cover image In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu

In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu

, , trans. from the Chinese by Red Pine. . Copper Canyon, $18 (365pp) ISBN 978-1-55659-279-9

Chinese experts rate Wei among the greatest poets of China's classic era, right alongside Tu Fu and Li Po; severe, self-critical, openly political and prone at times to self-pity, Wei remains obscure in the West and shouldn't be. The prolific translator Red Pine has made a striking selection, 170 poems in a facing-page edition with storylike notes on each. Born to privilege in the last flowering of the T'ang dynasty, Wei (c. 737–791) entered the civil service in his youth and became a provincial official in a time of civil war, enforcing harsh laws he disliked, missing his literary friends and welcoming time alone. Some of Wei's poems are pellucid, brief impressions: “the sound of mallets at the foot of leafless hills.” Others give moral advice, or show introspection: “Governing a prefecture takes no special skill/ what bothers me is eating for free.” Wei's poetry reflects a sensibility and history that only Chinese traditions could produce. Some of its powers come from Wei's whole life, others inhere in single vivid moments: “when will I hold someone's hand again/ the flowers overhead look like sleet.” (Sept.)