Popular Posts

Saturday 26 December 2009

Poems of the Masters:

China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse

A Christmas-post-Christmas enthuse.

Let me first risk putting you off this book and then, assuming that the unintended has come to pass, let me try to reverse that unfortunate consequence. Here we go then, one short sentence should do it: It is an anthology of Classical Chinese poetry, some of which dates from before the early eighth century. There you are, then. What did that do for you? Have I lost you? Hopefully, not too many of you, but both eighth century and Classical can be slightly off-putting, as can the word anthology. Anthologies are for some anathemas, and for most not books to make the pulses race. So now, to reassure you, let me suggest that this book and these poems have more than enough on the plus side to outweigh those disadvantages. First up is the fact that the T'ang and Sung dynasties are regarded by the Chinese as their Golden Age of Poetry, something akin to our own Elizabethan age, when after a long period of development, the language gelled with new concepts in writing to produce a richness never seen before - or, some would argue, since. Indeed, it was Ezra Pound's discovery of these ancient verses that set him on the road to his invention of Imagism.

This anthology was first compiled (in Chinese) towards the end of the eleventh century (though this is the first - and still the only - complete English translation), and was the basis of of all Chinese Classical poetry and Education from that time until it was replaced by political propaganda when China made its more recent foray into Communism. The book's English translator, an American who goes under the pen name of Red Pine, has written an insightful introduction. The Chinese ideogram for the word poetry, he tells us, actually means language of the heart. That is to say, it is more an expression of the poet's internal landscape than an attempt to convey the external or physical world.

There are 475 pages to this book, 224 poems in all, each set out on facing pages, the Chinese original on the left and the English translation to the right. Additionally, at the bottom of the pages, Red Pine includes notes on the poem and the poet. But in all that there are only four distinct poetic structures, a fact easy to appreciate as the book is divided into four parts, each part being dedicated to one of the four forms. There are:-

39 poems of four lines with five characters per line,
45 eight-line poems with five characters per line,
94 poems of four lines with seven characters per line,
and 46 eight-line poems with seven characters per line.

Obviously they will not work out like that in English. The Chinese characters do not correspond to a fixed number of English words or syllables, but the originals are there to give an idea of their Chinese forms. Something of this can be absorbed even by those who do not read Chinese.

By structure, however, more is meant than simply the line or character count. Each poem-type follows complex rules as to rhyme scheme, tonal pattern and parallelism. Such considerations will not interest every English reader of course, nor need they, for there is much to savour without having to wrestle with such complexities.

The first poem in the book, Spring Dawn, is one of the great favourites with the Chinese people, and it is not difficult to see why. It is seventh century and by Meng Hao-Jan. The form is 4 lines of 5 characters per line - known as wu-jue.

Sleeping in spring oblivious of dawn
everywhere I hear birds
after the wind and rain last night
I wonder how many petals fell

An interesting point here is that in the original Chinese version no pronouns were used. Red Pine has inserted them: I hear... and I wonder... but the poet Meng Hao-Jan avoided them. It is as though he wanted to leave his readers with the feeling that the phenomena being described were witnessed by some impersonal being or manifestation - perhaps of nature itself. As such it would be a stunning example of the power of Chinese poetry to express abstract ideas in concrete images.

In his notes, Red Pine also highlights the wonderful piece of characterisation that is going on here: the poet being able to conceive the possibility of lying there wondering about the scene outside - without at all feeling any compulsion to get up and go outside to see at first hand.

One of the downsides to anthologies, I always think - certainly of Western poetry - lies in the fact that you miss the threads of meaning, the nuances of influence and concern, the development of ideas that poems in a one-poet collection give to the works around them. Reading poems in isolation is not at all the same as reading them as part of the collection, as part of that in which they were conceived. Now that which follows may stem from a misunderstanding on my part, but it does seem to me that these considerations do not apply to the same degree when we come to Chinese poetry. Here the rules governing their composition and limiting the development of each poem are so strict that continuities bind them together in an anthology almost as tightly as in our culture the poems in a one-poet collection are bound. In both form and content there is much continuity. Indeed, there is something of a family feeling.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the two eight-line forms. Here the rules have the sort of force that is normally reserved for laws. You infringe them at your peril. They are numerous, extreme and inflexible. They extend beyond the verbal into visual and musical elements. For example, they lay down that the third and fourth lines must be mirror images of each other, as must the fifth and sixth. And by "mirror images" we mean that nouns must face nouns (you need to look at the Chinese versions to see how this might work out), verbs must face verbs, adjectives, adjectives and adverbs, adverbs, and so on. But the rules are more extensive even than that: they say that numbers (if used) must face numbers, colours, colours etc.

