If a similar Der Blaue Reiter group of pre-World War I artists were present today, that included the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, Steven Schroeder might be the artist Franz Marc, a leading member of the group, who is known for his iconic and mythological painting titled “Blue Horse.”
Steve is a keen editor, a renowned publisher, and an accomplished poet. However, neither does the list of his accomplishments stop there, they only begin to broaden. To my knowledge, as a colleague and friend, the breadth of Steve’s work is what could only be described as that rarity, I believe, especially in the early 21st century where specialization is the norm—a modern Renaissance man.
For instance, and most recently, I know of a gorgeous sequence of poems he has written regarding modern mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer; a powerful poem regarding the painting of Paul Klee; a significant essay he crafted with respect to Hegelian philosophy in conjunction to the poetry of John Donne; and if you visit his website, you may find a painting of a cactus blossom rendered in oils on the right hand page that, for me, offers that perennial mystique of the divine found in the art of Odilon Redon. Steve’s painting entitled “Cholla Blossom 2,” in my opinion, also perpetuates an incandescent realm of the sacred.
Steve perhaps may be better described as a painter, a poet, and writer who has spent some years moonlighting as a philosophy professor teaching at Chicago’s Graham School—largely in an interdisciplinary setting. He earned a Ph.D. in Ethics and Society from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology at Valparaiso University. He also claims that since he grew up in the Texas Panhandle, that emptiness plays a large role in his painting and poetry.
He writes that he usually focuses on a single image and that his paintings often contain what isn’t there as much as what is. Although he also writes that his hope is that his work invites more than it contains.
It is an enduring honor for Steve to invite me to participate in what became a rigorously interactive interpretation of Daodejing, along with poet and writer, David Breeden. For me that is and will always be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of a project which resulted in three poets creating three parallel renderings of the work of whom Steve has referred so appropriately to as “our old master.” All three of us had been reading various translations of Lao Tzu for more than forty years.
With Steve exercising such beneficent invitations to David and myself, what occurred can be said to be a kind of perfect storm of literary congeniality and felicity that precipitated a creative synergy which was like none other I have experienced in my writing life. What resulted through Steve’s vision of bringing us together is a unique, and I believe relevant, new version of the intended words of “our old master.”
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My process in what I term rendering Laozi was initially reading the translation that Steve Schroeder would present in the Google Docs program, which I would then copy into my hardcover journal whose sole purpose was a workbook for Daodejing. My approach was to place myself in the forefront of Steve’s translation with an amount of veneration, then, and this was always crucial, to find, and more appropriately discover, where the lyric core of the poem arose from. When I found that, then my own rendering flowed. However, it may have been one or two of the middle lines, perhaps an image at the end, and most usually, especially toward the conclusion of Daodejing, with the beginning lines, that I was able to locate the source of the flow of each particular verse.
My attempt was not only to render ‘our old teacher,’ Laozi, but to play off of Steve’s translation—much like how John Coltrane released the sweet torrent of sound from his saxophone in harmonizing with Johnny Hartman’s voice, and Johnny Hartman’s debonair baritone rising to meet that effusion of Coltrane’s grace notes—but also my purpose was to limn Steve’s meaning; to shadow a phrase, here and there; and to offer both clarity and a mirror to the perpetuity of the sage’s import and wisdom.
I first came across the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation of Laozi when I was twenty, over forty years ago in New Haven, when I was also reading every Eastern classic I could assimilate, as well as practicing Zazen with a small group of people in the basement of Yale Divinity School Chapel. Although I augmented my reading of Steve’s translations with the Fu and English version, and often enough chose to strike a balance between the two to actually and effectively fashion a new rendering, I have also treasured Ursula K. LeGuin’s translation, as well as Stephen Mitchell’s, who, on occasion, as I recall, was one of the other participants in sitting meditation in the basement at the Divinity School Chapel, when he was grad student at Yale.
My being invited to render Laozi has been completing an enormous circle for me, as Joseph Campbell, whose voluminous works of comparative religion and mythology I have studied, might point out as being the hero’s journey. In that time it is not only Campbell who I found both inspiration and guidance from, much after my discovery of Laozi, but also the psycho-spirituality of the modern mystic Carolyn Myss, and the high octane spirituality of The Guide Lectures, channeled by Eva Pierrakos, among many others, whose writing regarding higher consciousness have affected me, such as Pema Chodron, Katherine MacCoun, and Eckhart Tolle—all of whose insights, at least partially, I have integrated, and that have lent themselves to becoming some of the very philosophical underpinnings of my renderings of Daodejing.
It is with gratitude, and an active humility, that I thank everyone here that I have mentioned by name, including, of course, ‘our old teacher,’ as well as for Yinxi, the sentry at the western gate, who, apocryphally or not, stopped Laozi, and asked him to record his wisdom before moving on, into the frontier, beyond, which as a result was Daodejing—for it is as if I have come to meet them both, stepping out of the western frontier of the future, to greet them in the eternal now, in which we all have come together, with our hands placed firmly palm to palm, bowing to one another, in unison.
Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), Awakening & Visitation, and Evanescence: Selected Poems (2020), with Shanti Arts. His translations have been and/or will be published in Chiron Review, Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation, Solace: A Magazine of Diverse Voices among others.