Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Return of Zero

There's a nice review of the recent three-night Zero "Chance in a Million" reunion in Denver at Jambase. It was written by Andy Dorfmann, long-time member of the Zero and Kimock list servers, who coincidentally first heard Zero in 1997, the same year I did; it sounds like Andy enjoyed the shows!

The Steve Kimock Band show in Asheville was, to my ears, outstanding - and the consensus pick on the list for best show of the southeast tour. It also sold out, a first for the band in Asheville; more than five hundred fifty people packed the Grey Eagle. I drove down to the flatlands for the show in Chapel Hill (or Carrboro) on Sunday night, and really enjoyed it as well. It featured some songs relatively new to SKB, "Vernal Equinox", a song by bass player Reed Mathis (he's performed it with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey since 2001), and "Adelita", a Robert Walter tune introduced in December. It's named, according to Charlie Miller, the band's recording engineer, for "a whore house in Tijuana". The show has now been released by the band as a free download.

I've posted some photos of the SKB shows at Flickr, and also shots of the Zero show in 1997 that introduced me to Kimock's playing, the KVHW show I caught in Athens in December, 1999, and an early SKB show in Winston-Salem in October, 2001.


The photo of Zero features an earlier incarnation of the band, with Bobby Vega on bass and Chip Roland on keys. It was used by the venue to publicize the recent Zero reunion shows.
Original content © 2006.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

More Translations by Tom Meyer

Hillsborough poet Jeffery Beam writes to note that Tom Meyer's translation of the Katha Upanishad is available on the Jargon Society website, and to pass along a reminder from John Martone that the I Ching is there also. I've just seen the Upanishad, but have enjoyed the translation of the I Ching for several years. Do check them out.

While you're there, there's also a good account of the Jargon project through the years by Jeffery. Elsewhere on the site (sorry, I can't locate it at the moment), there is (or perhaps was?) a wide-ranging interview with Jonathan Williams, Jargon's proprietor and author of the fine Jubilant Thicket and, of course, many other titles. Jeffery's got a new collection of poems, Gospel Earth, up at Longhouse Press.

Update: Jeffery's interview with Jonathan is here. Thanks, Tom.

The photo of Thomas Meyer is by Reuben Cox.
Original content © 2006.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Another Note on Tom Meyer's Dao ...

When I was writing my first article on Tom Meyer’s new Dao, I was working from a Word file Tom had sent to serve until the hardcopy book would have time to arrive. Reading through, I came across a bit of wordplay that I enjoyed; it was in “chapter” seven. Here’s what I liked:

heaven lasts
and earth

a long time
heaven and earth

have been around
a long time

because they take
no interest

in themselves
they last

along time
this way the last

are first

The use of “they last//along time”, after the repetition of “long time” in the sixth line, struck me as a very bright strategy to avoid another repetition of “a long time,” and a deft hint as well at an almost topographical dimensionality of time that took it out of the abstract, no easy thing to do.

It wasn’t long before I wrote Tom to congratulate him on the figure, and just a short time after my email, I had a reply from him:
Alas, we changed that 'along time' to 'a long time' – the feeling was that things were getting a little too tricky. Foremost for me (in both the text itself and the books design) was a plain, straightforward approach. For the sake of that, I decided to let go of that bit of cleverness.

Perhaps nothing else in our correspondence clarified quite so well Tom’s scrupulous approach to his work.

Tom reads this Wednesday, March 22nd, at the BlackMountain College Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway in downtown Asheville. The reading begins at 7:00 PM.

