This week examines how many of our ideas about poetry in the west have their roots in ancient Chinese poetry. It focuses on the poetry of the Tang Dynasty (sometimes also transcribed as T’ang), which included many of China’s most famous poets, such as Li Po, Tu Fu and Wang Wei.
The course looks at each of these poets’ work, examining poetic techniques such as:
- implication and elision: the habit of saying a lot with a little
- balance: how to make form reflect content
- the creation of strong, powerful images
In addition to learning how to adapt these ancient poetic techniques to a 20th century context, students will also learn about how poetry in imperial China was shaped by external factors: the political realities of supporting life as an artist, the practical realities of where poetry was written, and the biographical realities of the lives of the poets who wrote it. Students will come to understand how many of the things we think of as ‘essential’ or ‘innate’ to poetry are in fact, to some extent, accidents of history.
Contextual Background: Poetry in Imperial China
The main pathway to success for an artist in China in this period was the imperial examination system. Many artists would take the examinations to join the civil service, becoming mandarins (bureaucratic scholars in the imperial government) and taking up state posts, which would then afford them the security to practice their art in an official capacity. Yet several of the key poets of the period, including Tu Fu and Li Po, resisted this route in different ways.
Li Po chose never to take the exams, which was notable and shocking at the time. He chose to work outside of the civil service, independently, despite having no religious or medical reasons for making this choice. Li Po’s outsider status begins the idea (one might even say the legend) in China of the poet as an outsider. Li Po is in many ways the ‘figure of the poet’ in China because of this, his name conjuring a romanticised sense of what a ‘poet’ is, in the way many people in England might think of Shelley or Byron as their immediate idea of a romanticised image of a ‘poet’.
Tu Fu, meanwhile, did sit the imperial examinations but was failed. Though he was eventually given a government job (more to include him than anything else) he remained an outsider figure because of this failure, something furthered by his often taking the ‘wrong side’ during the political struggles that unfolded during his career. Thus, Tu Fu represents another romanticised idea of ‘the poet’ – as a counter-culturalist, a scandalous figure.
Both Li Po and Tu Fu also travelled extensively in their lives, creating a third romanticised image of the poet – as a drifter, wanderer or traveller. Li Po, for example, had come from the far west of China, growing up at the same time that the Silk Road was being established as a trading route through his homeland.
The poetry of the Tang dynasty is still hugely popular in China to this day – hence the fact that poets like Li Po and Tu Fu remain in many ways the archetypal figures of the poet. Their work has also spread more widely – for example, it was hugely influential on the Japanese art of the 18th century, such as in Hokusai’s a picture of Li Po underneath a waterfall.
That connection to Japanese painting reveals another aspect of Chinese poetry that students can engage with – its strong connection to visual arts. A lot of early Chinese painting had text with it, creating a strong link between the two arts. There was a tradition of intermingling images with short poetic commentaries on the images – something found on fans, on screens, on other light paperwork. This work was partly ornamental, but also partly meditative – a spur to quiet thought. It was a practice linked to both Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Wang Wei, who was a painter as well as a poet, displays this combination of image-making with meditative, reflective thought. Wang Wei’s poetry also shows his interest in landscape, another common element in both poetry and painting of the time, such as in the rivers-and-mountains school.
As a final bit of context, students should think about how poetic forms are connected to the physical ways in which poems are made. We have seen how writing poems to accompany images on fans and screens created a poetry in which the sense of the visual image was strong. Poems were also written on thin strips of bamboo. This way of physically making poems again affected the form of the poetry – the line lengths, for example, had to conform to the length of the bamboo strips, leading to a tradition of lines being a certain length, a certain number of syllables. That tradition then became part of a tradition of poetic form, one that continued even after the technology had changed.
Furthermore, the idea of a pictorial image is captured in the ideographs themselves, which still retain an idea of the pictorial within them. It is from here, as well as the association of poetry with the decoration of fans and screens, that we get the idea that there is something inherently pictorial about the process of writing a poem – the idea that writing a poem is like ‘making a picture’ in words.
