Ancient, exhilarating poems that sound imagist

Yang Lian’s expert appreciation of classical Chinese verse written by the masters of the T’ang and Sung Dynasties 700 to 1,400 years ago

Poems of the Masters —
China’s Classic Anthology of
T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse
Translated by RED PINE
Copper Canyon Press £9.50

Why do I enthusiastically recommend to contemporary poets and their readers this excellent bilingual anthology of classical Chinese poetry written as long ago as the 8th century? It’s probably for the same reason that Ezra Pound’s ‘invention’ of imagism coincided with his own discovery of this ancient Chinese verse. By reading Poems of the Masters, you may see this poetry as part of a living tradition that can contribute to the development of contemporary poetry.

Ch’ien-chia-shih, the Chinese title of the book, literally means ‘Poems of a Thousand Masters’, but ‘thousand’ here is simply hyperbole for ‘many’, as there are only a few more than a hundred poets in this large book. I prefer the translator’s title because the word ‘Masters’, says these are truly great, even immortal poets. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it indicates that this book has been the very foundation of classical Chinese poetry ever since the anthology was first compiled at the end of 11th century.

Any educated Chinese person would be ashamed to confess, ‘I don't know Ch’ien-chia-shih.’ In fact, merely to know the book would not be enough — one must have learned many poems by heart and in that way planted the rhythms of Chinese poetry deep in the soul, even before fully appreciating the poetry’s meanings. The rhythm grows up inside you like a secret flower, and one day its blossoming may help you in writing and reading poetry.

My own experience is a good example — when I was seven or eight my father required me every day to recite T'ang poems by heart after dinner. At the time, the experience made me hate poetry, but later there was a surprise — I found I had acquired a good ear for the music of poetry in my own work, enabling me to judge the musical energy inside a poem. You can imagine how happy my father was when I told him about this.

I should pause here to say a few words about Red Pine, the pen name of the translator, Bill Porter, a 60-year old American. After studying at the Universities of California and Columbia he lived for four years in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, and later worked at radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. One example of his dedication in producing this book is that he visited the homesteads and graves of all the major poets in this collection, as well as the places where they wrote many of the poems.

I particularly recommend Red Pine's ‘Preface’ — it is a rich, colourful and acute introduction to Chinese poetry. He says, ‘Poetry is China's greatest art’, and that starts the piece with a strongly positive and precisely correct tone. Then in a brief study of the written character for ‘shih’, the word for ‘poetry’, he shows how the Chinese ideogram for that word actually means ‘language of the heart’. With this explanation, the translator immediately reveals the most important nature of Chinese poetry — it is an expression, or even an expressionist view of the internal world of the poet, rather than a reflection of the poet’s external world.

The preface also refers to three other classic Chinese anthologies, two edited before and one after Ch’ien-chia-shih. Together, these books constitute another important but relatively unknown tradition of Chinese literature — the editing and re-editing of poetry anthologies over the centuries. Within this tradition, the sequence of layered ‘pasts’ is never fixed, but constantly re-written and re-built. History is never developed in a single line, but opens out in different directions.

One result of this tradition is that there are different versions of the same poems in succeeding anthologies. This reflects the Chinese belief that reading and writing poetry is such a personal experience that any concept of poetry evolution is an illusion, because ‘language of the heart’ communicates timelessly. What is implied is the importance of concentric circles of centuries of poetry tradition, layer upon overlapping layer.

Preceding each poem in the book, the translator provides very helpful brief biographical notes about the poet, as well as background information about the references and allusions within each poem.

Readers may be surprised that although there are 224 poems in this 475-page volume, the poems are structured on only four formalist forms of classic Chinese poetry. These four are wu-jue, which specifies five Chinese characters in each of four lines; wu-lu, requiring five characters in each of eight lines; qi-jue, with seven characters in each of four lines; and qi-lu, with seven characters in each of eight lines. These four types of formalist verse were selected from more than a hundred because they are the most typical forms of classical Chinese poetry, rooted deep in the very nature of Chinese written characters to express their beauty and power. Since the T’ang and Sung Dynasties the influence of these four structures has been so pervasive that they became the basic forms of Chinese literature — extending even all the way to the students’ chanted slogans in 1989 in Tianamen Square. It’s for this reason that the anthology is divided into four sections, each focused on poems which exemplify each type of formalist verse.

