Essays on Literature
Essays on Politic and Culture
BUILDING A TOWER FROM THE TOP DOWNWARD
----- a preface for Capstone Course online magazine, Bard College, USA.
Imagine this: you're building a tower from the top downward. Such is the design of Bard's "Capstone Course". The process of writing poetry brings two completely different languages and cultures together. It's not economics, popular culture or sports that lead us to a common ground, but instead it's poetry that gathers our life experiences and literary understanding in a shared space, to meet, to argue, to converse, to inspire. The tower, at completion, stands upon a foundation built from a deeper understanding - understanding based upon mutual exchange.
Exile and poetry were the subjects of this year's Capstone Course. When I first received the invitation to teach at Bard, I was both excited and afraid. As a Chinese poet in exile, I've participated in literary events the world over, but I had never done a job like this. Preparing to teach the Capstone course provided an opportunity for me to sift through and re-structure my life: awakening at the end of the Cultural Revolution, my dangerous but exciting life as a young, underground poet during the 1980s, the nightmare of the Tiananmen Massacre in June of 1989, my endless journey through exile, classical Chinese poetry, the Western poetic tradition. Could I teach all of this in my "Yanglish"? This would be a class not just for my students, but for me as well. To learn to be poets became our mutual goal.
Everything had to be creative: we read "Misty Poetry" (menglong shi), "Wounded Literature", "Root-seeking Literature", "Ghostspeak" (exile poetry), Du Fu's great poem of exile, "Climbing", written more than a thousand years ago, Ezra Pound's "invented translations" which proposed a new and individual point of view and form for the Chinese language. Poetics made politics understandable, and eventually poetry became the best way of expressing the political. We were on a journey - traveling to others' worlds; yet the destination was always the same, to discover ourselves.
What we have discovered is here in this Capstone Journal 2003. All of the works were written and the website edited by my students. As they begin their poetic lives, I would like to thank them all and celebrate them with the phrase "watching ourselves set sail". One must watch as he or she sails out upon the ocean. Such is the image of our inner journey. Let us continue the trip together, travel endlessly, never surrender.
— Yang Lian, May 2003
On Du Fu's "Climbing"
The autumn wind, wailing monkeys, pale sand, wheeling birds, borderless falling leaves, endless river waves, a traveling poet climbs a terrace, loneliness fills both time and space. Am I familiar with this picture? Yes, of course. As a poet in exile, I am all too familiar with this situation. The poem I mention here though is not my work, but is instead a poem written over a thousand years ago by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770AD) entitled "Deng gao", or "Climbing". I first selected this poem last year for Poetry International London as the work that has most influenced my writing. During my talk, I noted that while I first memorized this poem when I was ten, it took me nearly twenty years to fully understand it. My own experiences as a poet in exile were the bridge that led me across that gap in time, towards an understanding of the wonderful poetics of Du Fu. The poem has become a meeting place, a place where poets who share similar situations might gather to read each other timelessly.
I selected "Climbing" for the 2003 Capstone Course as well, not only because the poem speaks of exile, the subject of our course, but in particular because of how it speaks. As I have said many times, Du Fu's poetic dances so very freely and naturally within the confines of the strictest form of Classical Chinese poetry, the "qi lü". This form (qi lü) must follow the rules of "dui zhang" and "ping ze". A "dui zhang" is created when the first line is joined with the second, forming a pair. Each character in the first line must be mirrored in the second line - noun to noun, verb to verb, adjective to adjective, adverb to adverb, even color to color and number to number. This pairing creates an echo in the space between two lines. Four pairs of lines, eight lines in all, like four levels in mid-air, create something I have come to call a "portable universe". In a similar way, "ping ze" refers to a fixed tonal scheme, created over more than a thousand years, that all poets must follow in order to preserve the musical rhythm of their poems. This form tests the poet's ability to create beauty within difficulty.
The very nature of the Chinese language provides the special poetic for the poem. Chinese phrases are often devoid of an obvious subject/personal pronoun. Thus both Du Fu and Yang Lian could climb the terrace. Chinese verbs have no tenses, therefore the monkeys could wail during both the Tang Dynasty and today. Chinese readers often have to add a prepositional phrase between images to create a linguistic link. There are no fixed relationships between the images - they continue one by one and level by level, until the portable universe focuses finally on a stained wine cup, held by a certain poet at a certain moment. The depth of this poetic is this open situation - the climbing includes all climbers. During that moment, space within the poem is created, time is canceled. We are sent into an eternal exile.
T.S. Eliot once called Ezra Pound's translations of Classical Chinese poems his "invention". Pound created his "imagism" by placing images side-by-side as well. This process of invention brought a new richness to translation. Could we look to Pound for guidance? Could Pound's invention inspire different modes of writing poetry in English? Our poetry project has grown from these questions. You will read Du Fu's "Deng gao" in Chinese, my brief explanation and a level-by-level literal translation which clearly delineates each "dui zhang" or pair. You will read earlier translations from a bygone era and finally, re-translations completed by members of the Capstone class. The poem grows and expands to become a group of poems in English, a cacophony of voices that responds to Du Fu's loneliness. Both Chinese and English have enriched each other. The dialogue continues.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York