You would think, maybe, that poets would be using their ingenuity to circumvent these rules - or maybe just ignoring them or avoiding those verse-forms altogether. Far from it. Many of the best poets, Tu Fu for example, have taken them even further, constructing the eight-line versions from four matched pairs - and in doing so increasing exponentially the problems facing translators!

For me one of the joys of this book has been the notes which accompany each double page spread. Here is an example:

The Chungnan Mountains
by Wang Wei

Taiyi isn't far from the Heart of Heaven
its ridges extend to the edge of the sea
white clouds form before your eyes
blue vapours vanish in plain sight
around its peaks the whole realm turns
in every valley the light looks different
in need of a place to spend the night
I yell to a woodcutter across the stream

The notes explain that Wang Wei (701 - 761) was an influential official who rose to be deputy prime minister, but much preferred to be at home in his beloved mountains and spent as much time there as he did at court. Taiyi (The Great One) was another name for the Tao. It was also another name for The Chungnan Mountains and for their highest peak. The Heart of Heaven refers to the Taoist paradise as well as to the Son of Heaven's residence. White clouds represent a life of detachment and blue vapours worldly aspiration. The Chinese at one time laid out the empire into twenty-eight realms corresponding to the constellations of the Chinese Zodiac, all radiating from these mountains. Upon meeting a woodcutter, a herb gatherer or a hermit in the mountains of China, even a stranger soon feels at home.

One of the big differences between Chinese and Western poetry lies in the fact that the former does not describe an event (as Western poetry often does), but a situation. This is sensed, I believe, at the time of one's first encounter with the Chinese art-form - as, for example, in the case of the following poem. Red Pine gives the narrative background to the work, but the poem itself represents a moment... I was going to say a moment in time, but in fact time, in the sense of time passing, does not exist. The reason for this is quite simple:

Chinese verbs have no tense - though Red Pine does introduce tense in some of his translations. Nevertheless, if we are to believe those versed in both languages, the original feel remains.. One of Ezra Pound's most perceptive pronouncements was that images can create insights in a second. It was the mainspring of his inspiration and, more than any other fact, led him to the creation of Imagism.

Here then is first one of the four-line verse-forms:

The Peach Blossoms of Chingchuan Hermitage
by Hsieh Fang-Te (1226 - 1289)

In Peach Blossom Valley they escaped the Ch'in
peach blossom red means spring is here again
don't let flying petals fall into the stream
some fishermen I fear might try to find their source

Red Pine explains that when the Mongols brought the Southern Sung dynasty to an end Hsieh had formed an army of resistance, but he was defeated, captured and imprisoned. He starved himself rather than serve his new masters. Here he visits a hermitage and describes how a fisherman followed peach blossoms that were drifting down a stream until he reached their source in a cleft in the rocks. Squeezing through the crevice, he came out in an idyllic valley, where he met people whose ancestors had come there several hundred years earlier to escape the brutal rule of the Ch'in dynasty (221 - 217 B.C.). After returning to tell others of his discovery, the fisherman was unable to relocate the valley, as the refugees had obscured the trail and the crevice. Hsieh uses the Ch'in here to represent the Yuan (1280 - 1368), from whose encroaching dominion he hoped to find refuge.

And now another eight-liner:-

Commiserating with Gentleman-in-Waiting Wang on Tungting Lake
By Chang Wei (720 - 770)

Through Tungting Lake in the middle of fall
the waters of the Hsiao and Hsiang flow north
but home is a thousand-mile dream away
and a guest greets dawn with sorrow
there's no need to open a book
far better to visit an inn
Ch'ang-an and Loyang are full of old friends
but when will we join them again

The author was a minor official who had been rusticated to Changsha, in the province south of the Tungting Lake. The title Gentleman -in-Waiting, Red Pine explains, was an honorary epithet for someone who had been sponsored as an official but had no formal position. He was thus exempt from the civil service exam (< i>No need to open a book) Chang watches the waters of the two rivers flow north through the lake, into The Yangtze, and towards Loyang, while he and his friend wait to be recalled to the capital.


steven said...

hi dave! i thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed this overview of chinese eighth century poetry. i've been exploring it to a limited degree as it so often captures and expresses something that i am trying to express on my blog. i think i could stand, indeed prefer, the translations to remain pronoun free. the poems carry more presence, albeit of a different and impersonal nature. have a peaceful day. steven

David Cranmer said...

Totally absorbing history. Isn't it amazing all that this talented society came up with? Amazing.

Mr. King, could you drop me an e-mail: paladin-1@hotmail.com


Enchanted Oak said...

