As I got into the thick of writing Two Years, No Rain
, I had one of those pleasant instances where a character I'd never planned for just popped up in the narrative and stuck around. He was a professor from Hong Kong and also a poet; one of the ongoing bits that developed in the story was one of his poems being translated by another character. So I sort of immersed myself in Chinese poetry for a while, spending a lot of time with Sam Hamill's incredible book of translated poems, Crossing the Yellow River
. (It's amazing how many of these poems explore the pleasures of being drunk on wine. A good friend and I played a drinking game one night by opening the book to a random page; if the poem mentioned getting loaded, we took a drink. If it mentioned buying wine on credit, we chugged). So, anyway, this is a generalization, but in the old tradition of Chinese poetry, the poet himself is central to the composition, rather than some other person or object (again, being very general here), as in Western poems. For the story, I had to come up with what I thought would sound like a legitimate Cantonese poem in that tradition translated into English, and ended up with what I thought to be a pretty good result, and it worked well in the context of the story (I won't post it here, because it would give something away).
Now, keep in mind that I am not at all a poet. What I produced for Two Years, No Rain was really an imitation of a style of poetry. When I try to write poetry in English myself, they're more like pencil doodles on a notepad than a painting on canvas. But just as I can enjoy a painting without knowing how to make one, I love a lot of poetry, too, and (stay with me here) one of my absolute favorite poems is Goethe's "Wandrers Nachlied II" (the "Wayfarer's Night Song"):
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch.
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
More or less literally in English, here's the translation:
Over all the mountain peaks
In all the treetops
Scarcely a breath;
The little birds fall silent in the woods.
Just wait, soon
You too will rest.
So, here's the thing: yesterday I mentioned that I'd read Ha Jin's Waiting and War Trash before starting TYNR; last week I finally got to his novel The Crazed, in which the protagonist takes care of a bedridden professor during the weeks leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests. It's a dense novel, heavy on internal narrative by the main character as he tries to make sense of his debilitated mentor. One day the professor is babbling nonsense, and suddenly busts out with:
Over the mountain
It's so quiet.
In all treetops you hardly
Feel a breeze.
The birds are silent in the wood.
Just wait, soon
You will be silent too.
A German poem — my favorite poem — translated into Chinese, then translated into English. Awesome. After reciting it, the professor spouts off on the differences between Western and Chinese poetry as above, and says something like, "Don't you recognize it? It's by the great Tang Dynasty poet, Goethe."
I'd like to see some sort of significance in this, but it's really nothing more than a fun coincidence, and at least a little validation of my research.