Ch'ang-An, the capital of the T'ang Dynasty, and one of the great cities of the pre-modern world, had just been sacked by a rebel army. An ancient civilization's noblest era was about to pass into violent decline. Wei did more than act as witness: He lived the consequences of this chaos, and considered it in the poems he constantly composed.
Yet this extraordinary flowering (one of the greatest in world poetry, comparable to that of Elizabethan England) was virtually unknown in the West until the beginning of the last century when Ezra Pound, having been introduced to the work of the Chinese masters, used the exercise of translating them to free up and transform his own style. "The autumn moonlight is already tinging the river / what use is this pleasure tomorrow," Pound wrote, rendering Wei Ying-Wu's near contemporary, Li Po. Pound's versions may not have always been faithful to the originals but their clarity and solidity had far-reaching influence upon the subsequent generations of Americans -- including Witter Bynner, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin and David Hinton -- who tried their hands at capturing the subtle and seductive moods of Chinese verse.
Wei Ying-Wu was undoubtedly one of the great T'ang poets, yet his work is much less well known in the West than that of Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i. Now Red Pine (the lovely pen name that the American poet and Chinese scholar Bill Porter assumes for his translation work) celebrates Wei's life and achievement in a big new anthology, "In Such Hard Times" (Copper Canyon, 366 pp., $18 paper).
Pine/Porter was born in Los Angeles in 1943, served in Vietnam, attended graduate school at Columbia and spent years living in Taiwan and Hong Kong and traveling throughout China. He brings to his task decades of amateur love combined with scholarly rigor. This book is handsomely produced, brilliantly and usefully annotated, and filled with lines that achieve a casual and compressed balance: "The windblown waves recall our parting / the way I once looked has changed"; "hour after hour the clock dripping slower"; "I only regret the road home is so long"; "The rain is light and plants are new."
Wei was born in 737 to an aristocratic family whose fortunes were already in decline when the civil war broke out. Loyal to the T'ang rulers under whom his ancestors had prospered, Wei, who held several bureaucratic posts over the years, found himself dispatched here and there throughout the war-torn kingdom, as other cities were seized by the rebels, then retaken, only to be sacked again. He confessed that he was too careless to be good at his work; rather, he cared about other things -- meditation, family, peace of mind, the conditions of people around him.
Certainly Wei had no gift for the labyrinthine intrigue that characterized the politics of the T'ang court. Often he retreated to Buddhist temples for solitude. He married a woman he loved and they had children. Her death in 776 inspired a series of poems, searing in their distillation of grief: "now when I close my rickety gate / I hear our children crying / but a father has to go forth / even when there's no mother at home / swallowing remorse hurts me inside / all the more in this bitter cold / in a one-person cart on a road so bleak / I look back and keep slowing down / a rising wind lashes the plain / geese cry out and fly off / in the past we traveled this road together / I never thought I'd be on it alone."
It seems that in Wei's life good luck came along and then soon went bad. "What good is the brief moment, / if we just end up in the hills," he wrote. Yet he understood, too, the importance of that "brief moment" and seized at the light he knew would pass: "I still have some solstice wine left / and plum blossoms are early this spring / how long shall we wander along outside the east wall / and which day along that winding stream / take some time off and spend it on pleasure / don't wait until you're wearing new robes."
So although Wei's subjects are trouble, uncertainty, loss and leaving, his lucid tone sings of the necessity of acceptance, crystallizing the attitude that we call Zen. Reading him is like listening to Mozart, there's something healing about the calm profundity with which he spins pain and disaster: "after starting a fire deep in my stove / and closing the door to my empty room / we share a gourd full of wine / and didn't speak of all the things that went wrong," he writes.
Previously Pine/Porter has translated Han Shan, the hermit who retreated to a mountain cliff (Cold Mountain) where he guffawed at the world. "All the people I see / struggle over everything / one day they suddenly die / and all they get is some ground / four feet wide / eight feet long / if you can stop your struggling / I'll carve your name in stone," says Han Shan in Pine/Porter's version, which appears in another Copper Canyon book, "The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain." Han Shan asks "What's the use of all that noise and money?" and history has turned him into a legend, an almost mythic figure, much translated, notably by Gary Snyder and Burton Watson as well as Pine/Porter. Han Shan was a crazy clown whose genius turned a freezing place of retreat into a state of mind to which we all might aspire.
Wei was a very different sort of man, and a more autobiographical writer. "I accept being lame and incompetent but who says I disdain worldly glory," he writes. Pine/Porter turns him into an essential poet. "Someone who's thirsty doesn't long for fire / someone who's cold doesn't look for water / our lives are transient affairs / thus do we come and go," Wei writes, speaking from more than 1,000 years ago, yet direct to the uncertainties of the modern heart.
Rayner's new book is "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age." Paperback Writers appears monthly at latimes.com/books.