19 May 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/21

The Wild Flower Man

Do you know the old man who
Sells flowers by the South Gate?
He lives on flowers like a bee.
In the morning he sells mallows,
In the evening he has poppies.
His shanty roof lets in the
Blue sky. His rice bin is
Always empty. When he has
Made enough money from his
Flowers, he heads for a teahouse.
When his money is gone, he
Gathers some more flowers.
All the spring weather, while the
Flowers are in bloom, he is
In bloom, too. Every day he
Is drunk all day long. What does
He care if new laws are posted
At the Emperor's palace?
What does it matter to him
If the government is built
On sand? If you try to talk
To him, he won't answer but
Only give you a drunken
Smile from under his tousled hair.

Lu Yu, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Rexroth includes this note to this poem: "There is a veiled ironic reference to a Sung* Buddhist saint who was reputed to live only on honey." The old man described here also lives on flowers ("like a bee") but doesn't seem particularly attuned to the spiritual; in fact, he's very much of the earth, and daily survival, and indeed almost lives like a semi-domesticated animal, on the margins of human civilization. There are holes in the roof of his shelter – not so bad, maybe even kind of nice, in the warmth of Spring, when they let in the blue sky, but not so nice during a downpour or on a cold night. He is "in bloom" during spring weather, when the flowers are in bloom, but what does he live on when they're not? In many ways his is an animal's life, very dependent on the sometimes capricious and cruel seasons and the earth, the sort of life civilization arose to cushion us from. An animal would accept this life, but being human, the old man is drunk as often as he can be (again, nice while it's happening, not so nice in the after-effects). Does he see the beautiful flowers as anything but a way to get money for liquor? What does "beautiful" mean to him? We are given no clue. Is the drunkenness an escape from the harsh daily reality of his life? Is it an answer, a question, an addiction, a habit, all of these things or something else? Is this man happy? Is he even aware of his situation? It's difficult to say. His actions (that is, his survival tactics) are described, but his attitudes, thoughts, and motivations are hidden from the speaker describing them. The poem ends with his "drunken smile"; we are explicitly told that it is his only answer ("If you try to talk / To him, he won't answer. . . "), as if, like an animal, he is denied the power of articulate speech, of explaining himself. But what is the answer the smile is giving? Is the smile of joy, of contentment, of deeper knowledge, of bafflement, of indifference, of incomprehension, or perhaps simply an automatic muscular reflex, or an action of the nerves? In fact, since it's a drunken smile, does it "mean" anything at all?

Since the flower-seller himself does not (and perhaps could not) tell his own story, it's told to us by an official: an adult, a serious man, a disappointed man, one who is not only aware of laws, government, and Emperor, but knows – and disapproves of – what they are doing (here the speaker Lu Yu echoes what historians know of the man Lu Yu). He feels the government is unstable; new and apparently useless or destructive laws proliferate. Laws and Emperor have no effect on the Wild Flower Man, but this has more to do with his low social standing than with any sort of conscious decision or philosophy on his part; laws affect him the way they would a dog or a cat. Yet in a way the sophisticated official is mirrored in the drunken beggar: both are outsiders, both marginal in their worlds, both without influence. We readers, just by virtue of being readers, are more like the speaker in education and social status (and probably in discontentment as well), and our initial reaction, seeing the Wild Flower Man's life from the outside, and during his blooming spring months, might be to see him as an enviable or even admirable figure. But given the lack of conscious intention in his life I think such a reading would veer towards the sentimental and even the cruel, as if an executive were to wax poetic about the free and unconventional life of a dirty street person pushing a shopping cart, begging for spare change: although the life of the Wild Flower Man may sound idyllic, the description of him is actually quite neutral, and it's not reading too far outside the limits of the words to see the hole in the shanty roof and the empty rice bin, the drunkenness and the lack of speech, as evidence of a frequently miserable life: he's fine during springtime, but (as Charlotte Smith reminded us last week) spring doesn't last forever. The very emphasis on how he manages during spring must lead us to wonder how he manages the rest of the year. He has no protection from rough weather, no steady source of food, apparently no family or friends – he doesn't even have a name; he is simply "the old man" or "the wild flower man." His need for booze, and the need to get money to pay for it, seem to be the only things tying him to human society. His life is as unstable as the government. And we can't honestly say that the official describing him is wiser or better or even more content – his knowledge and insight bring him mostly unhappiness, though they also give him the ability to write this poem.

I took this from Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

* The Sung (sometimes put in English as Song) Dynasty lasted from 960 to 1279; Lu Yu lived from 1125 to 1209. Kenneth Rexroth lived from 1905 to 1982.


Unknown said...

I am currently sitting in an equity training, where an English teacher is talking about how his students from Asian countries often don't even know that there are or were poets from their home countries. I am thankful for the diversity that I have experienced through your poetry posts.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you, I'm glad (of course) that you enjoy the variety. But that remark about not knowing poets raises many questions in my mind about what and how the students are being taught.