Du Fu, David Young (translator), Du Fu: A Life in Poetry
Publisher: Knopf
2008, 256 pages, paperback, $16.95

widely considered to be China’s greatest poet, Du Fu (712-770 CE) has been translated repeatedly into English with varying results. Because traditional Chinese poetry combines stringent and complex formal conventions with an intrinsic ambiguity in meaning, translators are often forced to make choices between the literal and the loose, either decision leaving something of the original behind. However, in Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, a new book of 170 of Du Fu’s more than 1400 surviving poems, American poet and translator David Young (Black Lab, 2006) has, according to his introduction, “evolved a kind of middle way, whereby the Chinese line (which is also a complete syntactic unit, comparable to the sentence) is treated as a free verse stanza, usually a couplet, with a minimum of punctuation.” The result of Young’s “middle way” of translation are poems that are as clear and alive today as any contemporary lyric, yet wise as the tradition from which they come.

Although known for his mastery of form, Du Fu’s genius arose from his ability to stretch the boundaries of acceptable content and subject matter, and Young’s choice of poems illuminates these innovations. Along with the traditional subjects of nature, friendship, and travel, Du Fu captures in verse the immediate social concerns of his day: political upheaval, domesticity, and the hardships of the poor–all virtually unseen in Chinese verse before him. Furthermore, Du Fu approaches even the most ordinary and mundane aspects of life with a reverent tenderness, excluding no experience however private or self-reflective from his poetry, as seen in this section from “Seven for the Flowers Near the River”:

Flowers in crowds, shoals, galaxies
swarm and tangle by the river

I don’t walk I stagger
spring knocks me out

two things I can still manage
wine and poetry

you flowers
have pity on a white-haired man.

While Young’s translations are more laconic than his predecessors, his austere approach to translation never dilutes the delivery of Du Fu’s distinctive voice. Instead, his sparsely translated versions work to keep the focus on the spontaneous nature of poems written in and of the moment. Also, as the title suggests, Young offers just the right balance of biography and presentation of the work itself by ordering the poems chronologically, providing relevant footnotes and a brief introduction to each chapter that connect the poems to both the life and times of the poet.

In the end, this absorbing collection not only introduces new readers to a classic poetic tradition and voice, but also serves to remind contemporary lyric poets of the vehicle for personal expression they’ve inherited, and more importantly, of the kind of poetic precision, clarity, and humility that endures.

-Ryan Bayless