Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 June 2018

Malcolm Guite re-reads a Chinese writer who was formative in his youth

THERE is great pleasure in turning again, after a long interval, to a book that was formative in your youth. The book seems fresh and new; yet at the same time you find, on page after page, expressions and ideas that are so much a part of your life that you had forgotten where they came from.

I have had that pleasure in re-reading The Importance of Living, a collection of essays and translations from Chinese by Lin Yutang, a 20th-century Chinese writer, translator, and philosopher. I read this book in my early twenties, and it was my first taste of Taoist classics such as the Tao Te Ching, with its gentle wisdom drawn from observing and imitating the flow of water.

Yutang’s own essays are wonderful, too: little meditations-in-the-moment on the pleasures of lying in bed, drinking tea, smoking, and watching clouds. Every page enhances one’s appreciation of everyday things, of hidden beauties, of “heaven in ordinary”. He quotes later Chinese classics, too, one of which, by the 17th-century writer Chin Shengt’an, is called Thirty-three Happy Moments. Some are very simple, like this one: “To cut with a big sharp knife a bright green watermelon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is this not happiness?”

Some celebrate moments of release and charity, such as the one in which Chin describes taking out from a trunk some dozens of IOUs that he knew people could not or would not repay. He writes: “I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them and I look up at the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?”

And so often, for him, as for me, the happy moments are associated with the presence or the memory of flowing water: “To hear our children recite the classics so fluently, like the sound of water pouring from a vase. Ah, is this not happiness?”

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Or when he hears young people singing Soochow folk songs as they tread a waterwheel and writes: “The water comes up over the wheel in a gushing torrent, like molten silver or melting snow. Ah, is this not happiness?”

This book also gave me my first love of Chinese poetry, and I went on from it to read Arthur Waley’s beautiful limpid translations. I was fascinated by the creative miracle of translation itself; for Chinese and English are so different, and their poetic traditions, and techniques are so distinct, and yet, somehow, meaning and beauty can flow between the two languages.

I had taken up the book out of a vague premonition that I needed its wisdom again, needed to pause, to reflect, to appreciate. And then came a lovely moment of synchronicity. Out of the blue, I received an email from a Chinese poet in the United States proposing to translate 51 of my sonnets for a Chinese edition, with a parallel text, and asking me to write a special preface for it.

I returned to the pages of Yutang with a quiet delight, and imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to see my lines transformed into the beautiful characters of the Chinese language, whose ideograms are both pictures and poetry. Ah, is this not happiness?

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