Formalist principles in classical Chinese literature.can be traced back to the Pre-Qin period (before 221 B.C.), and at the very beginning of Chinese poetry tradition, to the ‘Book of Odes’, a selection of folk songs built basically on four characters per line. ‘Songs of Ch'u’, was an anthology of work by poets of South China, who had been using very different forms and structures arranged variously for individual poems. During the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), poetry forms grew richer, and five characters per line were often seen. Fu, a form of prose-poetry, established rules for fixed rhythms in a sentence, with four characters in the first half of the sentence, followed by six characters in the second. The sentences are paired and the two parallel sentences often echo each other, in order to create splendid wave-like parallelisms both musically and visually!

Pian is another aspect of the Fu form, and the visual image conveyed by the ideogram for pian is ‘parallel horses’. Reading these poems in Chinese is, indeed, just like seeing thousands of galloping horses! The establishment of these rules for the visual and musical structure of poetry-forms created a key that opened the gates for a flood of poetry in the T'ang and Sung dynasties — a time which Red Pine accurately describes as ‘the golden age’. Why did so many great poets appear suddenly in that period?

The simple answer is that after a very long period of growth and gradual development, classical Chinese language had finally found the best means of expression, so that the structures of formalist poetry created one body that brought the language, the literature and the philosophical concepts together. The soul had finally found the body! The four forms represented in this anthology are the ultimate result of this development of Chinese rhythms. Five or seven characters per line produce, respectively, rhythms of two and then three beats in lines containing five characters, and a rhythm of two, then two and then three beats in seven character lines, comparable perhaps to the development of meter in English formalist verse. When I put my hand on Poems of the Masters now, I can clearly sense the energy that was generated over thousands of years, and yet still feels warm and fresh. Let’s look at a poem, so popular it’s carved into the memory of Chinese people, and it is the first one in the first section of the book. ‘Spring Dawn’, by the 7th century Meng Hao-jan, is in the wu-jue form, with five characters in each of four lines. (The characters do not translate directly into five words or five syllables, but in the book you can see the characters and lineation of the poem in the original Chinese version facing the translation.)

Sleeping in spring oblivious of dawn
everywhere I hear birds
after the wind and rain last night
I wonder how many petals fell

For me, the poem can be read on several levels: (1) as a verbal painting of a Spring landscape; (2) as a questioning of the meaning of life; and (3) as a pure music piece, because in reading it aloud in Chinese, each character in the poem plays its own tone — goes flat, or up, or down first then turning to up, or down — and the poem’s written characters follow the ‘law of tones’ specially composed for the wu-jue form. Please keep in mind that written Chinese is not a phonetic language — the ideograms that are the characters of written Chinese symbolize the idea of a thing, without expressing the sounds of its name. Consequently, the tonal music of a spoken Chinese poem is super-imposed on the poem’s ideas. Furthermore, Chinese ideograms are often composite, so that in a sense the reader sees two or more images in one character. For example, as Ezra Pound explained, the ideogram for ‘happiness’ depicts the combination of the sun with a heart, to show ‘sunshine in the heart’.

The ‘Spring Dawn’ poem also contains an interesting bit of linguistic philosophy — in the Chinese original no pronouns are used. The poem uses no ‘I’ or ‘you’, etc., in order to convey the idea that the phenomena in the poem were experienced by an impersonal being, perhaps even by nature observing itself. But Red Pine’s use of the ‘I’ in the poem is perfectly acceptable, to accommodate Western readers, and his translation delivers the real sense and emotion, with the poem’s richness hidden in simplicity, and abstract thought expressed in concrete images. In fact, his use of the English ‘I’ adds a special poetry perspective, bringing a person’s body temperature to the cold rocks and clear air in the text.

You will recall that in the wu-lu form there are five characters in each of eight lines, and the qi-lu form has seven characters per line in eight lines. Both types of eight-line poems share the strictest rules of lu, and the surface meaning of the character for this word is linked with other words like fa-lu which means ‘law’, jie-lu meaning ‘limit’, and gui-lu means ‘rule’. Here the latter particularly signifies ‘regulated verse’, and it brings formalist Chinese poetry to an extreme point. Like the form fu, the form lu specifies additional rules regarding visual and musical elements. Visually, the third and fourth lines must be paired and mirroring each other, and the fifth and sixth lines also paired and similarly mirrored to be dui zhang — like two lines of honour guards standing face to face, the lines in each parallel pair in a sense joined together. Each character in the fourth line must be mirrored in the fifth (noun to noun, verb to verb, adjective to adjective, adverb to adverb, even number to number, colour to colour...).