Thank you for this introduction to a form of poetry I've not discovered till now. It is awesome work with a modern sense, not unlike the experience I have when reading Rumi. I hope Dianne makes it over here soon; she'll love this.

Dianne said...

Thanks Chris and David, I can't wait to get this and read it...
Maybe I'll ask for it for my birthday!
Dave thanks for opening so many doors for us (or pages, hee hee)

Unknown said...

Wonderful & compelling review--I must look into this work. The poem "The Chungnan Mountains" is really remarkable. Thanks for this.

Conda Douglas said...

Wow, fascinating. Although I've been interested (and have traveled) in China, I never hooked into the poetry. A whole new world for me.

Jinksy said...

I often wish English poetry could be a concise as that produced by Chinese characters. I can see, I shall need to go on a book hunt...

Barry said...

Fortunately you failed to put me off, instead I feel as if a new world has been opened for me. I found this an absolutely fascinating post and I am filled with the desire to learn more.

What more can you ask from a blog post? Thank you for the Christmas present.

Anonymous said...

Gotta follow this one too. *avid*

My Music Blog

Das Leben dergleichen Halbfaßung
der Welt wahr immer nicht wahr,
nicht wahr? Die fristlos' Entlaßung
am Ende wird kaum wunderbar.

So laßen uns Menschlingen viele
besonders besonnene zum
Zeitweilegem Zeiten als Ziele
des Lebens halbfaßen darum.


Schwarzes Birne!
Aufforderung zur Erotik.

Meine deutsche Gedichte


I went downtown, saw Katie in the nude
on Common Avenue, detracted soltitude
as it were, like a dream-state rosely hued,
like no one else could see her; DAMN! I phewed;

was reciprokelly then, thank heaven, viewed,
bestowed unique hard-on! but NOT eschewed,
contrair-ee-lee, she took a somewhat rude
'n readidy attude of Sex Prelude; it BREWED!

And for a start, i hiccuped "Hi!", imbued
with Moooood! She toodledooed: "How queued
your awe-full specie-ally-tee, Sir Lewd,
to prove (alas!), to have me finely screwed,

and hopef'lly afterwards beloved, wooed,
alive, huh? Don't you even DO it, Duu-uuude!"

My English Poetry Blog

N'est-que pas que la solitude elle-mème eveille quelque attente fébrile? Voici l'entrée, vide, discrètetement illuminée comme une musée nocturne – la terasse, avec ses torchères ondoyantes par un soir d'Avent étrangement doux – laissant le vestibule et les murmures de voix – la chambre immaculée immaculée et la musique de danse derrière le mur – et le bar à cocktails mondains – le bassin où le nageur s'entrâine, longeur après longeur, il en n'a jamais assez, il doit y mettre de sien – enfin, tournant vers le haut au coin du sombre couloir vient la fille noire et pâle, altière, déterminée et de style épuré, ainsi qu'un moderne avion de chasse suédois.



Exit time. Las chicas dejan el espejo de bar
dormindose en sus corazónes de alta traícion.
El Señor no levanta. Él pastorea a sus pies
los presuntos compradores. Y nos bendice.

My spanish poetry blog


Consider Sex and time, procreation, reincarnation. Trigonometry! I envisage the time axis as the repetitive tangens function. Do you see what I mean? What can be tentatively derived from this notion? Clue: orgasm AND birth pangs at tan 0.

My Philosophy

My Babe Wallpapers

You are very welcome to promote your blog on mine. They are well frequented, so there's mutual benefit.

- Peter Ingestad, Sweden

Jim Murdoch said...

The big problem here for me is the fact that clearly much is lost in translation. You mentioned Elizabethan literature (which actually puts me off more than what preceded that comment) and the same problem exists there since so much time has passed since the works were written. Having just watched Hamlet again last night I’m acutely aware of how much scope there is for misunderstanding the text unless you’ve studied it first. Clearly the same goes for this poetry: the poems don’t work unless you put them in context first and the more something needs to be explained the less it interests me. The ‘Peach Blossom’ poem is a good example – it doesn’t work without knowing the history surrounding it. This doesn’t mean I’m against all oriental poetry because I’m not. Many haiku are timeless and will still be accessible in hundreds of years whereas the kinds of poems you’ve highlighted will still be curiosities, fascinating in the same way that historical artefacts are but of no real use apart from that.

Friko said...

An excellent post, Dave, well worth reading. You have certainly whetted my appetite and I shall buy this book at the earliest opportunity.
Poetry to drown in.

Rachel Cotterill said...

I have to get a copy of that! And resume my Chinese studies, it's been a while... but I'm sure it's fascinating to read the originals.

