April has been Poetry Month for a few years now. Some people like the fact. Others do not: Should the art be reduced to a month, they say, like Cheese Products or Stress Awareness? Every month is poetry month, or not, goes the argument, and poetry is not a dessert topping or a line of athletic shoes. On the other hand, why not celebrate poetry more than usual, at some time of year or the other? And doesn't the art survive a little vulgarity perfectly well?
Slate will try to have it both ways this month by presenting each week a poem that is about poetry from a viewpoint that is in one way or another negative: more sour than sweet. Another goal will be to avoid the best-known poems about poetry: no chestnuts allowed.
Here to begin the month is Burton Watson's elegant translation of the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-p'o. Su Tung-p'o has been reading some poetry that is not very good. His crisp poem about mediocre poetry reminds us that a lot of poetry is stupid and tedious and that the art survives that, too.
Listen to Robert Pinsky reading this poem.
READING THE POETRY OF MENG CHAO
By Su Tung-p'o, translated by Burton Watson
Night: reading Meng Chiao's poems,
characters fine as a cow's hair.
By the cold lamp, my eyes blur and swim.
Good passages I rarely find—
lone flowers poking up from the mud—
but more hard words than the Odes or Li sao—
jumbled rocks clogging the clear stream,
making rapids too swift for poling.
My first impression is of eating little fishes—
what you get's not worth the trouble;
or of boiling tiny mud crabs
and ending up with some empty claws.
For refinement he might compete with monks
but he'll never match his master Han Yh.
Man's life is like morning dew,
a flame eating up the oil night by night.
Why should I strain my ears
listening to the squeak of this autumn insect?
Better lay aside the book
and drink my cup of jade-white wine.