The poster for Tom’s reading was created for the Center by our very talented intern, Clare Hubbard, a student at Warren Wilson College. Click on the image for a larger version.
Original content © 2006.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

NatureS: An Interview with Joyce Blunk

One of the great pleasures of putting together NatureS has been getting to know the work of Joyce Blunk. I didn’t know Joyce or her work at all when I started digging through files and notebooks for the poems that have come to constitute the book; Thomas Rain Crowe, who’d taken on the task of editing and publishing it for his New Native Press, knew us both, thought our work shared a form of relationship to the natural world, and eventually, gradually, introduced us to one another. He first published work by both of us as guest-editor for issue 2.2 of the online journal Nantahala Review; later, he brought over some slides and prints of Joyce’s work, while sharing with her some of the poems I was passing along to him for the book. Both Joyce and I, I believe, felt the mutual resonance that he’d sensed. It’s been almost a year ago, now, since the afternoon Thomas and I finally drove over to Joyce’s house, and she and I actually met. She was kind enough to take us up to her attic studio and show the collection of objects stored there, waiting till they should find their way into a work – a full human skeleton (what better reminder of mortality?), boxes of locust shells, fibrous bits of palm trunk, lustrous seed pods of various plants, feathers, boxes of magical objects of all sorts. Several of the wonderful constructions I’d admired in photographs were stored there as well, between shows, and so I got to spend some time actually before them, rapt, entranced by their details and the stories at which they hinted.

Joyce, in time, generously allowed us to use photographs of five of these constructions for the book, one for the cover, and four for section title pages. As many times as I’ve seen them now, as the book prepares to go through the press, it’s still a profound pleasure to come across them, and always worth a few moments to look at them yet again, and see what they disclose anew. I’m honored and delighted that they’re there.

Earlier this year I asked Joyce some questions about her life and work. Here’s some of the interview:

Jeff: So…. You grew up in Iowa, I remember, and got your degree at the university there. Were you painting then? Who were important artists for you?

Joyce: Yes, I was born in Iowa and grew up there. My parents and brothers and I lived in Fort Dodge, a medium-sized town, but I often spent summers—especially in grade school and junior high—at my grandmother’s farm. I knew as a kid that I wanted to be an artist. After high school, I went to the university in Iowa City and majored in art. When I graduated I taught for a few years, and then went back to Iowa City for the MFA degree. Yes, I was a painter, and still am. My graduate degree is in painting. But while I was in graduate school I took a multimedia course taught by Hans Breder. It was there that I really began exploring the infinite possibilities of combining any and all materials to create art. I started looking at the work of Lucas Samarias, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Lee Bontecou, the French artist Arman, George Segal, Edward Kienholz, Daniel Spoerri. And Antoni Tapies, that guy—his work is just so thrilling. Recently I’ve been so moved by the work of the contemporary Spanish artist Carmen Calvo. I saw a large show of hers a few years back in Salzburg, Austria, and I just haven’t been the same since. Then the exciting epoxy sculptures of Frank Gallo, who also attended the University of Iowa. Every day I’d walk past several of his sculptures placed out in the hallways of the art department. And of course the extraordinary boxes of Joseph Cornell have also impressed me. I can remember seeing an exhibit of his at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I went in at opening time and was shocked to see it was dark outside when I left. As far as painting goes, I look at everything. I’ve always loved the slightly edgy work of Richard Lindner and George Tooker, the formality and content of Edward Hopper, and the incredible tonality of Georgio Morandi.

Jeff: How did you begin to create your constructions? When you work on a painting or a construction, is there a narrative, a story that invents itself about or around the piece as you work? Or are you just working in a disciplined, deliberate way on the visual level?

Joyce: Since childhood, I’ve painted and collected objects, and I guess it was inevitable that the two eventually came together in my work. I’ve just always collected found objects, both natural and manmade, that are interesting to me in any way—texture, symbolic meaning, state of decrepitude, color, shape. In graduate school these objects became more important to me as directly related to my work, and I started actually putting them into or onto paintings to create 3-D assemblages. Sometimes these sculptural collages were arranged on wooden-panel paintings, sometimes they were vacuum-formed under a clear plastic covering, and sometimes I arranged them inside wooden boxes or on shelves that I built. As I work, a particular object is usually the starting place. I start with some “thing” that is interesting to me, an object that generates ideas and reactions from me, and then create a setting for the object that will enable me to visually present those ideas and feelings. The content (or what you call “narrative”) of the piece emerges from building layer upon layer of paint, color, and textures and from the formal presentation of the object. On a visual level, I do work in a deliberate manner, but of course as I progress new images and ideas reveal themselves, so that the finished work is often quite a departure from what I had in mind when I started out. I have to just pretty much let the work go where it wants to, let it tell me what it is supposed to be rather than trying to confine it to some preset plan. I think most artists work that way, whether they are writers or visual artists or musicians or whatever. That’s exactly what the contemporary American visual artist Richard Tuttle was talking about when he said, “If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself…. I think [my work] knows, is smarter than I am, better than I am.” I believe my work is beyond me. You plan a certain amount, and then it becomes both an intuitive thing and a thought-out process that used your skills to take it to its own destination.

