“I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” by Tom Sexton; University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 2011; 60 pages, trade paperback, $14.95.
In Tom Sexton’s lyric world, simplicity is an essence. In most of his poetry, as shown in “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets,” simple events and images unfold in simple, straightforward diction. These characteristics also appear in much Chinese poetry, from ancient to recent times, but they’re extremely hard to convey authentically and forcefully in translations, never mind in imitations. In fact many translations and most imitations are pathetic failures.
I mean, the title “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” could make you cringe in apprehension of literary fraud. But it turns out the sensibilities in this book remain true both to Tom Sexton’s Alaskan-New England origins and to the Chinese characteristics self-consciously appropriated to the collection.
Ancient Chinese poetry, like Chinese art, is highly stylized, meaning the poets adhere closely to highly refined forms and subject matter. This poetry often takes, for a couple of examples, nature imagery and the varieties of social responsibility for subjects. And a characteristic of its form is direct phrasing; in English translations this phrasing is given as simple declarative sentences that frequently have trouble mounting any rhythmic momentum. It happens that Tom Sexton for decades has been writing very directly phrased poems that focus on simple but lustrous natural events and images. So when he self-consciously take cues from translations of ancient Chinese poetry, he is already partly in its element. The resulting eight-line poems of “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” are characteristic of his well-made, authentically felt poetry.
A good example is “By Passamaquoddy Bay”:
Thin light over Campobello Island
to the east when I rise to walk
the long abandoned railroad bed.
Not a trace is left of the rails.
I have several letters to answer
and yesterday’s paper to read,
but the wild apples are waiting
cold on the tongue, polished by mist.
This is a distinctly American poem: It’s clearly set in contemporary Washington County outdoors, it’s deeply personal, and its straightforward sentences set up a subtle but effective rhythmic current that has long been a characteristic of Sexton’s poetry. But it’s also true to its Chinese influences: It focuses carefully on a simple natural scene; it indicates the speaker has social relations that need (and distract) attention from the experience of the natural world; and it’s given in plain-spoken, direct language.
This collection provides Sexton’s dependably authentic feeling — mainly awe and surprise in the face of natural beauty — and what for five or six decades creative writing instructors have called “craftsmanship,” though I’m not sure it’s the right word for a natural facility for language that happens to have been cultivated by care and close attention. Anyway, these poems are certainly to be appreciated on these grounds, especially among people who have a feel for Anglicized Chinese verse.
Tom Sexton, who was poet laureate of Alaska from 1995 to 2003, lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and spends every other winter in Eastport. His recent books include “For the Sake of the Light” and “A Clock with No Hands.” “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” is available from the University of Alaska Press.