THE “ESSENTIAL WORDS” TECHNIQUE IN NIGHT MOORING AT MAPLE BRIDGE

My purpose is not to discuss Chinese poetry in any academic sense.  Instead, it is to show how certain characteristics of old Chinese Nature poetry may be used in writing English Nature poetry.

The most significant of these tools is, as I have written previously, the use of “essential words” in composing lines in couplet form that when joined together with more couplets enable us to create a poem either short or long.

To show how this is done, I sometimes use old Chinese poems as examples.  Do not let them in any way intimidate you.  I do not expect anyone reading here to learn Chinese, because my purpose, again, is the writing of poetry in English.  But in doing so, there are things to be learned from certain examples of old Chinese poetry.

Here, for example, is the short poem Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, by Zhang Ji, who lived in the 8th century (you may also see his name transliterated as Chang Chi in older writings).  It might be helpful to see visually how these “essential words” manifest as Chinese characters in the original.  The poem is a seven-character example in four lines.  It is read from right to left, and from top to bottom.  The fifth line at far right gives first the name of the poem (the first four characters top to bottom) and below that are the two characters for the name of the writer, Zhang Ji:

In presenting this in its essential words in English, I will write it left to right, horizontally:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat

That looks a bit cryptic in English, and quite honestly, Chinese poems are often somewhat cryptic even in Chinese, meaning that they are written in old literary Chinese, which is condensed compared to modern Chinese.  But that is precisely why they correspond to our “essential words” in English.  Readers familiar with Chinese verses in translation will already be aware that there are multiple ways of translating them because of their compressed and often ambiguous language.

Nonetheless, here is what we can do with it.  First of all, let’s put it into basic English, like this:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
The moon is setting; a crow caws; frost fills the sky;

River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Among river maples fishing lights disturb sleep

Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Outside Gu Su’s wall is Cold Mountain Temple;

Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat
At midnight the bell sound reaches the visitor’s boat.

That is still a bit awkward — not yet fitting well into our language.  So now let’s try to put it more comfortably into English:

The moon sets — a crow caws — the sky is filled with frost;
Fishing lights through river maples make sleeping hard.
Beyond the walls of Gu Su is Cold Mountain Temple;
At midnight its bell reaches this traveller’s boat.

That conveys the meaning, but it does not flow very smoothly.  It is a bit “jumpy” and awkward.  So let’s take it a third step and not be quite so literalistic; let’s make it fully an English poem.  In doing so, we will drop the name Gu Su (an old name for Suzhou):

The moon goes down — the caw of crows fills the frozen sky;
Sleep comes hard with fishing lights among the river trees.
Far beyond the city wall lies Cold Mountain Temple;
I hear its bell at midnight as I lie here in my boat.

That conveys, I think, the essentials of what Zhang Ji was trying to say.  But significantly, it is now no longer a “Chinese” poem.  It is an English-language poem written using the Chinese technique.  Nonetheless, beneath the flow of the English words one can still sense its seven-essential-words structure, which is as it should be, because that gives it its pattern.

One can write countless poems in this manner.  If you find the seven-word structure a bit too much at first, begin with a five-word structure.  Once you get the hang of it, writing Nature poetry in the old Chinese manner becomes very easy — but the result is throughly English (in the language sense, not the national).

Remember not to be too literalistic or rigid as you work with essential words.

As an added and non-essential note, remember that in writing such poems we are using only one aspect of old Chinese poetry, which differed in significant ways from how we write here.  The major difference — aside from language — is that old Chinese poetry rhymed.  And it had a rhythm that seems rather “sing-song” to English speakers.

To illustrate, here is a pinyin transliteration of Night Mooring at Maple Bridge:

Yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān;
Jiāng fēng yú huǒ duì chóu mián.
Gū sū chéng wài hán shān sì;
Yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán.

If you are wondering what all the little marks above the letters mean, they indicate the tones in Mandarin, Chinese being (unlike English) a tonal language.

But the things to note are first, as already mentioned, that the verse uses rhyme in the Chinese original; and second, that it has precisely the sing-song rhythm of children’s verses in English — exactly the rhythm, in fact, of the old religious song:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
They are weak but he is strong.

That has four lines, like the poem of Zhang Ji, and it has the same rhythm as Night Mooring at Maple Bridge.  Now perhaps you can see why we do not customarily translate Chinese poems into English using rhyme.  In fact when I read Chinese poems in translation, I deliberately avoid those translated with rhyme, because inevitably they come off as childish and they stray too far from the original meaning.

That does not of course mean the poems are childish in the original.  It just means that in moving them from one culture to another, they take on characteristics that we customarily think of in English as childish, if they are translated using the rhythm and rhyme found in Chinese originals.  It is a matter of cultural and linguistic difference.  But again, all of that has nothing to do with my purpose here, which is not to duplicate Chinese poetry in English, but rather to take what is useful in old Chinese poetry and to apply it to the writing of new Nature poems in English.

David

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