Lu-lung Village, Autumn
Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.
Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.
A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.
You want to know my name?
A hill. A tree. An empty drifting boat.
Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 212.
One of the distinctive (and beautiful) features of Chinese poetry, particularly poems in the chüeh-chü (quatrain) form and in the lü-shih (eight-line, regulated verse) form, is its immediacy: we share a moment in time with the poet. The World unfolds in the present tense. But this immediacy mustn't be mistaken for extemporaneous artlessness: the prosodic elements of Chinese poetry are strict and demanding.
Thus, the lü-shih form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines), and (4) verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets of the poem. The chüeh-chü form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, and (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second and fourth lines). The rules of tonal parallelism may be generally described 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, 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."
Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 10.
These formal characteristics cannot be replicated in English translations. This is not to say that good translations cannot capture the spirit of the originals. Accomplished translators (for instance, Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, and Sam Hamill) have produced lovely versions of Chinese poems. But it is important to bear in mind that the apparent spontaneity of the poems is the product of great artistic effort.
Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)
The immediacy of traditional Chinese poetry causes the thousand or so years that separate us from the poets to instantly vanish. My own experience confirms this marvelous timelessness: the following poem by Tu Fu was written more than twelve centuries ago, but I see essentially the same scene each autumn when, in the early evening, I look across the waters of Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains rising in the west.
Watching the Distances
I watch the limitless distance of autumn,
the far-off dark rising up in layers
where icy waters merge with the frozen sky
and the city is blurred with mist.
Last leaves are torn into flight by winds,
and sunless, distant peaks fade fast.
A lone crane flops home at dusk.
The trees are full of crows.
Tu Fu (712-770) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 140.
A single difference distinguishes Tu Fu's 8th century China from 21st century Seattle: Tu Fu sees a lone crane flying home at dusk; I see a lone great blue heron flying at dusk towards its nest high in a cedar. And, yes, there are often crows in the trees.
"He who sees things present, has seen all things which either have been from eternity, or shall be to eternity; for all are of the like nature, and similar."
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI, Section 37, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).
Here is a lovely alternative translation of the same passage:
"He that has taken a view of the present age, has seen as much as if he had began with the World, and gone to the end on't; for all things are of a kind, and of a colour."
Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).
John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"
I am not suggesting that this quality of immediacy is unique to Chinese poetry. It is found in many good English poems. ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Lying Awake" (Thomas Hardy), and "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" come immediately to mind, but there are hundreds of others.) And immediacy is arguably the defining feature of haiku: existence and the World embodied in a singular image -- a 17-syllable moment of enlightenment rendered in the present tense. Still, there is a certain serene matter-of-factness underlaid with deep emotion in Chinese poetry that, for me at least, sets it apart from all other forms of verse.
Watching a Lonely Wild Goose at Nightfall
There are few stars north of the Milky Way.
One wild goose calls, "Where am I going?"
If he'd known he'd lose his flock,
he would have begun his journey alone.
Hsiao Kang (503-551) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 62.
Wild geese, like lone birds, appear frequently in Chinese poetry. As one might expect, they tend to bring a sense of longing and wistfulness into a poem (all of that endless journeying). But we should resist the temptation to turn them into "symbols," "metaphors," or "allegories." They are there because they are there: a part of the World. Yet every part of the World, wherever and whenever it appears, means something, doesn't it?
Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)
The World is by turns breathtakingly immense and breathtakingly tiny. So it is with our life. One afternoon last week I looked up into the sky: yellow-bordered white clouds, lit from behind by the setting sun, set against endless pale-blue; clouds and sky seen through the black, twisted, empty branches of a row of tall maples. I suddenly felt a comforting, welcoming, reassuring immensity. This was not something I put into words; I felt it.
Night Thoughts While Traveling
Thin grass bends on the breezy shore,
and the tall mast seems lonely in my boat.
Stars ride low across the wide plain,
and the moon is tossed by the Yangtze.
What is fame and literary status --
the old and infirm should leave office.
Adrift, drifting: what is left for the lone gull
adrift between earth and heaven.
Tu Fu (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 166.
One day this week, as I walked down a wide path within a wood, I noticed the leaves of several types of trees spread out on the ground before me. The leaves did not lay in piles. Instead, they had landed apart on the path, several inches of empty space between each of them. They separately gleamed on the ground in the dim light of dusk. I thought of them as planets and stars in a small universe. Unique and irreplaceable, each of them.
A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts
Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.
Tu Fu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 233.
Charles Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)