A book of Chinese poetry at its serene best; The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, translated and edited by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press. 385 pages. $19.95.
Burton Watson's quiet mastery of word and rhythm makes his translations rather modest-sounding when compared with the noisy style initiated by Ezra Pound's ''Cathay.'' Pound's compression of syntax was supposed to render the compactness of the Chinese character. Strain - on the language and on the reader , as well - was too often the result, even though some of Pound's translations are justly celebrated as modern poems. But in Watson's anthology, ''poems flow out like water spilled,'' to quote Su Tung-p'o.
Furthermore, these poems give what I think most readers want from poetry, the clarification and preservation of individual experience and judgment. Wu Chun ends a spring song with ''in vain I face the cup that wakes these memories.'' What led up to that is sad, tender, and final (''her gauze curtains drawn and never parted'').
This book presents a challenge to contemporary poets. In his useful and elegant introduction, Watson indicates his indebtedness to early 20th-century masters like Pound, who broke down the conventions of English verse in order to render experience in its immediacy. He notes that these translators left a body of work that ''has become a major influence on contemporary poets writing in English.'' This overlooks two things.
Watson's own translations recover a sense of the traditional in the Chinese originals, and most of them are highly traditional. They shine in their own light. Two things: The traditional discipline of Chinese verse did not cripple the early Chinese poets; nor does the lack of modernist noise make these translations any less poetic.
Wherein the challenge: The Chinese poets internalized the forms of their poetry (most of the poems included in this generous anthology are variations on one form!) so that the personal and the poetic walk hand in hand. The strict discipline of the game reveals the touch of a hand, a sigh, clouds piling gloriously on the horizon. The tension between artistic convention and personal experience, which is defined as essential in modern life and art, disappears under the spiritual pressure of the game of versemaking.
It is to be hoped that Burton Watson's labor of love - and of a lifetime - will take its proper place next to Pound's translations. But I think the Columbia anthology belongs on more shelves than the modernist translations, because it respects a broader range of experience. As Tao Yuan-ming writes of the ''simple hearted people'' of the village he just moved to: ''Neighbors now and then come around. ... Unusual writings we appreciate with one another,/ working out the difficult passages together.''
My childhood home had a copy of Arthur Waley's collection of Chinese poetry; Watson is now among the books my son will discover on our shelves in due time. It is, in a way, important that it be there. It represents one of the bodies of wisdom not included in the Bible and represents it in a most attractive manner. Considerable care was taken with the design of the book. The print is large and clear; delightful woodcuts ornament spaces between sections. There is a short but useful glossary and a fine bibliography. Finally, it is sturdily and handsomely bound. In all, a cause for rejoicing.