Friday, December 9, 2016


The sight of a solitary bird crossing the sky is a common occurrence in Chinese poetry.  These lone birds are seldom the main subject of the poem. Rather, they pass through in a single line of verse:  a few brushstrokes in a larger landscape.

     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)


Fred said...


Excellent choices here, revolving around that solitary bird. Recently I've begun to consider that solitary bird a significant part of the poem, even though it's only a brief mention.

Gray marsh, black cloud . . .
Flapping away in autumn rain,
Last old slow heron
-- Anon --
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Trans. Peter Beilenson

While most of the poems involve description of the environment or surroundings, those are static to me. It is that solitary crane or heron or gull or goose that gives the poem that sense of immediacy. To me, that bird is that which signifies the present--a classic example of differing perceptions.

I used to just pass over that solitary bird until I read Carl Sandburg's poem, "From the Shore." I suddenly saw that lone bird in a way I had never seen it before (that's what good poetry is supposed to do, isn't it?) If you are not familiar with the poem, here is a link to my post on it.

Great post.

Mudpuddle said...

lovely poems; i like Waley's versions the best, i think... the sense of meaning without meaning is more apparent...

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, as well as for sharing the haiku and Sandburg's poem, both of which are new to me. (By the way, I agree with the observation you make in your post that Sandburg's language in the poem is reminiscent of Old English poems such as The Seafarer.)

I appreciate your observation on how the passing birds lend immediacy to the poems. This is one of the lovely things about traditional Chinese poetry: it comes across as being casual (part of this is due to the English translations), but there is a great deal of art at work beneath the surface.

As always, it's good to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

Waley is my favorite translator of Chinese poetry as well, although Burton Watson is a very close second. Unfortunately, the number of Waley's translations of poems from the T'ang Dynasty is relatively small, with the exception of the poems of Po Chü-i (who he obviously felt an affinity for). As you know, he did very few translations of poems by Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei, which is a great loss. Still, we should be grateful for all that he did. He was truly a pioneer. (And a very interesting person.)

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

John Ashton said...

There are often crows in the trees that border our allotment. They have been part of the landscape for the past ten years that we’ve worked that plot of land and I suspect for many years before. Sometimes when digging or hoeing, I pause to look up, and if it is close to the end of the afternoon, I see and hear them gathering to roost in the trees.
As you say every part of the world means something. We cannot always put into words feelings that are so deep. Those crows gathering are part of that indefinable dimension that is the familiar and simultaneously the immensity of the world. The part of reality we cannot fully comprehend yet know in ways so often beyond language.

The Tu Fu poem, Watching the distances is wonderful.

It may be a tad early but I thought I would also take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Christmas. Discovering this blog was a great delight for me, and the delight has not diminished over subsequent years. Every visit reveals poems, writers and paintings I had not known before, or reminders to revisit poets I’ve neglected for too long. Thank you for its continued presence. I applaud the effort and care that goes into each post.

I recently discovered this short documentary on YouTube about R S Thomas, a writer I think we both care for very much. If you haven’t seen it before you might be interested.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Ah, yes, the ever-present crows: rackety at times, but withal beautiful, and lovable. You have articulated wonderfully the role that they play in the World -- and each thing in the World, as you suggest, plays its own lovely role. I completely agree: much of this is beyond language.

Thank you very much for the link to the R. S. Thomas documentary, which is marvelous (and new to me). I love the sequence of him walking the Welsh hills in 1963 in his minister's clothes. And I was delighted to see "The Other" -- one of my favorite poems by him -- recited by him at the end. Thank you again.

Finally, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. That is extremely kind of you. But, as witnessed by your recommendation of the Thomas video, you have been pointing me to new discoveries, and reminding me of old favorites, over the years as well. It has always been a two-way street. I greatly value and appreciate your long-time presence, and voice, here.

Of course, it is never too early: Merry Christmas to you as well. I hope that your recovery is continuing, and that you and your family have a wonderful new year.

John Ashton said...


I'm so pleased you enjoyed the short R S Thomas film. I thought you would. The sequence of him as a minister in the 1960's brought back to me memories of another world, the years I grew up in. It was a thoroughly engaging film.

Thank you also for your good wishes. I am not quite back to full health, but almost there now, though it has been rather a long haul. I am very aware that my illness compared to the suffering and ill health many others experience is relatively small scale and for that I am deeply thankful.

George said...

That sort of poem, birds apart, does seem to be a late growth in European and American poetry. It is not that such poets could not set a scene, rather that they tended to do so in passing. Were they perhaps more inclined to people the scene explicitly?

Stephen Pentz said...

John: I am happy to hear you are still improving. I concur with your final thought that we have to keep these things in perspective, and be thankful for what we have, as well as mindful of the difficulties of others. Thank you for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Those are interesting thoughts to pursue. Thank you very much for introducing them. Over the past few weeks, I have been reading poems in Elizabethan anthologies, and the subject matter of the poems was no doubt in the back of my mind as I selected the Chinese poems for the post. As you know, you rarely find these sorts of anecdotal (for the lack of a better word at the moment) poems in Elizabethan (or earlier) English poetry.

