Kizer’s Translations

I’ve finally managed to finish all 500 pages of Carolyn Kizer’s Calm, Cool, & Collected. No doubt about it, the older I get the harder it is to read a 500 page book of poetry, no matter how good the poet is, or isn’t. Reading something that long seems too much like taking a college course, and there’s too many things I want to do in my life to be taking more college literature courses. I guess that means I’ll be focusing on shorter works than Alan Dugan’s last collection of Poems for awhile, that I’ll put off reading Berryman’s book even longer, and that I’ll be focusing on shorter works of poetry I already have waiting on the shelf.

Of course, if I were really being thorough, I’d go back and re-read several of Kizer’s best poems, or the whole volume, in light of her whole body of work and read what other literary critics have to say about her. Luckily, though, that is not what I do. I’ve gained new perspectives and new insights from reading her poems, and that’s all I want from a book of poems.

Though fascinated by Kizer’s “Pakistan Journal” written in 1969, by far my favorite translations were those of Chinese masters, particularly Tu Fu’s poems. Reading this section, though I came to realize just how different the worlds are that Kizer and I have lived in. In the introduction she notes that her mother was reading her Arthur Waley’s Chinese translations when she was eight, and Kizer interrupted her college work at Columbia University to go to China, where her father was “administering United Nations relief.? I’m not a big believer in using autobiographical details to interpret poems, but I suspect that I might see much of what she’s written differently after reading these biographical details.

Though I liked several of Tu Fu’s poems, I guess I like this one as well as any of the others:


Petal by petal, the Spring dissolves.
A small wind carries the rest away.
All nature conspires to sadden me.
But gross, unrepentant, I will be gay.

I devour the flowers that yet remain.
I shall not stint myself on wine.
A cock, red-throated, a green-winged hen:
The kingfishers nest in the ruined vine.

The River Pavilion lists in decay.
Beyond these boundaries I see
A grave stone unicorn, adamant;
He leans on a tomb, stares far away.

You natural laws! I take your measure;
Forgetting rank, work, weary days.
I find my nature made for pleasure,
And drink and linger, at ease.

Perhaps the poem sounds like little more than a traditional carpé diem poem, but it’s not the kind of poem you’d expect from an English or American poet, unless it’s Walt Whitman. Considering my recent photographic series, perhaps I was merely hooked by the reference to the kingfisher’s nest.

As I get older, though, I can certainly identify with Tu Fu’s sadness and his attempts to remain happy despite the fact that many of the things he loves most are fading away.

Despite my sarcastic outbursts, I’d like to be remembered as one who lived life as fully as possible and refused to give in to weary days, hopefully without having to resort to copious amounts of wine.