Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Those Spring Splendors, Like Dreams, Are Gone Beyond Recall"

There is a plainspoken serenity to traditional Chinese lyrical poetry that provides a beautiful counterpoint to the ofttimes declamatory and rhetorical character of traditional English poetry.  I realize that this is a huge generalization.  I can only say that there comes a time when, in search of peace and quiet, I need to turn from the thinking and the emoting of English verse to the (relatively) straightforward statements one finds in Chinese poetry.

But this is not a matter of simplicity versus complexity.  On the surface, Chinese poetry, especially when translated into English, may appear "simple."  However, from the standpoint of thought and emotion, the best Chinese poetry is every bit as allusive and as full of implication as the best English poetry.  Moreover, from the standpoint of prosody and formal structure, a great deal of traditional Chinese poetry is arguably more complex than English poetry.  (More on this in a moment.)

During the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603-1868), a significant number of Japanese poets devoted themselves to writing poems in Chinese.  The poems they wrote are known as kanshi (a Japanese word meaning -- no surprise -- "Chinese poem").  All of the poems that appear in this post are kanshi.

One frost cleared the air, drove away the hovering shadows,
slimmed down the shape of the hills, reddened the groves.
Finest of all, the scene in the persimmon orchards:
in late sun, on tree after tree ten thousand dots of gold.

Rokunyo (1734-1801) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).  The poem is untitled, and is the first in a sequence titled "Three Poems Composed as I Walked Through the Village."

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "Riverscape, Autumn"

The Japanese kanshi poets rigorously applied the strict rules of Chinese prosody.  The four poems that appear here are all in the form known in Chinese as chueh-chu (zekku in Japanese).  This form consists of a quatrain in which each line consists of the same number of Chinese characters (five, seven, or, rarely, six).  The second and fourth lines must rhyme.  A rhyme is optional in the first line.

Green thoughts, the feel of pink -- remembered in the mind;
but those spring splendors, like dreams, are gone beyond recall.
The whole village in yellow leaves, I shut the gate, lie down --
once again the year is already deep into fall.

Kashiwagi Jotei (1763-1819) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

As if the prosodic features that I have mentioned were not enough, there is an additional layer of complexity in the chueh-chu form (and in most Chinese poetry):  the rules of "tonal parallelism" must be followed.  To quote Burton Watson, "the rules for tonal regulation, or tonal parallelism, as it is sometimes called, are highly complex."  Burton Watson (editor and translator), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 10.  The rules may be broadly summarized as follows:

"In principal they decree that a single line shall not have more than two, or at the very most three, syllables or words in succession that belong to the same tonal category [i.e., "level" tones or "deflected" tones], and that in the second line of a couplet the words in key positions shall be opposite in tone to the corresponding words in the first line of the couplet.  This latter results in the second line of the couplet producing, in terms of tone, a mirror image of the first line."

Ibid, page 10.

Whew!  This is the basis for my earlier statement that traditional Chinese poetry is arguably more technically complex than English poetry.  (If one wishes to delve further into this subject, I highly recommend Watson's Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (Columbia University Press 1971), which combines an excellent historical examination of Chinese poetry with fine translations by Watson of exemplary poems.)  This brief explanation should also demonstrate that, although English translations of Chinese poetry are usually almost conversational in tone, they belie a complexity that can never be replicated in translation.

William MacGeorge, "Kirkcudbright"

One of the things that I find interesting about kanshi is that they have the "feel" (a purely subjective term, I concede) of classic Chinese poetry, while having, at the same time, a Japanese sensibility (again, a purely subjective term).  The following poem by Ishikawa Jozan, perhaps the most well-known kanshi poet, provides a good example of what I am trying to get at.

               Falling Leaves Mingle with the Rain

Frosted leaves, trailing the wind, fly, scatter in a tumble,
tumbling with the sudden shower, now this way, now that.
Parting from branches, leaf after leaf raps at my door and window,
joining with the sound of drops from the tall eaves of my study.

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets.

It is important to remember that, during the Edo period, haiku was transformed into an important art form by Basho (1644-1694).  The lives of Basho and Ishikawa Jozan overlapped.  (In terms of its poetic and artistic importance, the period is remarkably similar to the Elizabethan era.)  Thus, the imagery in "Falling Leaves Mingle with the Rain" has (to me, at least) a Japanese quality to it that is quite distinctive, and that has affinities with haiku.

William MacGeorge, "River Landscape on a Sunny Day"

But I feel that I have gotten way off into the explanatory weeds!  Let's return to poetry.  The purpose of this post, believe it or not, is to share four lovely poems about autumn.

             Returning at Night from an Autumn Village

River village where they held the fair, moon just coming up,
little path skirting the woods, leading into field embankments:
some family's old graves deep among the trees,
the single gleam of a votive lamp, cold and mournful.