Jeff: Are you traveling again soon? What is there about travel that is good for you?

Joyce: For the most part, my working time is spent alone in my studio, so I find it very important to get out and meet other professional artists. Art residencies are a wonderful way to have intensive studio time and to share ideas with others. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive fellowships for foreign residencies as well as American ones, and each has been a great enrichment. The next thing on my schedule is a residency at No Boundaries International Art Colony on Bald Head Island off the coast of North Carolina this November, and further on down the line I have been accepted for another residency, for the month of May, 2008, at Cill Rialaig International Artists’ Retreat in Ireland. I have especially loved the opportunity of working abroad, meeting foreign artists, seeing some great museums in those places, and I have produced some of my best work there. I have remained in touch with many writers and visual artists that I’ve met over the years at artist retreats here in the US and in Europe. Living and working in a place so different from my own studio is a real charge, it’s just so stimulating and does such a lot for me. Last spring I spent almost two months on a residency in this very small Mediterranean fishing village in the far northeast part of Spain. Being in a new place, especially in a foreign country, is always so enlivening. To work that intensely for a long period is a great experience. Then, at the end of the time in Spain, I rented a car for a week and drove through the Pyrenees—it was bliss. I love the excitement and provocation I feel in other cultures—even just the distinctive foreign shape of a door handle or a telephone. And of course the landscapes…. And the textures, my God—things are as old as time. And, you know, all that is bound to influence my work in a new way. Throw in all that, and meeting a lot of new people, and the effect can be life-long. And, if you do good work, a long time after that because the work lives on its own.

Joyce’s work will be part of the publication celebration for NatureS on April 28th (more about that soon), and she currently has work in a juried group exhibition, “Discovering Contemporary Art in the Carolinas”, at the Fayetteville Museum of Art; it runs from March 19 to May 7, 2006. Then, May 26 through July 9, 2006, the National Association of Women Artists will include her work in their group show at the Goggle Works Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania. She has solo shows coming up at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois, in 2007, and is in the planning stage for show at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, in 2008. Keep an eye open.


Note: The photo is of Joyce in Switzerland, October, 2005.
Original content © 2006.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Exploring The Dao With Thomas Meyer

Eugene O’Neill might never have written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or any of his other dramas, except that tuberculosis forced him to bed, to a long reflective physical inactivity, and required of him a different life. Poet William Carlos Williams, felled by a stoke in 1951, had to learn to write all over again, but went on to produce The Desert Music, Journey To Love, and Pictures From Brueghel, three of his most moving testaments to the powers of relationship and of the imagination, in his final decade. For both of these men, experience of severe physical disability brought discovery or rediscovery of the vocation of writing; it drew them into deep creative work.

But, of course, Thomas Meyer didn’t think of these predecessors when he found himself flat on his back, unable to sit or stand, in 1989. He simply wondered what on earth he would now do.

Thomas had begun writing when still a teenager in Seattle, Washington, and submitted his first poem to a magazine when he was all of sixteen. He was already at that age a veteran of the arts, having been a child actor, beginning at age nine, in TV ads and summer stock theater. His determination to write persisted, even though, at that historical moment in Seattle
the shadow of Theodore Roethke loomed large. Classmates of mine had older siblings who'd been in his writing workshop where — we had heard stories — much emphasis was put on the name to write under, what magazine to send which poem to, and how to make your regional images appeal to a national audience. All of this, even then, struck me as another screwiness of America post World War Two. Writing, it seemed, wasn't about writing, it was about getting into print. Were we talking about poems or corn flakes? (from Tom’s article “On Being Neglected”)
It wasn’t uncommon, Tom amplifies, for Roethke, as he went through the roll of his students, to remark “Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a name for you.”

