Whitman East & West

New Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman

UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS

Copyright © 2002 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-821-0


Chapter One

"Poets to Come ... Leaving It to You to Prove and Define It"

Lucy Chen, Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Poets Unknown

JAMES E. MILLER JR.

* * *

The words of my title come from a short poem in the opening section of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, "Inscriptions," which reads in whole:

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come! Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main things from you. (LG 14)

I am aware, of course, that Robert K. Martin used this poem as an epigraph to his "Introduction" to the 1992 volume he edited, entitled The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, a pioneer volume in treating Whitman's sexual themes in the most open possible way, in both their frankness and complexity, opening new paths for Whitman readers and critics to explore. I place Martin's book alongside Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom's 1995 collection of essays, Walt Whitman and the World, as two of the important works to appear on the Good Gray (or Good Gay) Poet in the 1990s. I mention these two works primarily to affirm that I follow their lead in exploring key aspects of Whitman's shaping influence.

The lines of Whitman's "Poets to Come" seem to come from a self-assured national poet and represent only one example of the many in Whitman's epic Leaves of Grass in which he confidently addressed the poets of the future. It should be noted, however, that he presents an expansive definition of "poets"-they are "orators, singers, musicians." And I would suggest that, by implication, Whitman is indicating that it would be these "poets to come" who could best literally translate him, or re-create him, for foreign readers. Many critics have affirmed that poetry simply cannot be translated, but I have always thought that if anyone sets out to attempt that impossible task of translation, it should not be scholars or critics but those who are poets in their own right. I would argue, in addition, that Whitman in "Poets to Come" was addressing, in his inclusiveness, the Chinese scholar/critic/translator/poet Zhao Luorui, known in America as Lucy Chen.

As you will see, I have composed this essay not only by looking over selected literary materials but also by searching through my half-faded memories of the past. Two of my Ph.D. students who wrote dissertations on Whitman came to Peking University to lecture, met Lucy, and wrote about her in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. David Kuebrich, a Fulbright Professor of American Literature in 1982-1983, published his piece entitled "Whitman in China" in the September 1983 issue. Kenneth M. Price, some ten years later, lectured at Peking University and recorded an interview with Lucy in the summer/fall 1995 double issue, "Whitman in Translation." From Price's interview we learn that during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966 -1976), which disrupted and up-rooted many Chinese people, especially intellectuals, Lucy's home was ransacked, and books and manuscripts, as well as her Ming-dynasty furniture, disappeared. Although later many items were returned, one volume never reappeared: her "own book of manuscript poems." In this essay, I shall discuss first Lucy Chen as I came to know her personally, and then I shall turn to the relationship of the two American authors she translated, T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman. Her Chinese versions of Eliot's The Waste Land appeared in 1937 and of Walt Whitman's complete Leaves of Grass in 1991. She expressed her feelings to me about both of these American poets in our correspondence.

My life has been intertwined with the life of Zhao Luorui. She took a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1948 with a dissertation on Henry James. There she became known as Lucy Chen. I came to the University of Chicago in 1946 after four years' service in the army during World War II. I was in a hurry to finish my graduate work and took courses year-round, easy to do then because the University of Chicago was on the quarter system, with full offerings four quarters a year. I took my M.A. in 1947 and my Ph.D. in 1949, the year after Lucy took hers. I am surprised that I did not come to know her then, but I am sure that I had many of the same professors who taught her.

She herself has named some of her teachers in her introduction to her book of essays published in China in 1996 (perhaps one of her students will bring out an English translation in the future). Among those she named are E. K. Brown, Morton D. Zabel, James Hulbert, and Napier Wilt. I had courses with all these professors, and the classrooms were filled with the influx of veterans going to college on the GI Bill. It is even possible that I sat in one or more of the classrooms in which Lucy sat, but in any event I did not get to know her then. Napier Wilt was an Americanist with specialties in Henry James and Walt Whitman. He taught courses devoted to each of these major authors. In the course on Walt Whitman, students read the whole of Leaves of Grass, along with Whitman's prefaces and essays. I took this course, as did Lucy (see Price 60).

I came to know Lucy only in the latter half of her career when on occasion she returned to the University of Chicago to see her old professors and talk with them about her then-current enterprise, the translation of Whitman. It was 1981. If I remember right, the first time I met her was at a Department of English "barbecue" in a park outside Chicago, with many of her (and my) old professors in attendance. And I believe that it was the Americanist Walter Blair who introduced us. At one point in time, she sat in on a few sessions of my class devoted to Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson. I can remember her presence in a full classroom quite vividly-poised, unassuming, taking notes occasionally. In the same class was Jean Tsien (Qian Qing), who had come from her post at Beijing Foreign Studies University to take a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago (which she subsequently took, writing a distinguished dissertation on Willa Cather).

