chrysanthemum from the sun’s brightness, seem indebted in their form to the jueju. It’s just one word short of the classic eight-line jueju. Here the flower is transformed by the sunlight, much like the moss in Wang Wei’s closing image of “Deer Park.” Other poems in Pictures from Brueghel show Williams’s use of minimal design in the style of the Chinese, following his turn away from the triadic line.

In 1966, three years after Williams’s death, Wang published in New Directions 19 (the annual anthology of prose and poetry edited by James Laughlin) the translations of Chinese poems that he and Williams had produced. They appear as “The Cassia Tree: A Collection of Translations & Adaptations from the Chinese,” by David Rafael Wang “in collaboration with” William Carlos Williams. A total of thirty-nine poems, from mostly eighth- and ninth-century Tang dynasty poets. The headnote by Wang says: “These poems are not translations in the sense that Arthur Waley’s versions are translations. They are rather recreations in the American idiom—a principle to which William Carlos Williams dedicated his poetic career.” Beneath the headnote are these two lines of verse by Wallace Stevens, from his poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” serving as an epigraph: “It was the spirit that we sought and knew / That we should ask this often as she sang.” Wang was riding on Williams’s coattails a bit, as several of the poems included in “The Cassia Tree” predated his collaboration with Williams, who had no hand at all in them (i.e., “Popular T’ang and Sung Poems” [based on seven jueju and other style four-liners], “Ce-Lia the Immortal Beauty,” and “Long Banister Lane”). Nonetheless, Williams is clearly there in translations where his distinctive use of language is unmistakable, as in “The Peerless Lady” and also “Profile of a Lady.” His rendering of “Deer Park” was not included by Wang, nor did Wang include his own version.

A few months after Williams’s death in 1963, his wife Florence (Floss) wrote Wang a letter in which she told him: “He loved life—activity—creating—and when all that was denied him—he was glad to go. You were a good friend and a stimulating influence.” Thanks to Wang, Williams was able to take that “trip half way round the world” to experience Chinese poetry in the most profound way, not merely as a reader of it on the page, but as a translator aiming to recreate it.


Author’s Note: Grateful acknowledgment is made to Zhaoming Qian for his pioneering scholarship and his kind support; to the British Museum for the landscape scroll image; to the libraries at Dartmouth and Yale for the correspondence and translations of Wang and Williams; to New Directions for use of “The Chrysanthemum” and “The Peerless Lady”; and to the Estate of William Carlos Williams for use of his unpublished writings. See bibliography.

Published Apr 26, 2018   Copyright 2018 Jonathan Cohen

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