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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Slayton: New Poetry Book

Lately, I’ve been reading poems written by a man who obviously loves the things many of us treasure about Vermont – the beauty of mountains and rivers, the simple pleasures of a quiet life close to nature and far from the rattle and frenzy of cities.

But this poet wasn’t writing about Vermont. He lived more than 900 years ago, and he was writing about his life --in China. His name was Wang An-Shih and his later poems have just been published in a collection translated by David Hinton of Calais.

Hinton has gained international recognition as the translator of several previous books of Chinese poetry and such Chinese classics as the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius and others. He’s been working on translating Wang An-Shih’s poems for the past 5 years.

What’s most appealing about Wang’s poems is their clarity, directness, and therefore, beauty. The language is simple and straightforward. Here, for example, is a poem entitled “A Spring Day”

“ I gaze into moss at my brushwood gate, rainwater radiant,

Then wander through spring, blossoms crowding branches.

  Everywhere. People travel distant roads and never arrive

But all day here, birds in song leave and come back again.”

This poem hints at Wang’s distaste for the busy travelers on “distant roads” who “never arrive,” and quietly celebrates the natural beauty of spring in the country. Other poems in the collection note that he is far from the center of things, yet happy in his rural retreat.

In fact, as David Hinton, the translator, points out in his introduction to the book, Wang had deserted a life of great power and importance as imperial minister to retreat to the countryside, practice Chan Buddhism, and sip tea or wine with his friends.

“He was more important in his day than a President,” Hinton told me recently, “He didn’t have Congress to deal with!”

Yet Wang’s poems refer to his earlier life as “a dream” and all but declare that his retreat has returned him to a deeper and more meaningful reality.

“To him, it really was like going home,” Hinton noted. “He says it over and over.”

Hinton chose to translate Wang An-Shih because he liked the depth and beauty of the ancient poet’s writing, and because there was no previous English translation of his work. This new collection is beautifully translated and important. And it gives us the chance to feel the authenticity of Wang An-Shih’s poems in our life today – in our small, rural kingdom of Vermont.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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