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Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Poems of the Masters

Here is a text I posted on Boxing Day 2009, just into my third full year of blogging, a time when I was mostly writing on poems, poets, art and artists, and before I had got to posting poems of my own. I had bought this book Poems of the Masters on pure instinct and was blown away by what I'd acquired. I've never stopped dipping into it, and every now and then I have a period when I cannot put it down. Just at the moment is such a period, and reading it last evening, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to repost it.

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.


Mary said...

My goodness, Dave. I had not realized you had been a blogger for such a long time. In fact I did not know blogs existed back in 2006.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love Chinese art of any kind Dave - it is in a class of its own. I have always wondered why a country which has seen so much war, inhumanity, poverty etc., can produce artists of such exquisite work.

Cloudia said...

Masterful exposition, bringing these world treasures to new ears. Thanks


Brian Miller said...

its really pretty fascinating stuff....there is a poet up in NY...blue flute....he frequents the pub and does translation work....some really cool early poetry of oriental origin....short form is cool too...saying so much with so little...

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

What a beautiful unexpected horizon. This Chinese "window" brings me back to an atmosphere I loved in the early 80's.

Janine Bollée said...

Reading this makes me realize how I would like to translate poetry again. I did a session years ago with two others. All three of us from different language backgrounds.It was the discussions on how we were going to tackle each phrase that I found so wonderful.
I'm already thinking of many different ways to do those 4 lines of Spring Dawn.

"Still on one ear, not aware it was Dawn
waking to birds singing all over the place
after spending a night with the howling of wind
Petals have dropped in their thousands it seems"

This not to be taken seriously :-)

Elephant's Child said...

'Language of the heart.' Beautiful and oh so accurate. This is the sort of book that I love, that I read and reread and dip into when times are tough. Thank you so much Dave - I will try and hunt a copy down.

Elephant's Child said...

I am thrilled to say that it is still available and a copy is coming my way. Thank you Dave.

Dave King said...

Yup, it's a lot longer than I had intended to go on for when I started -- that I'm still going is largely down to you guys.

The Weaver of Grass
I agree with you. Their pottery was what first drew me, but they would say that poetry is the premier art.

Thanks for saying so.

I agree. I think that is the essence of the powerful stuff: saying much with few words.

Mmmm, it's one I cannot stay away from for long.

It's a serious point, though. THANKS FOR IT. I take it absolutely. I've always wished I could translate.

The Elephant's Child
I wish you luck, though I don't see why you should have any difficulty. I know you will not be disappointed.

Ah! Now I've read your second comment! Wonderful!