Good-bye to Li, Prefect of Tzuchou
(tr. GW Robinson)
In endless valleys trees reaching to the sky
In numberless hills the call of cuckoos
And in those hills half is all rain
Streaming off branches to multiply the springs
The native women will bring in local cloth The men will bring you actions about potato fields
Your revered predecessor reformed their ways
And will you be so bold as to repudiate him?
This poem introduces students to a number of aspects typical of Tang poetry. It mixes the description of a landscape description with political issues and problems of administration. The poem is written to an administrator, in a mode of direct address. The poet evokes population density (something still associated with China today) but also the density and richness of the landscape itself. That is, the idea of density is conveyed through natural imagery, through the description of a landscape which is immensely dense and rich in several different ways. It is a place which brings both privilege (‘the native women will bring in local cloth’) but also responsibility (‘the men will bring you actions about potato fields’); note how the parallelism of these two lines suggests you cannot have one without the other. Note, too, the sense of paradoxical irony, which is often a hallmark of Chinese poetry. The poem is typical in that it operates as a prompt for further thought, an introduction to a complexity, rather than a full explanation or response.
Finally, the poem is highly visual: ‘trees reaching to the sky’, ‘rain / streaming off branches’. The image – as a visual representation which gives a sharp sense of the physicality of something – is often stressed as the key influence of Chinese poetry on 20th Century modernism. As well as the economy of imagery, the image here is provocative, capturing a moment that seems significant and charged with meaning, like one of Joyce’s epiphanies.
Wheel-Rim River Sequence
(tr. David Hinton)
Roofbeams cut from deep-grained apricot,
fragrant reeds braided into thatched eaves:
no one knows clouds beneath these rafters
drifting off to bring that human realm rain.
Tall bamboo blaze in meandering emptiness:
kingfisher-green rippling streamwater blue.
On Autumn-Pitch Mountain roads, they flaunt
such darkness, woodcutters too beyond knowing.
No one seen. In empty mountains,
a hint of drifting voice, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.
Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.
Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.
I leave South Lodge, boat light, water
so vast you never reach North Lodge.
Far shores: I see villagers there beyond
knowing in all this distance, distance.
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.
White-Rock Shallows open and clear,
green reeds past prime for harvest:
families come down east and west,
rinse thin silk radiant in moonlight.
Waterlily blossoms out on tree branches
flaunt crimson calyces among mountains.
At home beside this stream, quiet, no one
here. Scattered. Scattered open and falling.
This poem introduces students to the idea of travel. It is a series of quatrains taking us through different stops on a river journey – capturing natural beauty, but also giving a sense of how people live with and among that beauty.
It starts in a place where people are protected from nature by nature: ‘roofbeams cut from deep-grained apricot’. The opening of the poem contrasts two different ideas of nature, as protective and as dangerous: nature can itself be used to protect humans from the wilderness. Yet as the poet continues, the former idea gradually disappears, and we are left with only the latter. The poet gradually goes out to places where he is isolated from the human world, and closer to the wilderness: by the second stanza he is in a ‘meandering emptiness’, beyond the knowledge of the ‘woodcutters’; by the fourth, he is alone with the birds, the ‘flash radiant’ of the kingfishers. The sequence of the poem suggests the idea of coming through different stages of distance. It also suggests that, as the poet gets closer to nature and deeper into solitude, he also draws closer to the source of truth. Poetry here is associated with a process of escaping from the pressures of the world.
Li Po (also known as Li Bai, or Rihaku)
Bathed and Washed
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
‘Bathed in fragrance,
do not brush your hat; Washed in perfume,
do not shake your coat: ‘Knowing the world
fears what is too pure, The wisest man
prizes and stores light!’ By Bluewater
an old angler sat: You and I together,
let us go home.