That local focus factored into his choice, when the time came, to go east for college. He wound up at Bard College, which had one of the premier programs in American literature in the 1960s and 70s, and was just up the Hudson from New York City. Bard faculty member Robert Kelly, himself a widely published poet and editor, helped him find his footing in the New York literary world, and by 1968, at age twenty-one, Tom was publishing poems in Clayton Eshleman’s great magazine Caterpillar; that’s where I first read him.

In the couple of decades following, Tom found audience and extensive publication for his poetry. His work with partner Jonathan Williams on Jargon Books brought him interaction with some of the most visionary writers and artists of the era, and extended his contacts. Gradually, though, publication came to mean less to him; it had never been a primary focus, and slowly became even less important. As he writes:
There were so many poets who wanted to get into print that by my late forties I felt I should step aside; in effect become neglected. I'd had more than a fair share of not wide but close attention; and at least three 'ideal readers.' So too, I'd been lucky, always having the time to write when I needed or wanted it. Perhaps that's why I think about being neglected the way I do. But who's to say that my luck isn't the result of always writing when I needed or wanted to? (again from “On Being Neglected”)
(Luckily for us, many of the poems from those lucky decades are collected in At Dusk Iridescent, published by the Jargon Society in 1999. There are some selections from it up at the Nantahala Review site.)

In the enforced immobility of the first days after his back injury (Tom writes from his home near Highlands: “It was one of those mysterious things. I had an exercise routine and somehow bent this way and not that, and wrenched the lower back, which was sort of painful the same day. But the next morning, at the bathroom sink, shaving, I bent to look in the mirror and WHAM! I was on the floor. Muscle spasm. And had to crawl back to bed, couldn’t stand upright for about five days.”), in those days of pondering, Tom found a project that spoke of the wisdom of inner stillness and provided new ways to assess his position in life, that provided new perspectives on the question of what, in fact, constitutes “success”? While he’d worked a bit with the I Ching, the great Chinese divinatory classic, one of the world’s oldest books, as a young man, he’d never found it particularly hospitable. Now, though, he did find it welcoming. “After a month or two, I had the amazing feeling of being embraced by something, of being held”. He’d been accepted, perhaps, into the fold of the ancient lineage of human imagination that the I Ching, that “crazy compendium of poetry, songs, legends, recipes, and sayings,” as Tom describes it, embodies. He’d not been interested initially in the I Ching’s divinatory aspect (its principle use, for millennia, has been divination), but he came to appreciate that, too, as “one of its many dimensions. Divinatory practice,” he says, “is a way to calm you down, to get you to stop thinking so things can work out.”

He also explored the other great classic of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching – or, as Tom, following contemporary conventions for transliteration, terms it, the Daode Jing. And he found it a text that spoke to him as well. “The Dao,” Tom says, “is of as profound an order as the I Ching, but it offers silence and the idea of a positive emptiness as a space in which something can happen.” For the next decade, as he slowly healed, unable for most of that time to sit for any extended period – he had to work standing at a high desk (“like a scribe”, he says) – he developed his understanding of these texts. He read the Dao every spring, all of it, character by character, one chapter a day, in Chinese. He gradually worked at translations, first of the I Ching, building a concordance of its many characters, some of them rare in contemporary Chinese, one found only in its ideograms, and then of the Dao. As he notes in the afterward to his version (now to see the broader light of day),“Though I tried [to translate it], I didn’t press too hard, heeding the [book’s] advice to look for and follow that inherent, natural course of things themselves.” The texts and his dictionaries became his constant companions, something he carried with him everywhere, like, he says, “a bag of needlework.”

As Tom’s translation emerged, he gradually found the voice of the text. As he notes in the Afterward,
The tone was conversational, not canonical. Honesty and simplicity foremost, rather than piety or complication. There were no themes, ideas per se. Following one upon another, things circled, darted away, appeared again, or vanished altogether, with the natural ease and bonhomie of good talk.