As you say, poems of this sort are "a late growth" in English and American poetry. But they are present in Chinese poetry from the beginning. The same is true of Japanese poetry. Here is a poem by Yamabe no Akahito from the 8th century: "At Waka Bay/the beach is hidden now,/with the waters high:/heading off toward the reeds,/cranes go, crying out in flight." (Translated by Steven Carter.) It is interesting to consider what cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical factors account for this. I have no answers. Part of me wonders whether Taoism and Buddhism have something to do with it. But that is pure conjecture.

Thank you again for raising these interesting questions. Of course, the wonderful thing is that, on some days, Elizabethan poetry feels perfect, while on other days I feel the urge to return to Chinese poems.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Deb said...

I've read through this post several times now, in a different mood each time, and always there is comfort and a feeling of peace. I'm no expert as to exactly why, but Chinese poetry so often leaves me feeling serene, and all's well with the world...

The birds too, there's something about their inclusion that is so moving. Some of my favourite poems feature birds. Found a new one just recently while browsing in our local second hand book-store, and I immediately bought the mixed anthology on the basis of this poem alone.

Am also grateful for Fred's pointer to the Carl Sandburg poem, above. Very nice.

Thank you so much for another lovely post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: It's great to hear from you again. I'm pleased you liked the post. Thank you for your kind words.

My reactions to Chinese poetry are the same as yours. My experience of poetry (and of life) changed forever when I first encountered Ezra Pound's "The River-Merchant's Life: A Letter," his translation of Li Po, when I was a freshman in college. I knew immediately that I had stumbled across something wonderful. I soon discovered the translations of Arthur Waley (who I learned was more faithful to the originals than Pound, who tended to take liberties -- although the liberties are nearly always beautiful). I agree with you completely: to borrow your words, I feel the same comfort, peace, and serenity that you do. The fact that poems written many centuries ago in a land we will never know can speak so directly to us is a marvelous thing.

Thank you very much for the link to A. D. Hope's poem, which is new to me: what a lovely and moving poem. It will not be forgotten.

As ever, thank you for visiting and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

erin said...

I've been thinking about the aesthetics of Chinese poetry set against Western poetry... but lack the language to thoroughly investigate the essential difference(s). However after reading an article on the nature poet Tom Hennen (and just why is it that we always feel moved to label poets who feel depth and wisdom in nature as "nature poets" except to drive a wedge) it comes to me. To embrace the timelessness of the Chinese poets is to reject the notion of progress born into the psyche from the industrial and scientific revolutions. This is really a discussion which returns us to our core of being - do we choose to live in a Orphic or Promethean manner? How do we recognize the value of the world and our place in it?

It was this line in the Hennen article which really awoke me. It is an article lauding Hennen's work, but in our society we must excuse ourselves for acknowledging the sacred in nature, "It’s no wonder cultural conservatives scornfully claim that people like Tom Hennen are making a religion out of 'environmentalism.'”

I think we struggle in the translation(and understanding) of the Chinese poets not just because of language, but because of cultural heritage. It has been evident in the past for the Chinese to say heron and mean the particular bird and its association as a holy thing.

Long ago we Westerners kicked the scaffolding out from beneath the heron. It is only recently that the few have tried to jury rig the legs back onto what progress has destroyed.

To concede your size and place in the world as you did beneath the sky on your walk the other day and to feel intuitively the connectedness and well being of natural things suggests to me that you have access to the limitless vault of value that surrounds us all. I can not for the life of me understand why anyone might want to lose themselves to the other world of construct, illusion, impoverishment of spirit and progress which is but an empty loop which vanishes upon itself with the smallest pressure of scrutiny.

How easy it would be for a cultural conservative to scornfully dismiss all this talk as religious...

(as before, and i suspect as always, i thank you for your thoughtful posts.)

Stephen Pentz said...

erin: Thank you very much for those extremely thoughtful -- and thought-provoking -- insights. As you know from being a visitor here, I am highly skeptical of the gods of Progress, Science, and political utopianism. Hence, your thoughts about timelessness, progress, and "cultural heritage" resonate deeply with me. For instance, your comment about the Chinese use of the word "heron," and the implications of the word is wonderful. As I'm sure you know, the same observation is true of traditional Japanese poetry, both in the waka and haiku forms. Here is but one example: "kareno," which is usually translated as "withered moor." Another example that appears in both Chinese and Japanese poetry comes to mind: "wild geese." (Which will be the subject of a post sometime in the future.)

