Poet's Choice by David Hinton: 'Drinking Wine' by T'ao Ch'ien

Sunday, April 19, 2009

By David Hinton

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) was the first major Chinese poet to speak in a direct personal voice about the full range of his immediate experience. This is the voice that came to typify the Chinese tradition, and it is why classical Chinese poetry has felt so contemporary to American readers. T'ao lived in relative poverty on a quiet farm, but when this poem was written he was living in a nearby village where he encountered the kind of noise that modern urban-dwellers take for granted. For Chinese poets, wine was a way of easing the urge to extract meaning from the world, and what interests me most about this drinking poem is the ending, with its skepticism about language, and all the possibility that offers.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Drinking Wine

I live here in this busy village without

all that racket horses and carts stir up,


and you wonder how that could ever be.

Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself


a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums

at my east fence, I see South Mountain


far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight

going home. All this means something,


something absolute: whenever I start

to explain it, I forget words altogether.

David Hinton has published 14 books of classical Chinese translations, the most recent of which is "Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology" (Farrar Straus Giroux).

© 2009 The Washington Post Company