They Will Have Their Rights: Ted Hughes’ ‘Her Husband’

My AS level students are in the last throes of revising for exams coming in May. One question will be on a selection of Ted Hughes poems and what follows is an essay in the style required of them by the exam board (a single poem analysis of the Practical Criticism kind). ‘Her Husband’ first appeared in 1961 and then in Hughes’ 1967 collection Wodwo which mostly contained poems written before Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide in 1963 but also a few others (such as ‘The Howling of Wolves’) written after it. Hughes’ next major publication was Crow in 1970. Leonard Scigaj has noted how many of the Wodwo poems contain “recurring feuds and destructiveness” and ‘Her Husband’ is a domesticated, Lawrentian version of this.

images

Her Husband

Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately
To grime the sink and foul towels and let her
Learn with scrubbing brush and scrubbing board
The stubborn character of money.

And let her learn through what kind of dust
He has earned his thirst and the right to quench it
And what sweat he has exchanged for his money
And the blood-weight of money. He’ll humble her

With new light on her obligations.
The fried, woody, chips, kept warm two hours in the oven,
Are only part of her answer.
Hearing the rest, he slams them to the fire back

And is away round the house-end singing
‘Come back to Sorrento’ in a voice
Of resounding corrugated iron.
Her back has bunched into a hump as an insult.

For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.

 

Introduction

Ted Hughes is more renowned for his portraits of animals and natural landscape than people. Especially early on, he is more interested in, as he expressed it, capturing animal and natural life in language as he does so brilliantly in poems like ‘The Jaguar’, ‘Wind’ and ‘Thrushes’. However, it’s not true to say Hughes does not write about human life and some would argue that a poem like ‘Hawk Roosting’ though on the face of it about a creature is really about human behaviour. In ‘Her Husband’ Hughes is clearly focussed on the human in a marriage which is full of bitterness and resentment.

images

‘Her Husband’ is written in the third person, giving a distanced but vivid portrait of a marriage through the events of one evening. The title of the poem forms part of the opening sentence so the poem’s opening line, starting with “Comes home”, already gives the impression of the husband as an almost impersonal force, unnamed perhaps because already all too familiar to his wife. The thumping alliteration of the opening line (dull – dust – deliberately), reinforces the man’s brute entry into the house. As a working miner he spreads “coal-dust” about the house but Hughes emphasises his inconsiderate nature with the adverb “deliberately” and the forceful, unpleasant verbs associated with his arrival: “grime” and “foul”. This opening quatrain flows quickly, being unpunctuated from start to finish, evoking an arrival which is sudden, sweeping, unstoppable. The ugly internal rhyme of “foul towels” also contributes to the impression of his disruptive arrival and Hughes conveys the husband’s resentful attitude with the idea that he intends to teach his wife about the “stubborn character of money”. This personification of money as a person difficult to deal with, to persuade, cleverly conveys the husband’s own difficulties with the exhausting character of his day’s work. But he intends to impress this resentment on his wife who he wants to work (repetitively) with “scrubbing brush and scrubbing board”. This is not a relationship in which we see any love, compromise or mutual respect, though we have yet to be shown much of the wife’s perspective.

coal

In fact the second quatrain continues in much the same vein with a repetition of the phrase “let her learn”. All this repetition conveys the husband’s determined intentions. Lines 4-8 also introduce a vocabulary of a more moralistic kind. The narrative voice echoes what must be the husband’s thoughts about the way he has “earned” the “right” to go drinking in the pub before he returns home. He regards the earning of his wage as a physical and personal “exchange” of his physical “sweat” for cash and the hyphenated phrase describing money as possessing “blood-weight” particularly conveys the sense of his personal sacrifice as a working man, how he feels the day’s work metaphorically costs him “blood” (as a miner this might be sometimes literal too). I think Hughes goes some way here to encouraging sympathy from the reader for the husband’s situation but the quick return to his aggressive, even vicious, attitude to his wife in the heavily alliterated and emphatic phrase “He’ll humble her” (line 8) definitely lessens any sympathy I may be feeling.

474360547

The simple metaphor of casting “new light” on his wife’s role is used in line 9. There is a sort of tired familiarity throughout this poem (on both husband and wife’s sides) and I suspect this sort of encounter is not the first of its kind so the idea of him casting/teaching “new” light probably really reflects his sense that however much he tries to do this she does not “learn” to behave as he expects by more obediently taking note of what he sees as her “obligations”. I doubt whether he himself would have used many of the moral terms that the third person narrative voice employs in these lines, so the distancing voice Hughes has chosen to use enables these more abstract points to be made. It’s only at line 10 that we get a sense of the wife’s “answer” to her husband’s demands. As has been implied already, her reply to his demands is not at all submissive. We are told “part of her answer” is the disgusting-sounding meal with its “fried, woody chips” though it’s partly unpleasant because it has had to be kept warm in the oven “for two hours” (the fact that he’s so late home increases our sympathy for his wife). But her fight back is sustained it seems; the other “part” of her answer to his demanding and bullying attitudes must be spoken to him or probably shouted. Interestingly, Hughes gives us none of this directly as it is only implied in the brief phrase “Hearing the rest” in line 12.

