Wong MayThe Song Cave
2022 Windham-Campbell Prize Winner Wong May's Landmark Anthology of Tang Dynasty Poetry
Chinese poetry is unique in world literature in that it was written for the best part of 3,000 years by exiles and refugees. In this anthology we meet Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, and others less familiar to readers in English. Known as the Golden Age of Poetry, the Tang Dynasty was a time when poems were bartered in the marketplace for wine and tea; and posted in temples and taverns, the words of poets unmissable as street art and signage. Monks, courtiers, courtesans, woodsmen, and farmhands were fluent in poetry. More than reading matter, it was a common currencywhether as a necessity or luxury in times of rampant warfare, droughts, famine, plague, man-made and natural disasters. "Chinese history can be read in the words of the poets. It was left for poetry to teach the least & the most," says the translator Wong May, "a literacy of the heart in a barbarous world." True to the spirit of classics, these poems from 1,200 years ago read like they were still being written somewhere in the world to be read today, and tomorrow: “In dark times we read by the light of letters.”
"A bird translates silence,” the incredibly thorough and utterly unique Afterword begins. In 70 sections that span the millennia, the translator traverses continents and civilizations to retrieve these texts of Tang Poetry for our century, prompted by the voice of another guide, the Rhino, a magical being and original spirit who held a special place in Tang China. A historical study of ancient literature has never felt so alive and timeless.