I confess that I do wonder about the quote from the article about Tom Hennen (whose work I am not familiar with) which mentions "cultural conservatives," "religion," and "environmentalism." I say this in the spirit of friendly discussion, and I believe I understand the writer's point, but I find those sorts of words unhelpful when it comes to poetry (and life). For instance, I have no idea what the writer means by the term "cultural conservative." However, I do suspect that I am guilty of being a "cultural conservative"! And I don't see that as a bad thing, given what my definition of "conservative" is. (But, as you also know from reading this blog, I have absolutely no interest in terms such as "conservative," "liberal," or "progressive," whether in the political arena or elsewhere.)

Your phrase "the limitless vault of value that surrounds us all" is lovely, and true. Now, as to whether I have "access" to this "vault of value," I would not make such a claim (although I certainly appreciate your saying so). I merely receive hints and intuitions ("gleams" or "glimmers" or "illuminations," as Philippe Jaccottet calls them) from time to time. But they are here and gone. Still, they are what they are. All wordless, of course.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words about the blog. I wish you a happy holiday season.

erin said...

Stephen, I smile deeply at your confusion and laugh. I was a little taken aback with that phrase too and now that I think on it longer I end up laughing some more. I am beginning to see how reckless we are to use words like conservative and liberal in today's climate. What the heck do we mean, indeed! Not to get too political, I would consider myself a liberal, or ohmygosh - a socialist in many ways (in Canada) but upon further inspection discover with my agrarian leanings and my highly developed sense of just enough (as opposed to a hearty plunge for progress), I see that I am rather conservative too. But this confusion removes the charge of language, which plays nicely into the theatre of the somnambulists in shopping malls. But I think I begin to get a little too emotional and lose my way...

The article about Tom Hennen can be found with this copy and paste if you care to read further for context of that quote- I'm just becoming introduced to his work myself. He reminds me a little of Bly, Berry and of focus, even Jeffers.

I can't think of Jaccottet without feeling the word beloved. His observations cut so deeply and his vulnerability has that peculiar strength of, not power, but diffident elevation. For me he embodies human resonance.

I wish you and yours all the best this holiday season and look forward to your next posts.

erin said...

This one from Hennen, posted at The Writer's Almanac the other day, got me rather excited:)

Sheep in the Winter Night

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.

Stephen Pentz said...

erin: Thank you very much for those follow-up thoughts.

First, regarding Philippe Jaccottet: I had been aware of his poetry for a while, but I only began to delve into his prose writings within the past year or so. It has been a revelation for me, and he has become an important part of my life. I sense from your comments on him that we share similar responses to him: "beloved," "diffident elevation," and "human resonance" are perfect descriptions. I wish that more of his work was translated into English: my French education ended in my freshman year of college, so, although I can get the gist of his French, I am not able to read it with competence. But he is wonderful.

Second, as you know, the politicization of culture is a pet peeve of mine, and a phrase like "cultural conservatives" is a perfect example of the dangers of the creep of political categories into all aspects of our lives. So many prejudgments and stereotypes are packed into a phrase like that! (Not to mention self-regard and smugness.) Again, please be assured that I am NOT attributing any of that to you, but to those who are wont to use such phrases without a second thought.

Third, thank you for the poem from Tom Hennen. "Keeping the answer to itself" is marvelous, and fits well with the subject at hand. On a personal note: I was interested to discover that Hennen was born in Minnesota, as was I. He also worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the 1970s, as did one of my uncles. I intend to ask him if they ever crossed paths.

Thank you again for the additional thoughts, and for the poem.

Anonymous said...

Stephen -- Thanks to your many references to it, I recently took Burton Watson's "The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry" from the library. What a beautiful book -- I think I may have to buy a copy for myself. A good reason to eventually own it is that in the darkening weeks that I have been reading the earliest odes & poems (being a somewhat over-orderly person, I had to start at the beginning!)-- a couple each day, usually with my afternoon tea -- I have found that they have a peaceful effect which is welcome.
I cannot thank you enough for introducing me to Chinese & Japanese poetry, & for all the other delights of your blog -- the art far from least.
I'd like to wish you a very Merry Christmas, Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm delighted to hear that you are reading Watson's translations. I bought the book when it came out in 1984, and I have been reading in it for over three decades now: starting at the front, the back, and dipping in indiscriminately -- I am always discovering something new and I always find something lovely and, as you say, peaceful.

I also highly recommend his Japanese translations. As a start, I suggest his translations of Saigyō's waka: Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Poem (as you know, I've posted a number of poems from this volume over the years). For some personal background on Watson, I recommend a little book of essays titled The Rainbow World: Japan in Essays and Translations (Broken Moon Press 1990). In it, he writes about being introduced to Japan while in the Navy during World War II, when he was stationed in Yokohama just after the war ended. He returned, and the essays show his love for the country. I believe that he has permanently resided there for quite some time now.

It is very nice to hear from you again, particularly at this time of year. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you as well. I look forward to hearing from you in the coming year. In the meantime, I wish you happy hours with the Chinese poets. (But I urge you to skip ahead now and then to the wonderful poets of the T'ang Dynasty!) Take care.