One might say that what often happens with fu is that the poet is forced to dance weighted with heavy metal chains. But the poet Tu Fu, one of the greatest of the master poets, often made all eight lines into four pairs, building a ‘wordscape’, tier upon tier. This certainly poses a huge challenge to translators. But Red Pine succeeds in obeying these ancient rules in his translation of the following lines from ‘The Chungnan Mountain’, by Wang Wei: ‘white clouds form before your eyes / blue vapours vanish in plain sight’, and also with these lines: ‘a pear-blossom courtyard in waves of moonlight / a willow-lined pond in the lightest of winds’, from ‘Private Thoughts’, by Yen Shu.

The music requirements in lu are also demanding. Here the ‘law of tones’ is firmly fixed. A poet must play his instrument to follow the tune — and breaking any rule is not allowed! Because the sounds of Chinese characters cannot be seen on the surface, but are hidden behind ideograms, the ‘law of tones’ is invisible even though it controls everything tightly. I feel that this is one of the secret energies of Chinese poetry which of course relies on listeners or readers having extremely sensitive ears. One might ask if there is anything ‘natural’ about classical Chinese poetry, or is everything a hundred per cent artificial and extremely technical? Perhaps these ‘typical’ forms are the clearest answer to those questions! Here is a beautiful example of the wu-lu form, five characters in each of eight lines, written by Tu Fu in 758:

Flowers by the palace retire at dusk
nestbound birds call as they pass
stars appear and a thousand doors open
the moon shines brighter near the height of Heaven
the sound of gold locks keeps me awake
were those jade bridles I heard in the wind
morning court brings more sealed dispatches
and questions about last night
(‘Staying Overnight at the Chancellery in Spring’)

The neo-Confucian scholar Ch’eng Hao (1032-1085) wrote the following poem in the qi-jue form, with seven characters in each of four lines, and as you see, the lines are certainly longer:

The clouds are thin the wind is light the sun is nearly overhead
past the flowers through the willows down along the stream
people don’t see the joy in my heart
they think I’m wasting time or acting like a child
(‘Casual Poem on a Spring Day’)

The form that is structured with seven characters on each of eight lines is qi-lu, and here is a famous poem in that style, ‘Morning Court at Taming Palace’, written in the Spring of 758 by Chia Chih. (Taming Palace housed the royal family and highest offices of central government.)

Silver lanterns light the sky along imperial streets
in spring forbidden walls turn bright green at dawn
countless hanging catkins veil the painted gates
a hundred twittering orioles encircle Chienchang Court
the sounds of swords and pendants echo up jade steps
every robe and hat is lined with incense soot
and bathed in waves of grace at Phoenix Pond
and daily stained with ink in the service of our lord

One could say that these ancient poems are ‘portable universes’, structured spaces in which layers upon layers of overlapping images create a moving wordscape, the imagery becoming a poem. I think of this as ‘space-aesthetics’, in which each classical Chinese poem is an architecture moving endlessly internally, but remaining stationary on the outside — an atomic reactor creating energy under its silver-white, metallic cold shell. Am I talking about these Poems of the Masters or poems of all masters? Maybe both.

Because Chinese verbs have no tenses, anything written is not an ‘event’, but a ‘situation’. Time is cancelled, verbal images become timeless. Yi-jing, the most important aesthetic concept in classical Chinese poetry, is the name for created imagery-spacescapes, comparable to Pound's ‘Imagism’. Poems of the Masters has been a textbook in China for many centuries, but the lessons are far from ended. We continue to learn. Red Pine’s translation made me deeply miss Pound, who was fond of saying that images can create insights in an instant. He might as well have said the same thing about the poems in this wonderful book. They can provide a continuing inspirational dialogue between contemporary poetry and this ancient Chinese verse.

Yang Lian grew up in Beijing. Having been a member of the influential Menglong (‘Ambiguist’) group of Beijing poets, he left China in 1983 and finally settled in London. His most recent poetry collection is ‘Where the Sea Stands Still’ (Bloodaxe 1999). His new book-length poem, ‘Concentric Circles’, will be published by Bloodaxe this year.