Tate (pronounced ta-tay) Ryuwan (1762-1844) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

"The single gleam of a votive lamp" brings to mind the grey stone lanterns that one sees in Japanese cemeteries.  "Cold and mournful" perhaps, but lovely to behold at night.

William MacGeorge, "Autumn near Kirkcudbright with Children"


Bruce Floyd said...

Not too long ago one of your readers sent a poem of Robinson Jeffers.

When I read your most recent post on Oriental poetry, that of China and Japan, I thought of a poem Jeffers wrote in which he purports to show the difference between the Occidental mind and the Oriental mind.

Simply put, Jeffers says the Asian mind sees the world as illusion, and the Western mind (Jeffers's mind I suppose) believes that the reality it comprehends is real, that nothing else exists. (One might suggest that Stevens seems to think the same thing.)

I don't know that he's right. I do know you are right--meaning no more than I agree with you--on how refreshing it is sometimes to turn to those old poets of the Far East.

Whether one agrees with Jeffers or not, I think we can admit that a difference exists between Western sensibility and that of the Oriental.

Surely we who love poetry can find the capacity to embrace both sensibilities.

Robinson Jeffers, “Credo”
My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for the poem by Jeffers, which is new to me. As you know, a great deal of the difference is accounted for by Buddhism and Taoism. But, on the other hand, it can perhaps be argued that the ancient Greek philosophers (Heraclitus comes to mind), as well as some European philosophers since that time (Bishop Berkeley comes to mind), have a similar view of the reality of the World. And the notion that reality is a sort of dream is prevalent in all cultures. (And who's to say that a dream isn't real?)

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Below is another poem revealing Robinson Jeffers's reaction to a an anthology of Chinese poetry.

It is inferior, I think, to the Jeffers poem Mr. Floyd submitted to the blog. He knows the below poem and finds it lacks artistic merit, even though the poem presumes to address Chinese aesthetics pertaining to the subject of poetry.

I confess I have no idea what Jeffers means when he says that the objects in Chinese art have no "weight." To say something has no weight is generally a pejorative evaluation.

And then at the end of the poem Jeffers wonders if this lack of "weight" in Chinese poetry is caused by a "moral difference."

It's dangerous to couple morality with aesthetics. I'd think anyone who reads poetry to find a moral code is a superficial reader, one prone to didactics.

My guess is that Jeffers feels Chinese poets accept too placidly the vicissitudes of the world, its whim, the perversity of fate. They cope--and I'm not sure "cope" is the right word--with wine, peace, friendship, and solitude, evincing a nature and outlook much too passive for Jeffers, who chose to immure himself and cry out that life knows no peace, that all is turmoil and destruction, a blind nature going about its impersonal way while blind and cowardly men wallow in illusions.

I find my sensibility, as far as I can tell, more akin to that of, say, Tu Fu or Li Po than to the dark blooded one of Jeffers.

On An Anthology Of Chinese Poetry

Beautiful the hanging cliff and the wind-thrown cedars, but they have no weight.
Beautiful the fantastically
Small farm house and ribbon of rice-fields a mile below; and billows of mist
Blow through the gorge. These men were better
Artists than any of ours, and far better observers. They loved landscape
And put man in his place. But why
Do their rocks have no weight? They loved rice-wine and peace and friendship,
Above all they loved landscape and solitude.
--Like Wordsworth. But Wordsworth’s mountains have weight and mass, dull though the song might be.
Is it a moral difference perhaps?

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: I agree with your comments about Jeffers, and about "On an Anthology of Chinese Poetry." He clearly has not looked below the surface, and his judgments are very superficial (and wrong). Moreover, I don't think "morality" enters into it at all. If Jeffers knew anything about Taoism, Confucianism, and other Chinese philosophies (not to mention Buddhism), which underpin Chinese poetry, he wouldn't have written such a line.

Thank you very much for your thoughts.

WAS said...

"On an Anthology..." has haunted me for a couple of days. It's easy enough to conclude that the Chinese with their keen awareness of the illusion beyond appearances and their exquisite regard for aesthetic balance have done a better job of making poems into objects - lighter than air - than we in the West have ever done. But this question of "is there a moral difference?" is not so readily dispensed with. The immense suffering the East welcomes as a paying off of karmic debt accumulated through many lifetimes also diminishes the engagement with the concrete and material that Jeffers (and by extension the West) values as a form of morality, especially the witnessing and mourning of suffering. Seeking some answer in nature to take the place of God's silence is another characteristic gesture of not only Wordsworth and Jeffers, but most English language poets. It all gets too heavy to seek truth and solace in objects and moral judgments, but there is a kind of consciousness there that is different from the diffident-seeming East. It is a morality of social order and propriety that is completely alien to iconoclasts like Jeffers. Still he discerns this, and pulls back from judgment

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments, which provide a nice perspective. I probably should not weigh in on Jeffers, since I know next-to-nothing about his work.

I always appreciate hearing from you. Please return soon.