MORE ON USING “CHINESE” TECHNIQUE IN ENGLISH POETRY

In looking over past statistics for this site, I noticed that one of the most frequented postings was on writing “Chinese poetry” in English.  Of course what is meant by that is poetry written in English, but using the form of old Chinese Nature poetry as a framework on which a poem may be constructed.

Readers here will recall that I previously discussed Chinese poems of five and of seven characters, and how those structures may be transposed into English.

To write such poetry in English we must think in terms of “essential words,” by which is meant words essential to meaning.  If I write, “Tomorrow I shall go to the book shop to look for a book on poetry,” then the essential words in that are simply “Tomorrow I go to book shop look for poetry book.”  The latter sentence is not at all good English, but it is completely clear and understandable.  And that is the way we write “Chinese” poetry in English — we use such essential words as a structure.

So the first thing one must know to write a “Chinese” poem in English is that it uses a framework of essential words, usually either five per line or seven per line.

The second thing one must know is that Chinese poems are written in couplets, meaning in pairs of lines.  So a finished verse will have an even number of lines, not an odd number  A poem is constructed by using a given number of essential words for each line in the couplet, and one adds further couplets until the desired number of verses is achieved.  It is just that simple.

It will not work precisely, but as an example we may use an old verse translated by Arthur Waley.  Then we can “reverse-engineer” that line to see how it fits into this way of writing verse.

Here is the poem — by Tao Qian — the “Q” being pronounced like “ch,” only farther forward in the mouth than in English:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

There are four more lines, but I shall leave them off because they are a bit too culture-limited, and these are enough for my purpose.

Let’s look at the poem, turning it into essential words:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

If we now extract the “essential” words in bold type, we get the essence of the poem:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Southern orchard all leaves gone:
North garden rotting boughs heaped.
Empty cup drink to dregs:
Look kitchen no smoke rises.
Poems books piled beside chair:
Light going not time read.

There you have it.  We have stripped to poem down to its basic elements, and this gives us a structure to use in writing the poem in “normal” English.  In doing this, we must be neither too literalistic nor too rigid.  There are many words in English that are synonyms, so we need not use precisely the words used in our “framework” version, and of course we need to add those words essential to good, standard English, meaning words like “the,” “a,” “an,” as well as the correct grammatical forms.

If that sounds a bit difficult, it is not.  It simply means to use the essential words as the structure of the poem, like the wirework upon which a sculptor molds the clay that forms the visible statue.  So taking our sample structure — the translation by Waley reduced to its essentials — we can now write the poem anew, like this.  I shall put the structure words in light italics, and my rewriting in bold type:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cold and harsh the year nears its end;

Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Dressed in cotton I seek the sunlit porch.

Southern orchard all leaves gone:
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;

North garden rotting boughs heaped.
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.

Empty cup drink to dregs:
I empty my cup drinking to the dregs.

Look kitchen no smoke rises.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.

Poems books piled beside chair:
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;

Light going not time read.
The light is going, no time to read.

Let’s see what we have at this point:

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Dressed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.
I empty the cup, drinking to the dregs.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;
The light is going, no time to read.

That will do, but there is yet another step that we should take — minimally one, but possibily more.  We want the poem to comfortably “settle into” normal English, and that means again that we must avoid rigidity in moving from the framework to the finished poem.  So here is the poem taken just one step farther.

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Clothed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
South, the orchard trees are bare —
North, the garden heaped with rotting boughs.
I drink my cup down to the dregs
And look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair
But the light is fading — no time left.

As long as we have the basic elements of a poem, we have something to work on, and that is what this technique does — it gives us a structure.  If you use it to write new poems, it will of course seem silly to call them “Chinese” poems because they will be written in English — but we are using the Chinese poetry technique to give us the structure that enables us to write such poems easily.

One may easily see that the last stage of the poem given here could not only be worked further if desired, but it could also be used as a jumping-off point for writing quite different lines.  And of course the fundamental notion behind all this is that one can use the five or seven “essential words” structure in composing completely new Nature poems.  Try it, and you may be surprised how easily you can now write poetry — if you have an inherent poetic sense.

David



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