A Sense in Which a Genius Can’t Be Wrong

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1264) Red Pine in Finding Them Gone (2016) visits Chinese poets of the past through their homes, graves, monuments, in a one-month pilgrimage, with photographs, across China by rail, bus, taxicab, foot.  He is a raconteur, with good taste in bourbon; he brought for libations (he indeed pours them on the ground) an 18-year-old Willett and the 2011 George T. Stagg (“the last of the Guggenheim money that made my trip possible,” p. 15).

“Red Pine” is the literary name of a man living in Port Townsend, Washington.  In legend Ch‘ih Sung = Red Pine four and a half millennia ago, ending a drought by sprinkling water from an earthen bowl, was made Lord of Rain with a dwelling on mythical K‘un-lun (= cinnabar) Mountain.

Two millennia ago the Roman poet Horace praised the Greek poet Homer, eight centuries earlier, for plunging listeners into the middle of the story as if it were already familiar (The Art of Poetry ll. 147-49; T.S. Dorsch tr., Classical Literary Criticism p. 84, 1965).  RP begins “I checked out of the Beijing Friendship Hotel at five thirty, before the sun was up.”  Catching the bullet train he three pages later is at the birthplace of Confucius, who lived after Homer, before Horace.

On Day 17 at Anlu where the poet Li Po (also “Li Pai” as RP has; 701-762) lived RP gives a photo of a thousand-year-old gingko.  He quotes poetry, talks with Chinese, suffers a misstep on Day 25, and four months later ends Day 30 with Han-shan (“Cold Mountain”, a literary name; lived about 800; Van 1243) and a poem by Gary Snyder (1930-  ), whom Han-shan inspired.

As with The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse (2014; a literary name; Van 1262, 1263) RP writes e.g. the name of Li Po’s earliest known poem “Visiting the Taoist Master of Taitienshan and Finding Him Gone” (Finding p. 120).  In the Wade-Giles system of transliterating Chinese, which RP mostly uses, it would be Tai-T‘ien Shan, but I believe RP means this amounts to one C word, like loudspeaker; it’s Bearing-Heaven Mountain but that’s not foremost in mind.  However he lands himself in fresh difficulties: leaving out the aspiration mark to avoid Tait‘ienshan he confuses the eye a new way: it’s worse a few lines above, where he writes Taming Temple.

But there’s a sense in which a genius can’t be wrong.  This poem in the original is an octet of two two-couplet quatrains, each line in five characters, with patterns of C’s Four Tones, par­allelism, and rhyme.  J. Minford & J. Lau’s Classical C Literature v. 1, pp. 748-49 (2000) has A. Cooper’s version “On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T‘ien Mountains and Not Finding Him” (AC’s Li Po and Tu Fu p. 105, 1973 [Tu Fu 712-770; C omits on, in, of, a & the, and, separate sing. & pl., much else; AC says “I have put the Chinese half-lines on separate lines”, p. 82; M & L keep “Taoist” but re-spell “Daitian” according to the Pinyin system]).

Word for word (shows parallelism):

Here’s Red Pine.

Sutton Breiding and I have been savoring Red Pine’s work.

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4 thoughts on “A Sense in Which a Genius Can’t Be Wrong

  1. The Red Pine translation really brings out the poetic feeling. Very, very nice.

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