How do you like Chinese poetry? Which poem or what kind of Chinese poems impresses you most?
—Dai Xiaohong (AKA William Jefferson Foster), Wenzhou City, Zheijiang Province, China
Willy, and I hope it’s all right for me to still use that fond nickname for you, I really wish I could do this question more justice than I’m able to. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it always makes me realize how much I don’t know not only about Chinese poetry and Chinese poetic traditions but about all of poetry. Over my lifetime, I’ve read quite a number of poems, studied some fairly closely, memorized a few, and tried to write a few more, but to use a not so poetic American phrase, it’s really just a drop in the bucket.
Sometime in the last year I was listening to a Robert Pinsky interview on the PBS NewsHour. Several years ago, Pinsky was the United States poet laureate and was involved in a poetry project with the NewsHour in which people around the country, from construction workers to students, were videotaped reading their favorite poems and then commenting on why they liked them. It was a great project because it showed what a democratic thing poetry is, something that belongs to all the people, which is absolutely what I felt when I was in China. There was no question but that you and, at the time, your fellow students had grown up with a sense that Chinese poetry was part of what made you Chinese, that it was part of your cultural store of treasure.
What Pinsky was saying in this interview really caught my attention because it made me think back to one afternoon in China when a group of us simply talked about poetry. It was like talking about love. It felt that universal and that important. Pinsky said he was often introduced as an ambassador for poetry and would smile politely but felt it wasn’t accurate. As he put it, “I don’t think poetry needs an advocate. It is too fundamental and large for that.”
As I was hunting for that exact quote, I came across another Pinsky comment in the Wall Street Journal that builds out from that idea: “I think poetry is a vital part of our intelligence, our ability to learn, our ability to remember, the relationship between our bodies and minds. Poetry’s highest purpose is to provide a unique sensation of coordination between the intelligence, emotions and the body. It’s one of the most fundamental pleasures a person can experience.” Pinsky has also been savvy enough to point out the connections poetry has to music, to performance, and even to joke telling. If I were to expand on that, I would say that he has understood the way the particular sounds and rhythms of poetry, particularly as we feel it strumming through us, awaken us to life in a certain way.
This brings me to your particular question. Since you first posed it, I have been reading through more Chinese poetry (I am still more than grateful for the book of poems you and your wife gave me) and find I love the worlds it takes me to. Part of that is because poets like Li Bai and Du Fu are so visual. They put the reader so exactly in the scene. Yet they also do it with language that, even in translation, soars. This is such a wonderful line from Li Bai’s “Long Yearning”: “The grasshoppers weave their autumn song by the golden railing of the well.” Or what a perfect way he has of evoking the month of March in” Seeing off Meng Haoran for Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower”: “In the third month’s cloud of willow blossoms.” I love the way March is identified by number not name, which is very informative as well as, I believe, traditional, but with the quick pivot to the exact image of a March sky with clouds made of blossoms. Willow blossoms. It’s both beautiful and stirring.
I understand that a real student of Chinese poetry would know to distinguish between the different dynastic periods in which the poetry is written, but what strikes me most is the the length of the poetic tradition—stretching back more than a thousand years—and its consistency as if Chinese poetry has an intrinsic DNA with only slight changes over time to its genetic code. That’s so different from American poetry that, in its relatively short history, has gone from firmly metrical lines to the openness of free verse and back again to the firmer cadence of something like rap. American verse is like America—always bouncing off to something new.
Since I can’t read Chinese, I really can’t have an understanding of the technical aspects of Chinese poetry from any of the traditions. What I can sense, again, is the continuity. Nature is as important as it is in the work of the Romantic poets in England. There’s certainly playfulness as one finds in the title from Su Shi, which is almost as long as the deft little poem it names: “Written While Drunk in Lake-View Pavilion on the 27th Day of the Sixth Month.” Mostly, I’m aware of the leave-takings that are sometimes ceremonial, sometimes the separation of warriors from their lovers, sometimes just a strong sense of wishing for a home that was left at an earlier time. There also seems to be a clear sense of station: scholars, hermits, soldiers, governors. And there is always something that is anchoring in daily life but elevated by the particular awareness of the natural world. Simply put, what I find so remarkable across the breadth of the traditions is the simple evocation of the human condition, both as people are placed in the physical world and experience it in a way that is, at the same time, interior. So much of the poetry captures the poignancy of a moment, even if it is a daydream.
As they sometimes say at the end of a radio program, let’s go out with some of the actual music, in this case with lines from poems (and with a thank-you for renewing my experience of some of this lovely poetry):
Du Fu: “Sighs of Autumn Rain (Three)”
The rustling rain hastens the early cold,
And geese with wet wings find high flying hard.
This autumn we’ve had no glimpse of the white sun,
When will the mud and dirt become dry earth?
Bai Juyi: “Feelings on Watching the Moon”
This night, our wish for home can make five places one.
Li Yu: ‘I Climb the Western Tower in Silence”
Clear autumn is locked in the deep courtyard, where a wutong tree stands lonely.
Sorrowful parting has cut, but not severed our ties; my mind is still wild.
Liu Zongyuan: “River Snow”
A lonely boat, a straw-hatted old man,
Fishing alone in the cold river snow.
Wang Wei: “Jinzhu Ridge”
A secret road leads up to Shangshan hill,
Even the woodcutter does not know.