In the Timeless Air

Yang Lian

Translated by Yang Liping with Jeffrey Twitchell-Waa

“In the timeless air”—Chinese Language, Pound and the Cantos

The Chinese version of “in the timeless air” from Canto 76 –“in everlasting time and space”-- deviates from the original meaning of the poem: here the timeless air refers to a space separated from time (an artificial thought). The world exists timelessly. What “everlasting time and space” emphasizes is the permanent unity of time and space. Because of this misunderstanding, what should be a Tang dynasty landscape full of Zen realizations of time and life has turned into medieval theological dogma. For me, Pound intended this line to pinpoint the emptiness and absurdity of recorded history. At the same time, set against the never-ending air, he demonstrated a transcendent synchronic dimension to people living in the diachronic. In a certain sense, this captures the fundamental theme of the entire Cantos.

In praising Pound, T.S Eliot claimed that the poet “invented” Chinese poetry. What Pound invented was his unique understanding of Chinese written characters and some elements of classical Chinese poetry. In fact, a new perspective or mode of experience also updates what is observed. I once called Pound’s English translations of some Chinese poems a “great misunderstanding”: “great” because of his originality. Never had anyone (including Chinese poets) prior to Pound recognized the distinctive structural features of Chinese characters, the special functionality of Chinese grammar, the philosophy and aesthetics as exhibited by classical Chinese poetry and these features’ importance for literary creation in the modern world. His misunderstanding resulted first from the fact that he was a poet writing in English. All his reflections on Chinese language and Chinese poetry served his poetic writings in English. A man rooted in Western culture, he tried to acquire revelations from Chinese and absorb all that he could: the word-forming approach of Chinese, the juxtaposition of images in classical Chinese poetry, Confucian thinking and the like. He had never (nor ever could have) recognized other essential elements of Chinese poetry, such as tonal patterns, rhyme schemes, poetic forms, etc. The “great misunderstanding” was actually a purposeful choice. He managed to find inspiration for his own poetic composition from his indirect understanding of the Chinese language. This was consistent throughout his career, from early Imagism that revolutionized the expression of English language and poetry to the late Cantos, which display a synchronic poetic sense and a unique perception of the Chinese language. I have to admit that all Chinese poets in the 20th century have been following Pound’s path in taking an individualistic attitude towards language: what we have been doing is to transcend the unconscious use of language and reach conscious creativity.

In my opinion, Pound’s study of “Chinese poetry” must have had a hidden core, that is, thinking about synchronicity. First, he grasped this revelation through a study of the structure of Chinese characters and poetry using his intuition as a poet. Then, he distilled his philosophical position and gave it full expression in the Cantos.

Chinese characters and poetry constitute a concentric circle of synchronicity: Pound paid close attention to the word-forming method of Chinese characters (诚 [cheng, meaning “sincerity”]—is a perfectly structured character…) and thus grasped the spatial elements of Chinese characters right from the start. Characters are not only pictorial. The juxtaposition of different constituents of each character leads to visual, audio, denotative and associative combinations. A character itself is a poem, a multi-layered space.

Strictly speaking, Chinese has no “grammar” as defined in the West: describing a specific action or thing with meticulously defined person, tense, part of speech and number. One of the salient features of Chinese is that the form of the verb remains unchanged however the person and tense change. Here the Chinese language abandons particularity for abstractness. It implies that “now” does not exist and there is only language. Once written down, “this” person, “this” action and “this” moment become something universal. Writing is synthesis rather than analysis.

The juxtaposition of images in classical Chinese poetry is an extension of the spatiality of the Chinese characters and the abstractness of the Chinese language. The grammatical and logical rules are abandoned that govern the links between different strokes, different parts of each character, different characters, various images and sentences. As a result, discontinuity and blanks are found everywhere. Robert Bly once pointed out that when the imagination is employed to link these discontinuities, the abstract levels quietly pervade them. From this Pound derived Imagism. However, the key point here is not only images but also a space detached from (or containing) time. The form of a classical Chinese poem is in fact a microcosm. Take for example the typical qilu [regulated verse: eight-line poem with seven characters to a line]. The opening couplet avoids antithesis to imply the sense of time; the middle two couplets are antithetical and thus expand the spatial distance horizontally; and the final couplet returns to non-antithesis as an echo of the beginning. The theme is rarely linear argument as in Western poetry. It is more like uncovering layer by layer at a single spot. It is a field of resonance that incorporates whoever reads it.

