Those of us lamenting the suffering caused by war and terrorism, and feeling the pain of helplessness, need poems to help us. Poems that speak of the dead and their growing numbers; poems that recognize the emptiness of words themselves, even the words of poems, as they are cast into the winds of impermanence. Lament, too, is a form of relationality.
We need Du Fu's "Facing Snow." He is China's most famous poet, living from the Tang Dynasty to the mid-8th century, and his poem serves as a testament to the experience of confronting the harsh realities of life and war.
In very rough translation, it goes something like this:
Weeping of battles, many new ghosts,
Chanting in sorrow, a lonely old man.
Chaotic clouds press lower at twilight, fierce snow dances in whirling wind.
My ladle discarded, there's no green in my cup,
The brazier remains, the fire seems red,
From several prefectures, news has been cut,
I sit worried, writing words in the air.
What you find above is a simplified version of the translation offered by Lucas Bender in the podcast below. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University.
The ghosts are the dead, growing in numbers every day. Many new ghosts. The chaotic clouds pressing lower at twilight are the clouds of stormy snow or, we might add, of falling bombs, from terrorists and soldiers. The poem speaks to the impermanence of life and to the realities of loneliness and old age: chanting in sorrow, a lonely old man. There is no nourishment, no green, in his cup. And the poem speaks to intractable political situations: in this case, the An Lushan rebellion, which was ravaging China at the time the poem was written. For the speaker in the poem, and for so many, the fog of war reigns supreme. News has been cut. Sometimes it is cut intentionally.
The poem is written in a very formal and stylized language, reflecting the high literary tradition of Du Fu's time. The snow, the wind, the fire are all used to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings. The poem is written in a very rhythmic and musical language, characteristic of Du Fu's poetry. When heard in Chinese, the poem is a song. Or, dare I say, a psalm.
Yes, we need poems like this. Not that the poems soften the pain, but that they face the pain. Yes, we can hope that, sometime after the pain, a kind of creative transformation occurs, in God's life if not also the world's life. Still, there are the ghosts and the families of ghosts. The ghosts swirl in the memories of those who lost them. They are, in Whitehead's words, "objectively immortal." The ghosts cannot return to life, but we can remember them with their families and lament their depths. Some of the ghosts are children, some handicapped, some grandmothers, some grandfathers. Ghosts come in all ages.
In this lament or the dead, for the ghosts, lies our solidarity with others, in a world of mutual becoming, as we face the snow. Facing snow together, without hiding from tragedy: there, too, is love.
- Jay McDaniel
Du Fu's Facing Snow
A Reading and Discussion with Lucas Bender
"Often considered China’s greatest poet, Du Fu (712–770) came of age at the height of the Tang dynasty, in an era marked by confidence that the accumulated wisdom of the precedent cultural tradition would guarantee civilization’s continued stability and prosperity. When his society collapsed into civil war in 755, however, he began to question contemporary assumptions about the role that tradition should play in making sense of experience and defining human flourishing. In this book, Lucas Bender argues that Du Fu’s reconsideration of the nature and importance of tradition has played a pivotal role in the transformation of Chinese poetic understanding over the last millennium. In reimagining his relationship to tradition, Du Fu anticipated important philosophical transitions from the late-medieval into the early-modern period and laid the template for a new and perduring paradigm of poetry’s relationship to ethics. He also looked forward to the transformations his own poetry would undergo as it was elevated to the pinnacle of the Chinese poetic pantheon."
Bender is Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University
Tang Era Poetry: Li Bai and Du Fu
A BBC Discussion
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, who wrote in the 8th century in the Tang Era. Li Bai (701-762AD) is known for personal poems, many of them about drinking wine, and for finding the enjoyment in life. Du Fu (712-770AD), a few years younger, is more of an everyman, writing in the upheaval of the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763AD). Together they have been a central part of Chinese culture for over a millennium, reflecting the balance between the individual and the public life, and one sign of their enduring appeal is that there is rarely agreement on which of them is the greater.
With Tim Barrett, Professor Emeritus of East Asian History at SOAS, University of London Tian Yuan Tan, Shaw Professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford and Professorial, Fellow at University College, and Frances Wood, Former Curator of the Chinese Collections at the British Library