Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson and have just finished the section entitled “Part One: Early Years (1059-1073). It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, but it’s hard to pick out one poem as representative, particularly since Su Tung-p’o writes poems about so many different subjects.

Considering the present economy, though, this one particularly struck me:

Lament of the Farm Wife of Wu (1072)

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come – with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mold, the sickle rusts.
My tears are all cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see yellow stalks flattened in the mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty; shoulders sore, carting it to town –
the price it fetched, you’d think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we’ll get by for a time, but what of next year’s hunger?
Officials demand cash now – they won’t take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court – why do things get worse?
I’d be better off bride to the River Lord!

Line 16. “Bride to the River Lord.” In ancient times it was the custom each year to sacrifice a young girl as a “bride” to the River Lord, the god of the Yellow River, by placing her on a bed and letting her float down the river until the bed capsized and she drowned.

I’m a city boy and always have been, but having once been married to the daughter of a wheat farmer I’m all too aware of how dependent farmers are on the whims of the weather. And I know from limited experience just how hard harvest is — with machinery — though it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in 1072 in China.

It seems like the more things change the more they stay the same. Doesn’t it? It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of grinding poverty these farmers endured; perhaps we need to, though. It will give us some perspective on what we are enduring, which is not to say that there aren’t people who feel exactly like the farmer’s wife did over a thousand years ago.

5 thoughts on “Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o”

  1. There are always going to be lean times in farming, Loren, because we depend so much upon the weather and on the state of the economy. The price of milk has just gone down considerably again – life is all ups and downs for farmers everywhere – but at least in the developed world we don’t have the trials and tribulations of those struggling to make a living in places like Africa. Even the phrase “lean time” is relative, isn’t it? Particularly when you think that in cities like Calcutta people are born on the street, spend their lives on the street and die on the street. So even if the milk price is down we are still jolly lucky over here. Interesting poem, although I often wonder with Chinese poetry, how much is lost in translation. I have a poem written on rice paper, which I bought in China many years ago and when I asked for a translation the translator said that really it was just about the countryside and he would prefer not to translate it!

  2. thanks for this, and for the info about beds in rivers. as always this is a great site, pt’s comments add to the gift of it all. great story about the poem on rice paper. kjm/ great to see you last night. thanks

  3. “It will give us some perspective on what we are enduring, which is not to say that there aren’t people who FEEL exactly like the farmer’s wife did over a thousand years ago.”

    Point well taken. Am grateful to have your blog place to go to for poetry and discussion.

  4. I’ll have to admit that I appreciate the comments even though I’m guilty of not making enough comments on others’ sites.

    I especially appreciate comments like pat’s that give me a perspective that I would never get from my own experience.

    It’s this sense of a “virtual community” that keeps me blogging.

  5. The last line of this poem will stay in my mind forever. It is akin to putting Grandmother out on the ice floe, but hauntingly beautiful.

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