Heartwood 1:6 – Su Tung-p’o

Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o
by Su Shi (1037-1101)
145 pgs. Copper Canyon Press, 1994.  Trans. by Burton Watson

To feel an intimate connection with a writer from a distant time and culture is one of the most inexplicable and rewarding experiences of reading literature.

Su Shi (also known as Su Tung-p’o) lived in China over 900 years ago during the Sung Dynasty, yet the poems in this collection feel strikingly fresh and contemporary. Burton Watson’s sympathetic translations wonderfully capture the spirit of this humble poet and civil servant whose strength and compassion remained constant through times of both prosperity and adversity. Some of the poems’ recurrent themes include the passage of time as revealed by seasonal change, nights of drinking and conviviality, visits to area temples, and journeys up mountains and down rivers. According to Watson’s informative introduction, Su Tung-p’o’s poems also included more detailed observations of the natural world than are typically found in the poems of his predecessors or contemporaries.

Su Tung-p’o felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the people for whom he worked as both a governor and civil servant. But his poetry was not always well-received by those in power, and he was twice removed from his government positions and forced into exile. In fact, the name by which he is popularly known – Su Tung-p’o – refers to the hardscrabble Eastern Slope where he eked out a living during his first period of exile. Some of the most moving poems in this collection find the poet thinking about his brother Tzu-yu, who also worked in civil service and from whom he was long separated due to the practice of relocating government officials every few years.

The diverse range and style of these poems, written over a period of 42 years, cannot be captured in a brief blog post, but the excerpt below, from the poem “Lotus Viewing,” displays the poet’s inquisitiveness, his appreciation for the natural world, and a sense of detached gratitude that is typical of many of the poems:

                        The clear wind – what is it?
Something to be loved, not to be named,
moving like a prince wherever it goes;
the grass and trees whisper its praise.
This outing of ours never had a purpose;
let the lone boat swing about as it will.
In the middle of the current, lying face up,
I greet the breeze that happens along
and lift a cup to offer to the vastness:
how pleasant – that we have no thought for each other!
Coming back through two river valleys,
clouds and water shine in the night.


Su Tung-p’o was also a renowned calligrapher.  Check out examples of his exquisite brushwork and read more about him at the China Online Museum.

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