The husband’s corresponding response to his wife’s uncooperative (surely complaining) reply is immediate and violent. The husband’s vigorous determination causes Hughes to run-on sentences at the end of both stanza 2 and 3. Here, the violent verb “slams” shows how he disposes of her cooked meal in the fire and sweeps out of the house and “away round the house-end” all in one flowing, swift, uninterrupted sentence. The husband’s singing voice is described as “resounding corrugated iron” in a typical Hughesian metaphor (linking the organic with the metallic or industrial). Also the song he chooses to sing is full of irony and deliberately insulting as it is a romantic song of lost love. Line 16 gives us a brief last glimpse of the wife’s response, her body language suggesting her own stubborn resentment, “bunched into a hump”. Hughes adds a simile to make her antagonism even more clear: “as an insult”.

1890_A_miners_dream_of_home

The final quatrain now departs from the specific actions of the married couple and returns to the more moralistic and even legalistic language that I noted earlier in the poem. Here the narrator’s distance from the domestic argument is clear again. This poem was first published in Wodwo (Faber, 1967) and, as a relatively early Hughes poem, it is unusual in its focus on individual people though this distancing effect suggests he may be observing their behaviour in the same way as he does a jaguar in a cage or the power of the wind. Line 17 is the shortest sentence in the whole poem and declares, in firm monosyllables, that both sides in this conflict “will have their rights”. This makes it clear there is no room or desire for compromise. The final three lines introduce the language of the law court (a divorce court perhaps?) though the jury are “to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot”. This soot reminds us of the coal-dust he brings into the house in line 1, but also of the burnt dinner thrown into the fire-back in line 12. These tiny black specks suggest to me that such a jury will never come to any clear conclusion in this dispute. They suggest the hopelessness of the couple’s situation. This rather depressing ending to the portrait of a marriage is confirmed in the final line and a half as we are told that the legal “brief” (a technical term for one side’s case in a law court) follows the smoke and soot up the chimney. This suggests that the arguments on both sides metaphorically go up in smoke. Hughes concludes in the plainest language: “nothing more is heard of it”. The way in which the events of the dismal evening vanish up the chimney suggest the likelihood that something similar may happen again tomorrow and the day after.

Conclusion

So Hughes’ portrait of a marriage is very bleak indeed. The narrative voice describes events at a distance and though there are occasions when the reader does feel sympathy for the people involved, the language of the poem itself is not at all emotional. The poem’s voice sees events from both husband and wife’s perspectives though it’s interesting that we are never given any actual dialogue in this domestic row. Hughes’ irregularly-lined and unrhymed quatrains suit the poem’s plain description in a mostly colloquial tone: this is not a poem or situation where any lyricism or poetically-charged language would really be appropriate.

5113sBWRWFL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Poetry at Palmers Green: live review (April 2016)

When reviewing my first year of blogging on poetry and related matters (see blogI said I wanted to review more live events. That has not happened really but this week I wanted to rectify that to some degree.

Last Saturday I drove a few miles north to Palmers Green, best known to the poetry world of course, as the home ground of Stevie Smith who moved there when she was three years old. She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls and lived in the area until her death in 1971. I first became aware of the current poetry activity in the area a few years ago when I went to readings at the bookshop in the High Street run by Joanna Cameron.

images
Stevie Smith in the park in Palmers Green

But in 2006 the Palmers Green Bookshop was forced to close, the lease was sold on and I think it was an opticians that opened in its place. Since then a number of local poets and enthusiasts have been keeping poetry alive with 6 monthly poetry readings at Stevie’s church, St John’s, N13 4AL. The readings take place in the Parish Centre adjoining the church and are always friendly and well-programmed evenings. I’d recommend them if you’re in the area (Contacts: Katherine Gallagher  or Myra Schneider and on Facebook).

images

The evening was introduced with clarity and authority by Lynda How and readings took place as the April evening sun set outside. The Parish Centre looks at first a little soulless but with its shades-of-yellow decor, surprisingly tasteful lighting and pitched wedding-cake-white roof it is actually a venue which has a good acoustic and a disarming and warm atmosphere. The first reader was Danielle Hope, whose new book is Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham Press, 2015) from which she read the entertaining and instantly recognisable out-of-season seaside resort description  ’Llandudno Winter’. Recognisable to most of the audience it seemed and as I spent a couple of years in digs in Morecambe I knew the “please-remove-wet-shoes-at-door / heating-on-from-seven-to-eight / no-radiator-in-bar / low-watt-lamps” guesthouse. Her translations from the Italian are also impressive (Montale’s ‘Eastbourne’) and the Mrs Uomo poems manage to combine humour and acute observation with a more serious satirical edge. Mrs Uomo teaches her cat economics at one point but more poignantly is left awaiting an operation having “improved against [the NHS] recently refreshed thresholds”. Hope works as a doctor in London and knows what she is talking about here and her poems are always a pleasure to listen to delivered in a colloquial, un-stylised fashion.