‘You and I’ is addressed to the old angler who has spoken; meaning that his advice is after Li Po’s own heart. The story is a very ancient one, referred to proverbially in the book of Mencius who lived from c. 372 to 289 B.C.; though in his version it is a young lad fishing who speaks. Although not explicitly quoted here, in all versions the fisherman says: ‘l wash my feet in the muddy water, but I wash my hat-strings in the clear water’ ; meaning that one must accept and cannot escape from the ‘muddy’ world; yet can and must retain a part of oneself unsullied by it — a saying not altogether remote from ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’.
Typical in this poem is how much is left unsaid by Li Po. Much is there only by implication. This partially arises from a culture in which poems often referred to traditional stories, stories which would have been known and understood by the poems’ readers, as is the case here (See Arthur Cooper’s note beside the poem). The reliance on the unsaid is another thing the imagists took from Chinese poetry.
There is also a Confucian idea of ‘balance’ to the poem, something which comes through, for example, in its use of parallelism. Although Li Po to some extent scandalised the Confucian tradition by not taking the imperial exam, his poetry is still infused with a sense of balance which would have been associated at the time with Confucian thinking. Yet, at the same time, Li Po also brings in his own sense of morals and his own sense of individuality: the idea of keeping one’s own truth, one’s own individual sense of self. The poem, although short and apparently simple, is full of paradox and contradiction.
Quiet Night Thoughts
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground: Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I’m home.
This is in some ways the ‘quintessential’ Chinese poem – its translator, Arthur Cooper, claims that you can go into any Chinese restaurant in the world and someone will be able to recite it for you! It is quintessential because of its construction, which reflects the poem’s central idea: that when you look up at the moon from far away, it is the same moon as you see from home.
The compression of this poem becomes the ideal of Chinese poetry. This minimalist element, this economy of construction, has been a big influence in poetry internationally; it is perhaps the main idea ‘exported’ from Chinese poetry to other traditions all over the world.
On visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and not finding Him
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
Where the dogs bark
by roaring waters,
Whose spray darkens
the petals colours,
Deep in the woods
deer at times are seen; The valley noon;
one can hear no bell,
But wild bamboos
cut across bright clouds,
hang from jasper peaks; No one here knows
which way you have gone;
Two, now three pines
I have leant against
This poem describes a pilgrimage to a man of wisdom who is not there. It is again a paradox: the poet seeks the Taoist master to learn of his wisdom, yet it is only by not finding the master that he is able to find his vision. In the waiting and not finding, he finds the very thing he is seeking: the stillness (‘one can hear no bell’) and wisdom of the Taoist’s master’s vision. The poem can be read in different, paradoxical ways: on the one hand it is a poem of disappointment, of a failed mission, and on the other a poem of enlightenment, the finding of a kind of presence in absence.
Marble Stairs Grievance
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
On Marble Stairs
still grows the white dew
That has all night
soaked her silk slippers, But she lets down
her crystal blind now
And sees through glaze
the moon of autumn.
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
Ezra Pound (1913)
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
In a Station of the Metro
Ezra Pound (1913)
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here we see the influence of Chinese poetry on Ezra Pound, who perhaps more than anyone else did much to popularise Chinese poetry in the early 20th century. Li Po’s poem ‘The Marble Stairs Grievance’ investigates ideas of beauty and privilege through a collection of ‘white’ images: the pale woman, the white dew. There is a sense that the moon and the woman’s face are paralleled – again we see how the human world and the natural world are shown to effect or even mirror each other.
In Pound’s version, this parallelism is both more eroticised and more orientalised. Students can discuss the differences between the two versions, and more advanced students can be led into a discussion about the ethical complexities of Pound’s attraction to Chinese poetry, and the fact that our views of Chinese poetry are so tied up with those of this complicated and problematic figure. Students can also see the influence of many of the ideas they have been discovering in Wang Wei and Li Po’s poetry on Pound’s classic imagistic poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which is from the same period. Note the gaps between each phrase or ‘petal’ (this was how the poem was printed in Poetry when it first came out) so that each phrase becomes like an ideogram of its own.