In any event, in subsequent years Lucy and I corresponded, usually about some problem she was having in translating Whitman. As I have tended to save everything that crosses my path, I have saved our correspondence. I would like to share with you some passages from her letters to me that touched on her translations. The letters were written in small, if not tiny, script on very thin white paper, and she always signed her American name, Lucy Chen.

In the first letter I received from her, dated April 29, 1982, she summed up the state of her translation of Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

I am still working on six poems from "Drum-Taps," going over them again and again. Of course I will do "Song of Myself"; it's almost done, but I must leave revisions to a much later date. The fact that Whitman is a genius, a great writer, but not a learned man makes for the difficulty. It is a discipline for me, very valuable, because in the past I had spent too much time on meticulous writers who were clotted with erudition. They were, however, much easier to do than Whitman. There is so much spontaneity and originality in him that one really must enter into his whole personality to do him at all competently.

This passage suggests the brilliance of her insights into the authors she has translated. Those writers "clotted with erudition"-obviously she meant T. S. Eliot-were easier to translate than the "genius" who was not a "learned man." Lucy found in Whitman the challenge of translating a "whole personality" containing "multitudes," one who exclaimed "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" (LG 89).

After this summary, Lucy then added this illuminating comment about her then-recent past: "I shall never forget your kindness when I was in Chicago. Here in China we are trying to get used to the good fortune of being allowed to work again. I am glad I am in pretty good health so that the last years of my life need not be wasted." These lines reveal the importance to Lucy Chen personally of her all-consuming task of translating the whole of Leaves of Grass. After the horrors of the decade of the Cultural Revolution, she was back at what she had started out to do before that terrible time had cut her off from it. Offering insight into the seriousness with which she took her task of translation, Lucy said: "I am striving to evolve a style that will approximate his style; it won't be easy. The best poems can not be equalled and the worst tempt the translator to improve them a very little." Lucy closed the letter with a single one-line paragraph: "I can never forget the education I received at Chicago."

In the fall of 1982, David Kuebrich, along with his wife, arrived in Beijing on a Fulbright to teach at Peking University and thus became a colleague of Lucy Chen during the academic year of 1982-1983. In letters during this period, she told me over and over again how helpful she had found the Kuebrichs. In a letter of October 27, 1982, Lucy wrote:

I did the Lincoln poems these last months and now I am continuing the translation of "Song of Myself." I started the translation some twenty years ago when the cultural revolution broke out and ruled out the possibility of doing any such work. Right now I am in the middle of the long catalogue of Section 33. The Kuebrichs have been a great help. So I finished working on the Lincoln poems with some assurance.

Near the end of this academic year, Lucy expressed her gratitude to David Kuebrich in a letter of April 8, 1993:

I don't know where I would be without him around and he kindly told me that our cooperation should continue even after his return to the States. I have completed "Song of Myself" (more revisions will have to be done). The poems of Lincoln, "Song of the Open Road," "Song of the Broad-Axe" (again with your help from[y our] "Critical Guide [to Leaves of Grass]").... If everything goes on smoothly I shall do the songs closely following "Song of Myself," and perhaps a small volume entitled "The Twelve Songs of Whitman" will come out before the complete works. So far 4 groups of poems will appear in [a] magazine. It takes a long time for anything to get printed. When they do come out I shall send you copies.

On June 7, 1983, Lucy had the idea of publishing her translation in two volumes, the first to contain all the poems from "Inscriptions" through the "Songs" section, including the eleven songs from "Salut au Monde!" through "A Song of the Rolling Earth." She expressed some uncertainty about doing the "Annexes," and she was unsure as to whether she should include one, none, or all of the "Prefaces." On March 8, 1984, Lucy reported to me that her publisher had endorsed her idea of the two volumes, and she hoped to complete the first volume by the end of the year: "I work very slowly and I hope very carefully. But there'll bound to be inaccuracies and even mistakes."

But the immediate purpose of her letter was stated in the first paragraph: "I am in urgent need of help in understanding these lines from Whitman's 'Song of the Redwood-Tree': ll. 71-72: 'To duly fall, to aid, unreck'd at last, / To disappear, to serve.'" I stared at the lines in puzzlement for some time and then read the poem to see whether I could write anything to help her. They were lines that I had never explicated, and indeed I had never analyzed in its entirety the "Song of the Redwood-Tree." At first the lines seemed to present a series of contradictory elements. I reread Whitman's poem and wrote to Lucy (March 19, 1984): "The lines come from the song itself and thus are spoken or sung by the dying tree. They come from a visionary part of the poem in which the dying tree envisions the western man of the future, who is of a more self-reliant, self-fulfilled, grander, and heartier race than men of the past. But even he, this new man of the future, must (like the mighty redwood tree) die."