“Of course,” he adds. And that voice seemed to him consonant with the traditional story of the origins of the Dao, which, unlike the I Ching, is reputed to have had a single author, laozi – or, in the older, traditional transliteration, Lao-Tzu – though the name itself simply refers to an “old man”. Here’s Tom’s account of the story:

Many years ago an old man lived in the capital of a place called China. He was the emperor’s librarian and renown for having read everything there was to read. When the philosopher Confucius paid him his respects, he came away saying:
Birds fly. Fish swim. Animals run.
They can be caught, shot, or trapped.
But this old man is like an air-borne dragon.
He can’t be snared.

Then as now, things could not get worse, but did. Big troubles were afoot. Those with power abused it. Those without grew cunning and two-faced. The old man finally could stomach no more greed, dishonesty, or corruption. The time had come, he told himself, to get out of China.

He climbed upon an ox, and leaving behind what little he owned, headed west, toward the high mountains of another country. When he reached a gate that led up a steep pass, the border guard stopped him, and said:

I recognize you and cannot let you go until you tell me everything you know. Otherwise we will see all that is worthwhile swallowed up by all that is not.

The old man welcomed a rest. The sun almost down, a bottle of wine opened, the two sat in the little station hut. The guard listened as the old man told him what he knew, which he said was not much. In fact, the moon was still in the middle of the sky when he got up to leave.

He was never heard of, or seen again. The five thousand words spoken that night are all that is left of him. And that, in the mind of their speaker, was five thousand too many.
Tom’s now ready to emerge from his remote hermitage and share one of the results of his long undertaking, his translation of the great Daode Jing. On March twenty-second, at 7:00 PM, Tom will read from his newly published version at the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center (another of the Center’s extraordinary programs), and introduce it to the world.

For more information, visit the Center’s website or call 828-350-8484.

For more on Tom’s translation of the Dao, read on; the next post is a “test of translation” that looks at Tom’s version and compares it to previous translations – and provides some background on the text of the Dao as well.

This post originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in Rapid River Art Magazine Vol. 9 No. 7, March, 2006. Original content © 2006.

The photo of Thomas Meyer is by Reuben Cox.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Thomas Meyer’s Daode Jing: A Test of Translation

One of the useful features of Clayton Eshleman’s great little magazine Caterpillar, published in the now long-ago nineteen sixties and seventies, was its “tests of translation”; the tests presented translations of a given text juxtaposed sequentially so that they might be compared. Thomas Meyer has done a new translation of the Daode Jing (or Tao Te Ching, to use the older transliteration), so it might be useful to provide such a test for his text, and discuss its premises.

Chinese, of course, is far removed in its orthography and syntax from any language spoken in the west, and so presents considerable difficulties for western readers. The first translation of the Dao into English to which I find reference, one by John Chalmers, appeared only in 1868; the great Scottish sinologist James Legge included another version in his Sacred Books of China series, published in 1891. Since the nineteenth century, though, notwithstanding the difficulties, many translations have been published, some as books, others, now, on the web. Over all, it’s one of the most often translated books in the world, a fact that’s a testament to the sensible recognition that it’s occupied a central place in Chinese thought for millennia, and has imbued the work of Chinese poets, writers and artists through the centuries. It’s arguably as fundamental to the Chinese imagination as the work of Plato has been to the western world – or as the King James Bible has been for English speakers since its relatively recent publication in 1611.

Unlike the I Ching, the other ancient Taoist classic that’s come down to us (it dates, by some reckonings, from as early as 2061 BCE), the Dao is said to have had a single author, Laozi (Lao-Tsu in the older transliteration). Western scholars, though, now favor the theory that the texts that compose the book were authored by several anonymous sages, or passed down through the oral tradition, and gradually collected to form the Dao as we know it. Perhaps someday we’ll know more.