The tradition of classical Chinese poetry has had nothing to do with so-called “natural poetics.” On the contrary, its formal design reflects an extreme artificiality--so artificial that it is usually mistaken for “naturalness.” “Nature” as subject matter should not and cannot replace poetics. I often emphasize “written” rather than “spoken” Chinese because in Chinese history the written and spoken languages have long existed separately. This facilitated the formal evolution from Han dynasty fu [rhyme-prose] to pianwen [rhythmical prose], jueju [quatrains] and lushi [regulated verse] with the aim of constructing an increasingly perfect and organically enhanced poetic space while erasing time. A poetic form like the qilu has been used by Chinese poets for over a thousand years. At the same time, poets have been busy compiling collections of poems to the neglect of writing a book on the history of Chinese poetry. Not until the 20th century was the first history based on Western evolutionary theory completed. Is this comic or tragic?

What is synchronism in poetry? In short, in terms of time sense, synchronism contains diachrony; in terms of life experience, the situation contains events; in terms of language consciousness, abstractness contains particularity; and in terms of point of view, non-person contains person. In the final analysis, writing does not only deal with existence but is existence on another level, and everything in history has become the materials and fragments for writing to paste together. Poetry does not merely draw the past into the present because there is neither past nor present. Only “air” is “timelessly” written on paper. It is poetry.

For me, the fundamental theme of the Cantos lies between its synchronic poetic sense and its diachronic poetic language. This means that the poem integrates changing human history. Here, the dazzling inserts and juxtapositions of large-scale images (understanding “images” in a broad sense) are more historical imagination--the unchanging behind all changes--than history. Each person, including Pound himself, is only a part of humankind. The Greek myths, Confucian preaching, and the daily routine in the POW camp in Pisa all happen all the time. This is just like the verbs in the Chinese language that never change their forms. However, Pound faced a problem—he had to write in English. His pursuit of synchrony and attempt to break through the diachrony of English—transcending diachrony in diachrony—leads him into conflict with his native language, the western mode of logical thinking and the “historical narrative” that has existed throughout western cultural tradition. I am deeply shocked by such “impossibility” as seen in every part of the Cantos. While synchrony in Chinese is something inherent, the elimination of diachrony in the Cantos represents a human wrestling in the true sense. Pound did not merely “expound” this theme but demonstrated a way of getting rid of diachrony. This determines the structure and language of the Cantos: discontinuity between different parts, ubiquitous fragments, unexpected blanks and transformations in which lie secret chains of cause and effect concerning destiny. Complicated times, locations, characters and multiple foreign languages represent a required effort rather than a trick of showing off his profound learning. The only prominent feature is that no distinctions exist. What remains is nothing but the Cantos and the transcendent words: “in the timeless air,” a synchrony containing diachrony.

The synchronic poetic sense is not merely a metaphysical game. What it touches on is exactly the absolute predicament of human existence. Synchronic fate adds weight to diachronic experiences. The synchronic has nowhere to go, which has been verified by the samsara of historical evolution. To sum up, the two dimensions act together to define a person. This accounts for a mysterious parallel between Pound and contemporary Chinese poetry: Imagism/Menglong poetry (in the early 1980s); the initial translation of the Chinese History Cantos/ “Roots-Seeking” poetry that reflected on Chinese traditions and language (in the mid- and late 1980s); and publication of the Chinese version of the Pisan Cantos/Liuwang (Exile) poetry and its international experience (in the 1990s). Chinese poets’ experience of the realities, especially China’s mixed “realities” of yesterday and today, provide the motives for poetic innovation. This can be seen in the following: the self-consciousness in “rewriting” traditions and language in order to explore the possibility of deepening the Chinese language. Contemporary Chinese poetry’s leaping images, free sentence patterns, swift movements of poetic thought, rich layers of meaning and especially its creation of a spatial structure to take the place of linear description result not only from the influence of one or more modern literary trends from the West but also from the spatial-synchronic essence of the Chinese language. The best contemporary Chinese poets can confront directly the human condition of having no place to hide.

The publication of the Chinese version of the Pisan Cantos in the 1990s was major event for Chinese poets and for Pound. Chinese readers at last had the opportunity to read this relatively complete part of that grand literary construct. Pound would be pleased (would that he was still alive!) to see that the gap between the synchronic poetic sense in the Cantos and the diachronic sense of English has been bridged. Owing to the square-shaped Chinese characters, those linguistic fetters tightly bound around him have been suddenly thrown off. The world returns to its original “timeless” state. Disjunction, intersection and convergence are fragmentary and integrated at once. There are no such fragments or whole. There is also no beginning or end to poetry--just as he should have originally written in Chinese. Here, the Cantos have reached their true completion.

April 12, 2000

[Translators’ note] Yang Lian is referring to the first complete translation of the Pisan Cantos into Chinese by Huang Yunte published in 1998: Pangde shixuan bisa shizhang, ed. Zhang Ziqing. Guilin, Guangxi: Lijiang Publishing House.