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The Red Cockatoo -- Po Chü-i

Thanks to John Vinson for introducing me to today's poem
(Poem #1073) The Red Cockatoo
 Sent as a present from Annam
 A red cockatoo.
 Coloured like the peach-tree blossom,
 Speaking with the speech of men.
 And they did to it what is always done
 To the learned and eloquent.
 They took a cage with stout bars
 And shut it up inside.
-- Po Chü-i
        (Translated by Arthur Waley)

Today's poginant and beautiful poem lends itself to a number of
interpretations. There is, first of all, the surface meaning, a lament for a
bird cruelly caged for no crime other than that of being pleasing - and,
while simplistic, this is a very valid reading of the poem. To call the bird
a metaphor and plunge instantly through it and into the deeper layers of the
poem is to miss a great part of its beauty, for there is a definite pathos
inherent in a caged bird, and Po Chü-i has delineated that pathos simply and

However, the bird *is*, of course, a metaphor, and not a particularly
subtle one at that - indeed, the poem makes the comparison explicit with
"what is always done/ to the learned and eloquent". I am unsure whether the
bars the poet refer to are political, societal or personal (or, indeed, to
the effective cage of Po Chü-i’s own paralysis), but the point is that it
doesn't matter - the situation is universal enough that most readers will
find something to identify with[1].

Apart from the imagery, I like this poem for its elegant minimalism, and for
the contrastive balance of ornamentation and starkness. The delicate
portrayal of the bird 'coloured like the peach tree blossom' provides an
effective contrast to the blunt, almost unpoetic "They took a cage with
stout bars/ And shut it up inside." There is also the indefinable but
palpable feel of a translated poem[2], marking Waley's success in capturing
both the poem's universal message and its Chinese origin.

[1] The following quote is nicely illustrative of the point:
      Arthur Waley sent Russell the translation of a Chinese poem, which he
      had not published. Russell quotes it in his autobiography to convey
      his feelings at the time. [...] The poem speaks of the thoughtless
      cruelty of imprisoning pacifists.
        -- [broken link]

[2] Nick Grundy expressed a similar view when referring to Nabokov's
    translation of Pushkin:
      The obvious advantage those translating from their native tongue have
      is that they can retain the feel of the original - there's something
      peculiarly Russian about this

    It is interesting to see how people translating from an acquired language
    manage to capture the oft-elusive *feel* of that language and its
    culture. Perhaps some Chinese speaker could comment further on today's


  A biography and selection of Po Chü-i's poems:

  An excellent piece on Waley:
    Arthur Waley selected the jewels of Chinese and Japanese literature and
    pinned them quietly to his chest. No one has ever done anything like it
    before, and no one will ever do so again.

    There are now many Westerners whose knowledge of Chinese or Japanese is
    greater than his, and there are perhaps a few who can handle both
    languages as well. But they are not poets, and those who are better
    poets than Waley do not know Chinese or Japanese. Also the shock will
    never be repeated, for most of the works that Waley chose to translate
    were largely unknown in the West, and their impact was thus all the more

    Full piece at [broken link]

  The history of Annam:

40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

translate that poem please

viagra online said...

It's that a poem... :S it's nice what it saids, but I don't feel any rime in it... ?

sildenafil said...

It's such a rebel poem, I love the way he ends up with a very hard critique against those who have censored the people who has spoken the truth to the masses. Great poem, it behaves in a crescendo that will punch your head with the last line! if69

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Love this poem, it is an unusual poem, but it is beautiful.

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