The text for the traditional version of the Dao dates from the fifth century of our era, but in 1973 a much older text that contained most of the Dao, written on silk, was discovered in a tomb sealed in 168 BCE; it’s known as the Mawangdui text. In 1993 an even older partial text, brushed on bamboo strips that were gathered into bundles, was found in a tomb at Goudian (or Kou-Tien); from other material found in the tomb, it was clear that the tomb dated from the fourth century BCE or earlier. The sections it included were mostly very similar to the corresponding sections of the fifth century text (though the ideograms in which the language was written had shifted in the intervening centuries), but they were arranged, as were those of the Mawangdui text, in a different order. Most western translations, including Meyer’s, use the traditional arrangement of sections – or “chapters”, as they’re often styled – but a few, like Robert Henricks’ 1989 translation, follow one or the other of the older texts in presenting the sections which comprise the division of the text known traditionally as the de before those that comprise the dao.

For translations, I’ve used the site here, which has more than a hundred versions of the text in a score of languages, including Klingon; it provides fifty-eight versions in English. Its use of frames allows you to compare up to four texts at once in different languages, including multiple versions of the Chinese text, if you wish. The transcriptions of the translations are not always completely accurate, but do pay the site a visit if you really want to delve.

For obvious reasons of time and space, and because I’m in no present danger of becoming a competent Sinologist, I’ll look at just a couple of chapters here.

Let’s first check “chapter” 5 in the traditional text; it’s one for which there’s a surviving bamboo strip in the Goudian collection. At the left of the image, there’s a photo of the original bamboo strip text, right of that a transcription in traditional characters, and then a transliteration and definition in English.

Translator Thomas Cleary, from 1991:
Heaven and earth are not humane; they regard all beings as straw dogs.
Sages are not humane; they see all people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows and pipes, empty yet inexhaustible, producing more with each movement.
The talkative reach their wits' end again and again; that is not as good as keeping centered.
Here’s Dartmouth professor Robert Henricks’ 1989 version from the Mawangdui text:

Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane.
He takes the common people as straw dogs.

The space between Heaven and Earth – is it not like a bellows?

It is empty and yet not depleted;
Move it and more always comes out.

Much learning means frequent exhaustion.

That’s not so good as holding on to the mean.
And, for some real perspective, here’s James Legge’s version from 1891:

Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows?
'Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
'Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion leads we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.
Now here’s Thomas Meyer:
heaven and earth play no favorites
all of us are nothing more than scarecrows

heaven and earth are joined by emptiness
like a flute wrapped in cloth

empty but never useless
a hollow music comes from

not much to say
nothing better than staying in-between
There are a couple of nice touches in Meyer’s version; first is the replacement of the “dogs of grass” or straw dogs (a conventional figure of speech, a variation on the proverbial straw-man of argument) with scarecrows (palpable, and having a more-than-rhetorical existence); and, second, the replacement of “bellows” by “flute”. The original term seems to have denoted “bagpipe”, if the literal translation of the ideogram pictured above is accurate, so both translations depart from a specific referential sense of the passage. “Flute”, though, captures the musical dimension of “bagpipe”, while “bellows”, which conveys its mechanical sense, does not – and is likewise an instrument of air.

Considering the text section by section ignores one of the most notable features of Meyers’ translation (I’ll get to that in a moment), but let’s take a look at another section, “chapters” seventeen through nineteen, traditionally read together:

Here’s the Henricks version:

With the highest kind of rulers, those below simply know they exist.
With those one step down—they love and praise them.
With those one further step down—they fear them.
And with those at the bottom—they ridicule and insult them.

When trust is insufficient, there will be no trust in return.
Hesitant, undecided! Like this is his respect for speaking.

He completes his tasks and finishes his affairs,

Yet the common people say, “These things all happened by nature.”


Therefore, when the Great Way is rejected, it is then that we have the virtues of humanity and righteousness;
When knowledge and wisdom appear, it is then that there is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are not in harmony, it is then that we have filial piety and compassion;
And when the country is in chaos and confusion, it is then that there are virtuous officials.


Eliminate sageliness, throw away knowledge,
And the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Eliminate humanity, throw away righteousness,
And the people will return to filial piety and compassion.
Eliminate craftiness, throw away profit,
Then we will have no robbers and thieves.

These three sayings—
Regard as a text are not yet complete.

