BRIEF INTERVAL

Another loose translation of a very old Chinese poem, this time by Chen Zi’ang (661-702)

A Song on Climbing Youzhou Tower

Unseen are those who came before;
Unseen are those to come after.
Thinking how endless are heaven and earth,
Alone and disconsolate, the tears drip down.

前不見古人

後不見來者

念天地之悠悠

獨愴然而涕下

Qián bù jiàn gǔ rén
hòu bù jiàn lái zhě
Niàn tiān dì zhī yōu yōu
dú chuàng rán ér tì xià

We cannot see the people of old times who came before us, nor can we see those who will come after we are gone.  On thinking of the vastness of time, the endlessness of heaven and earth and the brief interval of our short lives, the poet is filled with sadness and cannot hold back the tears.

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ONLY WHITE CLOUDS….

Here is a loose translation of a poem by Wang Wei (王維; 699–759):

Amid the hills are many Dharma friends;
Meditating, chanting, gathering in groups;
But look out from the far city wall,
And only white clouds are seen.

山中多法侶
禪誦自為群
城郭遙相望
唯應見白雲

shān zhōng duō fǎ lǚ ,
chán sòng zì wéi qún 。
chéng guō yáo xiāng wàng ,
wéi yīng jiàn bái yún 。

“Dharma friends” refers to those who practice the Buddhist way.
Meditation 禪 (Chán) is the Chinese word for Jhana — Buddhist Meditation, the same character that in Japan is used for “Zen.”

The point of the poem is the separation — physical and psychological — of the Buddhist practitioners from the busy world of the city — the “world of dust.”  When one looks from there to the far mountains where they live and meditate, only white clouds are seen.  It reminds me of the title of the Thomas Hardy novel Far From the Madding Crowd.

TAO YUAN-MING’S SPRING

R. H. Blyth called this work by Tao Qian (Tao Yuan-ming, c. 365-427) and translated by Arthur Waley “the best translation… of the best poem in the world.”

WangXimengThousandLiofRiver

Swiftly the years, beyond recall,
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning.
I will clothe myself in spring-clothing
And visit the slopes of the Eastern Hill.
By the mountain-stream a mist hovers,
Hovers a moment, then scatters.
There comes a wind blowing from the south
That brushes the fields of new corn .

Waley’s version — good as it is — is not a precise translation of the original. Nonetheless, his version is effective, which is why Blyth was so fond of it. Some day when I have time I may give a closer translation.

I should add that Americans should read the word “corn” in the last line as meaning “grain.” The fields are not of corn (maize) in the American sense, but of corn (grain) in the British sense. Picture a field of green, grassy blades like Whitman’s “leaves of grass,” with the wind gently sweeping over them.

Also, the “Qian” in Tao Qian is pronounced like “Chen,” but in the front rather than the middle of the mouth. Just say the “ch” close to the front teeth.

David

HOKKU ROOTS: BAI JUYI’S SIXTY-SIX

Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.

David

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

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



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