Ancient and modern

<strong>The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry</strong>

Edited by Eliot Weinber

The Chinese are coming, cry the commentators, economic and political. Hold on a minute, reply the poets, those unacknowledged legislators, as they stroke their timeless beards: the Chinese have already been and gone, leaving an indelible mark upon 20th-century poetry in the west. Poetry today would not be what it is without those Chinese from way back when.

Proof of this surprising assertion is to be found in a remarkable anthology of classical Chinese poetry, translated into English by four of the best-known American poets of the 20th century - Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder - and an academic scholar/translator called David Hinton, who deserves to be as well known as the others.

It is not often that an anthology really demands attention. Francis Palgrave made one in the 19th century. Michael Roberts introduced the modernists in 1936 with The Faber Book of Modern Verse. Then in 1982 came The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, which mixed poems with spells, incantations and other energising bits of verbal machinery.

The man who first spread the good news was Pound, poet, impresario and political numbskull. In 1912 there fell into his hands some fairly ill-organised, and often pretty inaccurate, notes by a man called Ernest Fenollosa. They told Pound how classical Chinese poetry worked - or, at least, he thought they did. It had to do with pictorial images, which were also sources of energy. There seemed to be little moralising, and not much explaining. This fitted in beautifully with his own thoughts about how poems should be: sharp, direct, imagistic. No emotional slide and slither. No excessive adjectival ornamentation. No generalising commentary. Pound regarded all ages as contemporaneous - which meant that the entire past was out there, ready to be plundered by magpie minds such as his own.

He did some translations, which were published as a pamphlet called Cathay in 1915; or rather, not so much translations as versions. In 1943, after Pound had been indicted for treason for having broadcast from Rome in support of Mussolini, he made many more, to help while away his long hours in captivity. After Pound came a deluge of translations: first Williams, then Rexroth in the 1950s, and, youngest of them all (and the only one still alive), Snyder.

When you read this book, you recognise immediately that the lessons Pound learned from the Chinese, and bequeathed to his fellows, became the customary manner of address for many American poets: plain-speaking, laconic, image-driven. Chinese classical verse contained qualities that felt entirely at one with the kind of idiom with which many American poets felt comfortable, and to which they themselves aspired. In fact, it developed into a version of the American idiom itself - a seemingly casual, direct and almost effortless conversational speech, natural-feeling, with line lengths determined by the length of the human breath.

This poetry means what it says. It feels companionable, and even sexy. It is not excessively - or confusingly - metaphorical. It is not foggy with abstract philosophising. It lacks the shriek of rhetoric; it seems to move, so often, at an agreeable walking pace. It feels spacious. In fact, there seems to be space between the words themselves. It mixes the high and the low with seeming ease. Its temper suggests that there is no unsuitable subject matter for poetry at all. It can be as baggy and portmanteau-like as you wish.

What is more, these poems feel like a necessary tonic for poets, too. Because they are often such tiny, near-perfect human fabrications, you are tempted into taking them apart in order to examine, quite minutely, what exactly they are made from. A remark by Williams seems to sum them up beautifully. They possess, he remarked, a "subtlety of lyrical candour".

Something else also appealed to many American poets, and we see this most clearly in Snyder's versions. The Chinese celebrated wilderness, too - all those mountains and rivers without end - a wilderness almost as wild as the American West. The itinerant Buddhist monk melded and merged, with seeming effortlessness, into the American Beat.

Why worry about all the marauding Chinese, then? Relax! They're already here. They are sleeping in our beds. We are seeing through their eyes. They know what poetry is just as well as we do. Poetry, said Wang Ch'ang-Ling (c.690-c.756), "concentrates the sea of heaven in the inch-space of the heart".

Michael Glover's new collection of poetry, "The Sheer Hell of Living", is published by San Marco Press ( at £9

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation