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

FREEDOM FROM POETRY

One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

This of course applies to hokku as I teach it.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem as we usually think of a poem; instead it is a thing-event.

Buson wrote:

Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea  all-day     undulating undulating kana

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening.

You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry.  And of course if we present it like this,

The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.

— nothing has really changed.  So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry.  That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.

Nonetheless, when we look at the spring sea there is poetry in it, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  There we have it in a nutshell.

When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.

What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku?  We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

That means poetry (as we are speaking of it in relation to hokku) is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead, poetry is something awakened by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.

We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:

Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?

“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”

That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize the poetry, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.

It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”

David

THE YOUNG SHIPS SAIL AWAY

There are some poems that are little-remembered, often because something is not quite right in them, but yet a line or a few lines will stick in the mind — though perhaps recalled not quite correctly — like the flash of a gemstone partly hidden in a matrix of lesser rock.

And then, when one tries to find such a poem, it is devilishly difficult!  Here is a prime example, by Gerald Louis Gould (1885-1936):

Wander-Thirst

Beyond the East the sunrise, beyond the West the sea,
And East and West the wander-thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness, dear, to bid me say good-by!
For the seas call and the stars call, and oh, the call of the sky!

The sun of course rises in the East, and if one lives in England, as Gould did, beyond the land to the West lies the sea.  The writer is afflicted with “itchy feet” — he feels an irresistible urge to wander, to see the sea and what is beyond, to see stars over new fields, the skies over distant hills.

I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But man can have the sun for friend, and for his guide a star;
And there’s no end of voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the river calls and the road calls, and oh, the call of a bird!

He does not know where the white road he travels will take him.  Gould studied at Oxford University in Oxfordshire, which has chalk beds that made early roads in the area white in the sun.  One still sees such roads in places where limestone, chalk and marble predominate in the geology — at least the smaller rural roads without asphalt.  Nor does he know what the blue hills in the distance might be.  But he is called to find out.

A traveller may go alone, but the sun travels with him, and the stars have been directional guides since ancient times.  Once one gets the “wanderlust,” there is no end to traveling.   Rivers call one onward, as do roads, and even the free-spirited call of a bird seems a summons to adventure.

Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away;
And come I may, but go I must, and if men ask you why,
You may put the blame on the stars and the sun and the white road and the sky!

The horizon is both physical and metaphorical.  It is the point from which one enters unknown territory, that which is beyond the known and familiar.  Here Gould uses it metaphorically for the beginning and ending point of human life.  The old ships — that is people coming to the end of the journey of life’s adventure, return to home again, and for them the horizon is rest and life’s end.  The young ships are the youthful individuals just setting out on the voyage of life, and for them the horizon is the beginning of life and adventure.

Our writer is determined to make the most of his time, so though he may stop at a place and stay a while, inevitably he must be off again to continue his travels.  We can also say this of life.  We may come into this life and stay a while, but it is also inevitable that we must go out of it again.  Time never pauses.  But our writer here speaks primarily of non-metaphorical adventuring, his boundless urge to travel.  If anyone asks why he cannot stay, his reply is that one may blame the stars and the sun, the white road and the sky — all call him to adventure.

I first encountered this poem years ago, when I was interested in the life and wanderings of the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, herself a wanderer in life.  But what struck me was only these lines:

Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away;

Why those?  I suppose because they encompass so much in so small a space as metaphor.  In those two lines is all of life — youth and old age, the cycle of setting forth on the voyage of life in youth, and inevitably, at last, coming home in old age to end one’s voyaging days.  It is life and death.

Nothing in the rest, unfortunately, quite matches the strength of those two lines, and that is perhaps why the poem is so little known today, though I must admit I have been surprised by the numbers of people coming here in search of it.

David