Tu Fu (Du Fu)
Looking at Springtime
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
In fallen States
hills and streams are found,
Cities have Spring,
grass and leaves abound; Though at such times
flowers might drop tears,
Parting from mates,
birds have hidden fears: The beacon fires
have now linked three moons,
Making home news
worth ten thousand coins; An old grey head
scratched at each mishap
Has dwindling hair,
does not fit its cap!
Tu Fu’s life overlapped with Li Po; his poetry often praises Li Po, the elder poet, his inspiration. We can see here the influence of the elder poet on the younger. The poem is again a paradox – it is written about a period of exile, resulting from political upheaval and turmoil, yet it is also full of images of the persistence of springtime, of life continuing on: ‘in fallen States… grass and leaves abound’. Yet the poem also ends with the return of strife and trouble: ‘an old grey head / scratched at each mishap’.
Note, too, the comparison again between the natural world and the human one. The poet makes nature sympathetic: drops of dew on flowers are described as ‘tears’, while women and birds both share the same sense of separation (‘parting from mates’).
For Wei Pa in Retirement
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
Our livelong days we never meeting
Move as do stars in other clusters,
Yet this evening (‘And what an evening!’)
We’re sharing this lamp and candlelight;
But youth and strength, how briefly it lasts
For both our heads have become grizzled
And half of those we ask about, ghosts,
Till cries of shock pierce our very breasts:
How could we know twenty years would pass
Before I came again to your house?
Though in those days you were unmarried
Suddenly sons and daughters troop in,
‘Greet merrily Papa’s Companion’,
Ask from what parts it is that I come?
But such exchange remains unfinished:
You chase them off to get out the wine
‘And in night rain pull up spring onions’
To be steamed fresh with yellow millet …
Now (with your ‘Come, we can meet seldom’)
You’ve charged my glass ten times in sequence:
Ten times and still I’m not quite tipsy
But filled with sense of old acquaintance;
For tomorrow the hills divide us,
Both out of sight in the world’s affairs!
Like the first Wang Wei poem we looked at, this is an epistolary poem, addressed in this case to Wei Pa. The poem builds up a sense of comradeship as it describes that which is shared between friends: the passing of time, the growth of a new generation, and the simple pleasures of food and drink. There is a notion again of retiring and being out of sight of world affairs; a sense that there are pleasures which are private and relatively insignificant, but which are nonetheless more important, to the individual, than the struggles of the world.
Night Thoughts Afloat
(tr. Arthur Cooper)
By bent grasses
in a gentle wind
Under straight mast
I’m alone tonight, And the stars hang
above the broad plain
But moon’s afloat
in this Great River: Oh, where’s my name
among the poets?
‘Retired for ill-health.’ Drifting, drifting,
what am I more than
A single gull
between sky and earth?
This final poem brings together many of the recurrent ideas we have been discussing this week in the course: safety and nature, loneliness and solitude, simplicity. The poem describes travel along a river, something we also saw in Li Po. River travel was main source of transport in China at the time; at the same time, it is also an image for life, floating from one place to another down the passage of time. Another recurrent idea here is that of having dark, private thoughts at night time, in solitude, again recalling Li Po, in poems such as ‘Quite Night Thoughts’. Another connection to Li Po is the image of the moon – legend tells that Li Po died trying to grab the moon from the river, attempting to capture its reflection.
The poem is, yet again, another paradox. It describes the poet dismissed from his job, ‘retired for ill health’, humiliated; yet this very dismissal is what brings him closer to nature, peace, truth and happiness, to the ‘drifting’ pleasures of living like a ‘single gull / between sky and earth’. We see here the idea of poetry for poetry’s sake, with no career benefit or political motivation – an idea that again becomes popular in the 20th century.
After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
Charles Wright (1995)
East of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.
Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.
The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world’s tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.