Thus, we must see to it that they have the following appended:
Manifest plainness and embrace the genuine;
Lessen self-interest and make few your desires;
Eliminate learning and have no undue concern.
I won’t quote as many versions of these sections as I did of the first passage, because I want to get to some features of Meyer’s book as a whole, but here are the same sections as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, whose translation, the first version I encountered, came out in 1972 (a second edition appeared in the 80s, but I’m quoting from the first edition):


The very highest is barely known by men.
Then comes that which they know and love.
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.

Who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, "We did it!"


When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.

When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.


Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.

The Feng-English text presents the paradoxes at the heart of the passage in a fairly lucid, if canonical, voice. Re-reading it, I remember my first encounter with it, my initial sense that it had said something quite profound reasonably clearly. I’m still puzzled by the first lines of seventeen; “the very highest” what, I want to ask. The abstraction obscures the focus of the passage like a diaphanous fog, without conjuring up glimmers of further reference. Certainly, though, it has the advantage over the Henricks version of being almost colloquial, or perhaps oracular-colloquial; “sainthood” in the last section, for example, is better than Henricks’ “sageliness” (when’s the last time you encountered that?), and overall it’s a better English text.

Here’s Meyer’s, though, presented as he offers it, as a continuous text:

the best direction is barely felt
the next best is like a friend

fear follows after that
dismiss the last as useless

a lack of trust makes
things untrustworthy

quiet and in few words
finish what was begun

so that people say
it simply happened on its own 17

when the great dao is disabled
you need “goodness” and “understanding”

when wit and know-how are sold off
imitation is a necessity

when trust in the family gives way
“loving relations” are called for

when disorder and confusion take over
the “devoted” official appears 18

get rid of the spiritual and let go of wisdom
this will improve things a hundred times over

get rid of good deeds and let go of one’s duty
this will bring back needing and caring

get rid of well-laid plans and let go of advantage
then there will be no crooks or robbery

these three pieces of advice in themselves are not enough
so add to the above the following

admire what is plain and hold onto what hasn’t happened yet
think less of yourself and whatever it is you want 19

This deeply considered reading has among its many virtues that of extraordinary clarity – but it’s a clarity that echoes the paradox at the heart of the passage it presents. The lack of punctuation means that the intelligible structure of the passage depends on line and phrase – much as the meaning of a poem is likely to depend, in this post post-modern era, more on such paratactic strategies than on syntactic structures.

This section reveals the crucial dimension of Meyer’s translation I alluded to a minute ago: unlike others who’ve taken on the task, Meyer presents the Dao as one continuous text, with the section numbers off to the outside edge of the page. Instead of appearing to be a series of discreet oracular reflections, in other words, it’s one flowing account of the slippery, paradoxical nature of reality.

Meyer has clearly cast his translation in a voice quite different from those chosen by the other translators we’ve glanced at. He speaks of the voice he’s discovered for the Dao, what he calls the translation’s “rhetorical pitch”, in the afterward to his version:

The daode jing is table talk. An old man, not holding forth really, but just telling someone what he knew. After dinner, the dishes pushed aside, a glass of whiskey, a cigarette. Or a pub and a pint of beer, even. All throughout the Seventies, the poet Basil Bunting would visit Jonathan Williams and myself where we were living in the Yorkshire dales. This was like that. The tone was conversational, not canonical. Honesty and simplicity foremost, rather than piety or complication. There were no themes, ideas per se. Following one upon another, things circled, darted away, appeared again, or vanished altogether, with the natural ease and bonhomie of good talk.

It’s a convincing take (though I don’t personally see the sage with a cigarette – but perhaps a pipe!). Notwithstanding, though, the apparent simplicity and the casual nature of the presentation, this is durable chatter, words and phrases that work their way into mind and stay there. No periods, no commas – Meyer has freed the language of his translation from the boundaries of syntax to make what is essentially a contemporary poem, a subtle reading of subtle writ, one that’s fluid, follows shifting riverbeds of meaning, and so gets to the heart of the Dao

best to be like water
always useful …
– a profound text, and a wonderful translation. It's one, I suspect, that I’ll visit often.

Updated to correct the transcription of two of the translations.

Original content © 2006.

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