Unknown said...

Hope you had a very Merry Christmas, Dave. I've been wrapping, cooking turkey, visiting and haven't had a moment to blog.

So, I'd like to comment on your blog, three back, "Here Be Dragons". This poem brought back memories for us because Barry's mother grew up on Whitford Gardens (Barry's first house, until he was
3 yrs.). His mother's dad and grandfather were blacksmiths there and her Mum's family owned the Star Pub. Barry's Mum wasn't allowed to talk to her Grandfather (Staines) at the pub on the way to school, (it was frowned upon). She still blushes when she tells the story. Barry's grandfather the blacksmith (Cpt. Shepherd) has a memorial bench at the cricket green. We've heard the tales about the dragons lurking! =D Barry's pram was hit with flying shrapnel while he was sleeping in it. We also have a picture of the Star Pub, back in the day.

On this blog,
Barry has just ordered "Poems of the Masters". Thanks for the insights into the book. We are both looking forward to reading it. Thanks, Dave!

Karen said...

One of the pleasures of coming here is finding the unexpected and learning something new. Thanks for the introduction to this beautiful poetry of the heart.

Carl said...

Thanks Dave! you have convinced me to at least get this book and give it a good solid read of the poems. It will have to wait until the 10 books I have half read on my nightstand are finished though.

Happy New Year!

Dave King said...

Hi, thanks for that, and yes, I do agree: sometimes taking out the pronouns gives a whole different feel to the thought. Not having tenses has much the same effect - perhaps even more so. I have found the verses in this anthology an excdellent antidote to what ever is blocking or bothering the thinking processes at the moment!

Absolutely, couldn't agree more. I will indeed send you an email. Thanks for commenting.

Enchanted Oak
Thanks for that. Glad it appeals to you. I find its effect quite unlike any other peotry I have read.

Hope you manage to get yourself a copy. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

I was quite bowled over the firat time I read Chungan Mountains.

I agree, it's a fascinating culture, not least for its poetry.

I agree, somehow reading it does tend to concentrate the mind in the direction of economy.

Thank you for those kind words. It is the kind of response that makes blogging woth while. And what more can a blogger want than that?

My thanks for sucha comprehansive and stimulating comment.

I agree there is scope for misunderstanding, though I doubt it is that much greater than with any translation. The one thing that worried me when I first acquired the book was the way the poems seem to depend upon the reader knowing something of the background story (which the Chinese readers would know), but as I got more into the poems I found this not to be a problem. It may change the response, but the newcomer's response seems to me as valid as that of the knowledgeable reader. What comes across is not a million miles from the haiku moment, knowing or not knowing the circumstances which gave rise to it does not seem to me to matter all that much to one's appreciation of the poem, though knowing it may add another level of enjoyment.

A good phrase that: poetry to drown in. Very much so.

It almost made me think it might be worth learning Chinese. (I've often thought I'd like to, but... Ah, the flesh is weak.)

I did have a very good Christams, thanks. Hope you did, too. And what a fascinating response! I am absolutely delighted to have received it. Thank you so much. As they so often say: what a small world! Do you know, I never did go in the Star. I wish i had now!

Lucas said...

A fascinating post - many thanks for the insights and the discussion that follows. I think what sways me to beilieve that the poets are still of now is that they wrote incredibly simply and cleanly, so that the resulting images work on our senses directly.
The background contect and cultural associations are very perplexing nonetheless. I think perhaps we find something (positive) in the translation which was not there in the original, like being in a foreign capital city and seeing it for the first time in a way that the locals never will.

Dave King said...

Thank you for those generous remarks. Have a good new year.

I know the feeling. I, too, have a backlog of books to read and books half-read.

I think maybe you are right on both points: they did write simply and cleanly and the b ackground cultural associations are puzzling to us. So maybe, yes, we do find positives which are a factor of the translation, but I think that is so of all translations. I tend to regard translations as new poems. Most poetry is untranslatable in its entirety. The translator has to decide on priorities, make them known and stick to them.

Dick said...

I don't have a problem absorbing and enjoying enormously Chinese poetry without its being set in context - fascinating though it is. There is such a resonance between the timbre and atmosphere of the verse and Chinese music that I'd settle for a juxtaposition of the two over socio-cultural-historical setting, given a straight choice.

It saddens me that so distinguished and artistically rich a culture can accommodate the concept and practice of capital punishment. Today's particular obscenity is merely one execution amongst hundreds this year. They managed a grand total of 1,718 last year.

Sorry, Dave - not the subject of your splendid post!

Andy Sewina said...

Thanks for posting this, it gives me much to think about.