In contrast, Mario Petrucci read slowly and deliberately from crib (Enitharmon Press, 2014) which is a selection from the 111 poems he wrote during the first year of his son’s life (Mario was kind enough to allude to my own efforts in this topic area (see A Madder Ghost)). Petrucci’s work (especially in recent years) is much concerned with language as an object/medium in itself (hence his delivery). He spoke about his interest in the “deckle edge” of language where it begins to fade and dissolve and on the page he accentuates the thingi-ness of words with mostly very short lines, unpredictable line breaks, sometimes dividing words across line breaks.

imgres

The cover image of crib is of a child sleeping in almost pitch darkness – a metaphor Petrucci suggested for the way language itself struggles to communicate, picking from the mass of experience a highlight here or there. This from ‘i fish’:

 

in dark

with dark

as spool &

 

mark him

sparely

move

 

as if

i sought

magnified

 

on glass slide

that form

 

imgres

Gill McEvoy’s most recent pamphlet The First Telling (HappenStance, 2014) won the Michael Marks award in 2014. McEvoy’s delivery is rather more actor-ish, her voice taking on the inflections and tones of the character felt to be speaking the poems themselves. I’m never wholly convinced this is the way I (personally) want to hear poems read (I’m even more uneasy about poets who have learned texts in order to ‘act them out’). But McEvoy’s work – especially in The First Telling, which deals with rape and its aftermath – is easily powerful enough to overcome any misgivings I might have had. Her poems are often brief and delicate and disturbing:

 

I touch the cigarette

 

to my arm.

Here.

And here.

 

I can’t talk about it.

 

I could touch this fuse

to my chair.

I could watch it catch.

I could watch it flame

to roaring fury.

 

Counterpointing such troubling pieces, McEvoy scatters even briefer poems on birds which comment obliquely on the human narrative. Petrucci had earlier commented on the importance of the silence after a poem has been read aloud and in the intervals between many of these poems – at least while the evening light held out beyond the windows – I could hear the occasional twitter and cheep of birds in the churchyard grounds. A rather lovely accompaniment.

After the interval there were 8 floor readers. The quality of the work was high (not always the case where venues welcome floor readers) but I was struck by the number of people reading from electronic devices – phones and iPads. Of the main readers several read from their books (traditional) others from folders where the poems seemed to be printed and ordered for the occasion (the well-prepared; the short sighted). I can see the latter becoming more likely in relation to my own eye-sight but I have to say I prefer to see poets read from their books (assuming the work is published) and I can’t help think that the sight of the book cover waving around up there does something for after-reading sales too.

imgres

Simon Richey read from his first book, Naming the Tree from Oversteps Books. I’m ashamed to say I know little of his work (though he later confessed to me that he has hardly ever attended a poetry workshop, so perhaps he has just not been very visible on the ‘circuit’). I thought his work was very interesting indeed, sharing something of Petrucci’s concerns with language but also developing threads of thought and emotional responses alongside.

 

Somewhere
the meaning of a word,

 

before it becomes a word,
waits in the silence. It is as if

 

it has come as far as it can go
without being uttered. In a moment

 

it will change from one thing
into another, or its meaning

 

will tremble into a word,
into something barely familiar,

 

finding itself spoken,
finding itself understood.

 

Several of the pieces were prose poems – one a series of sections, called ‘The Darkness’, about the night-wanderings of cats as well as about the night-wanderings of their owner’s mind.

imgres

The final reader was Mo Gallacio whose marvellously rich reading voice (she is a trained actress) leant itself to both Scots and English verse, triumphantly avoiding that actor-voice that seems either to value the rotund vowels and the crisply planted consonants over and above the emotional tides of a piece of writing, or to emote all over the poetic text so heavily that the language and form of the poem is swamped and made unhearable. ‘Purple Iris’ is an especially moving poem about the incurable illness of a neighbour. Gallacio’s own struggles with cancer form the basis for a number of poems; in one she asks the nurse how she will feel after surgery – the nurse’s reply: like you’ve been stabbed! Gallacio’s evident love of and attentiveness to flowers and plants echoed McEvoy’s acutely observed birds and the evening ended with a celebratory bunch of brightly trumpeting daffodils (no more than £1 from Tescos) suggesting – with a nod to the Edward Thomas of ‘March’ perhaps – that Spring is most definitely HERE.

imgres

Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.

images

Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

imgres

Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).

url
Ryokan

There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:

 

When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.

 

Bit inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).

buddha-225x300

But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:

 

There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.

 

So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.

140905019

The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

imgres
Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.

images
Maitreyabanhu

Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.

wings-snakes-satan-artwork-gustave-dore-paradise-lost-john-milton-1030x1280-wallpaper_www-paperhi-com_21

Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.

IMG_0125

In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.

images

The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.

imgres

Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).

sonnets_to_orpheus

In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.

imgres

Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).

daodejing