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"