Here we have a contemporary adaptation of ‘Night Thoughts Afloat’ by the 20th century American poet Charles Wright. Students can see here how the ideas from Tu Fu’s poem have been adapted into a more modern-feeling verse form. Wright’s poem is a reworking of the same trope as in Tu Fu’s, displaying the same kind of thinking (‘night drifts up like a little boat’) while at the same time making small adjustments, such as swapping a gull for a mockingbird.
Confessions of a Drifter
Hugo Williams (1979)
I used to sell perfume in the New Towns.
I was popular in the saloons.
Professional women slept in my trailer.
Young salesgirls broke my heart. For ten years
I never went near our Main Office. From shop to shop
And then from door to door I went
In a slowly diminishing circle of enchantment
With ‘Soir de Paris’ and ‘Flower of the Orient’. I used up all my good luck
Wetting the wrists of teenagers in bars
With ‘English Rose’ and ‘Afro-Dizziac’
From giveaway dispensers. From girl to girl
And then from bar to bar I went
In a slowly expanding circle
Of liquid replenishment. I would park my trailer outside a door
So I could find it when I walked out of there,
throwing back my shoulders at the night — a hero
To myself. They knock on my window this morning. Too late
I wake out of my salesman’s paradise,
The sperm drying on my thigh
And nothing but the name of a drifter in the New Towns.
Easing My Heart
Tu Mu (803-52)
(tr. A C Graham) By rivers and lakes at odds with life I journeyed, wine my freight;
Slim waists of Ch’u broke my heart, light bodies danced into my palm.
Ten years late I wake at last out of my Yang-chou dream
With nothing but the name of a drifter in the blue houses.
(NB: ‘blue houses’: brothels)
A different example of how modern poets have adapted Chinese poetry comes from this poem by Hugo Williams, which is based on a poem by Tu Mu. Tu Mu belonged to the next generation of Tang poets, whose work was influenced by that of poets such as Li Po, Tu Fu and Wang Wei. Students can see how Williams takes the central idea of the Tu Mu poem – the idea of the drifter, the travelling salesman – and expands it into a much longer, expanded version. He turns the merchant carrying wine from place to place into a perfume seller, bringing in typically Williamsian touches (‘the sperm drying on my thigh’) that move the poem far away from its original source material.
Take the compression of a Chinese poem and pull it out into a contemporary example, as Williams does with Tu Mu.
This works best with one of the shorter poems, such as ‘Quiet Night Thoughts’ or ‘Bathed and Washed’. Students should identify the central idea or trope of the poem and expand out from it, spinning it out into a longer by poem by bringing in material from their own lives and/or adapting the trope into a modern context.
Write about a paradox of disappointment.
Students should think of a time when they have been disappointed by something, or when something has failed. They should then write a poem, following the example of ‘On visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and not finding Him’, that reimagines this disappointment or failure as a kind of success.
Write a journey as a series of “photographs”.
Students should write a series of short poems which consist of images or snapshots along a journey – perhaps a journey they take often, such as a commute to work or school, or a one-off journey they have made which has left several different, lasting, and most importantly visual impressions on them. They might like to think of this as being a kind of ‘Instagram’ poem – it could even be accompanied by photographs, in the way poems accompanied fans and screens in imperial China, and then published on Instagram or another social media platform.
Write a poem out of “time spent looking”.
Students should sketch a particular scene, first looking at it for five minutes without drawing, and then spending five or ten minutes attempting to draw it, paying as much close attention as possible. They should write a poem that emerges from the thinking that was done during the making of this sketch. This encourages them to draw the thinking of their poem out of time spent looking rather than time spent writing.
Mary Jean Chan – a contemporary poet from Hong Kong, who now lives and works in London, whose new book Flèche explores the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable and weaponised.
Sarah Howe – also born in Hong Kong, Howe is a British poet whose 2015 book Loop of Jade explores her dual heritage.
Yang Lian – a Swiss-Chinese poet, associated with the ‘Misty Poets’ group; he is interested in Pound, and the variations the Europeans did with the Chinese.