Lines 70 -72 read:

Here heed himself, unfold himself, (not others' formulas heed,) here fill his time, To duly fall, to aid, unreck'd at last, To disappear, to serve.

I wrote: "The last two lines are filled with paradoxes. 'To duly fall' is to die (as the redwood tree fell) when the time comes to die. 'To aid' is to contribute to the destiny of the human race by fulfilling self on the grandest scale and thus aiding the implicit or hidden cosmic scheme or plan. 'Unreck'd at last' indicates that his contribution is not that of the acknowledged but visible and recognized hero in the old-fashioned sense but rather the contribution of one of many similar self-fulfilled individuals; thus his 'aid' or contribution is 'unreck'd' or unreckoned, uncounted, untabulated, or uncelebrated (as Greek or Medieval heroes were 'reck'd' or celebrated by reciting their accomplishments). Note the similar use of unreck'd in line 28 of the poem."

So much for the first of the two lines Lucy asked me to explicate. I wrote on: "The last line ['To disappear, to serve'] appears to be a recapitulation. 'To disappear' is the physical dissolution of death. 'To serve' links with 'to aid': it indicates that the death, the disappearance or dissolution of death contributes because it completes the appointed cycle of the self-fulfilled new man, in accord with the concealed or implicit cosmic scheme." I added near the end of this letter: "I hope this is helpful. Reading it over, I find it a little repetitive, but maybe you'll be able to follow it." I add now, having again reread what I then wrote, that I find myself wondering what today's determined conservationists would think of Whitman's poem. The redwood trees of California have been an important part of that conservationist debate. I think it likely that teaching this poem in today's classroom would require more than simply a careful reading of the lines for their most likely or intended meaning. (Jimmie Killingsworth's essay later in this volume takes up the poem in the context of ecocriticism.)

These few excerpts from Lucy's letters are sufficient, I think, to suggest the dedication she gave to the fulfilling of her self-assigned task-and clearly a poet's task-translating Whitman's Leaves. For those who never met Lucy, she comes alive in a story on the front page of the New York Times of February 6, 1988, with the headline: "Walt Whitman Sings Anew, but Now with a Chinese Lilt," carrying the byline of Edward A. Gargan. There is an accompanying picture of Lucy, pen in hand, engaged in her translation at a desk in her home in Beijing. Gargan writes: "Her desk is small, a table really, its grainy rosewood polished by her palms, the frayed bindings of dictionaries, the tissue-thin paper she fills with tiny ideograms. For the last ten years, Zhao Luorui has sat here, at this desk carved four centuries ago during the Ming dynasty, putting Walt Whitman's boisterous, individualist, prodigious Leaves of Grass into Chinese. 'Whitman,' said this tiny woman, 'is the most American of the 19th-century poets.'"

For those fortunate enough to have visited Lucy in her courtyard house, Gargan's description of it is memorable: her rooms are "jammed with overflowing glass-fronted bookcases.... Volumes of Faulkner, Melville, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, all in ... embossed cloth bindings ... climb from floor to ceiling." What most impressed me when I first entered Lucy's home in 1994 was the picture of Whitman on the far wall, turning a "casual look" upon all who entered, "Leaving it to you to prove and define it, / Expecting the main things from you."

Lucy summarized her career to Gargan in this way: "'Thirty-five years of my life were lost,' she said, alluding to the political cataclysms that gripped China until 1978. 'I've poured everything into Whitman.'" This confession-like statement clearly reveals that her dedication to her translation was infinitely more than mere dedication to an assigned task. Her lost years were hanging in the balance. Only the successful completion of her translation could make up for those missing years. As for preparation, she had taken Napier Wilt's course on Whitman-but that had been in the 1940s-some thirty years in the past. To begin anew, she had to immerse herself in Whitmanian materials: "I began reading all the scholarly works on Whitman.... Then I read Whitman, both his prose and poetry. Then I began [the translation] right from the beginning."

On starting out on her translation, she made, she revealed to Gargan, an important discovery: "I began to feel that he was so different from T. S. Eliot.... I thought I didn't have to know much about Eliot to translate him. I had to know the writers Eliot read to know Eliot. But you have to know Whitman himself before you begin translating him." Her approach strikes a sympathetic reader as both complex and simple: "My theory is that translators should be faithful to the original form as well as to its spirit. The best translation will be faithful to the written form and spirit. But if you can't be faithful to both, you have to be faithful to the content. I'll sacrifice the form for the content." In conclusion, she summarized the challenge of translating Leaves of Grass: "Whitman ... is American. He is not colloquial. Certainly he has the rhythm of the spoken language but it is not really colloquial. I try to follow that, the beauty of the spoken language. It's difficult to render idiomatic American style, but the thought is there."

(Continues...)



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