BEYOND THE HILLS: MORE PRACTICE IN CHINESE-STYLE VERSE

Here is some more on writing five-word Chinese-style quatrains.  For this exercise I have chosen a verse by Li Pin, called “Crossing the Han River.”  I have adjusted the five words of each line to fit English better, but the essential concept is the same.

You will remember that to begin to write five-word verse (five-character verse in Chinese), we need to compose a poem using only nouns, verbs, and occasionally prepositions.  We can leave out articles like “the,” “a,” and “an,” and we need not worry too much about tense or grammar or singular or plural as we lay out the basic framework, like this:

Beyond mountains news letters vanish
Winters pass again come springs
Near town feel more afraid
Not dare ask coming person

Now let’s put that into ordinary English:

Beyond the hills there was no news, no letters;
Winters passed, and spring followed spring.
Now nearing home, I find myself afraid,
And dare not ask the man who comes my way.

As you can see, the “essential words” of the basic framework are just that — a framework we use in composing the final, “fully-English” verse.  We need not fear changing things somewhat, because that is exactly what translators of Chinese verse have traditionally done when putting them into English.

Why then, bother with the framework?  Because it gives us the basic ideas of the poem, which we can then work over to put them into more flowing and smooth English.  It really does work well, though at first it may seem an odd way to compose.

And now the meaning of the verse, which is essentially the same in the Chinese original and the English verse: A man has gone beyond the mountains into far-off lands to work or serve.  He spends years there, as the seasons come and go.  While there no news reaches him, no letters.  Now, at last returning home, he is afraid to ask about his family and friends — afraid of what he might hear after so much time has passed.

And that is how we write “Chinese-style” five-word verses.  As I mentioned earlier, it is a very useful way to write Nature-based verses, because it provides a structure, a framework on which to “hang” the poem.

Give it a try.  Be patient, and once you get it, you will find it not only easy but pleasant and very useful.

David

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