The Poetics of Space, and More

Aesthetic Pressures on Classical Chinese poetry and a Contemporary Solution

Yang Lian

Part One:

classical poetry - The Aesthetics of Space in the genes of Chinese characters

The forms of classical Chinese poetry are extensions of the aesthetic genes of Chinese characters. A close look at Du Fu’s “Dēng Gāo”, known as the exemplary specimen of seven-syllable regulated verse1, will make the point. This poem was written in the Tang dynasty, about 1,200 years ago. Composed of eight lines, each of seven syllables, this masterpiece demonstrates the characteristics of classical Chinese poetry: vision/image, tones/music, syntax/structure, synchrony /space, text/ transcendental experience. Moreover, it can be understood as autobiography, history, politics, philosophy, poetry, and as a unique interpretation of time and space, and of the universe, even. In terms of the aesthetics of classical Chinese poetry, it has not yet been comprehensively interpreted; as one of mankind’s intellectual resources, its potential has not yet begun to be tapped. Du Fu remains alone.

I will show the whole poem below, with pinyin transcription and literal trot, before discussing its aesthetics on several levels, as well as its philosophical connotations.

登高 Dēng Gāo
climb high
1 風急/天高/猿嘯哀 fēng jī /tiān gāo/yuán xiào aì2
wind gust/sky high/gibbon moan sorrow
2 渚清/沙白/鳥飛回 zhŭ qīng/shā bái/niăo fēi húi
shallows clear/sand white/bird fly back
3 無邊/落木/蕭蕭下 wú biān/luò mù/xiāo xiāo xià
without end/falling tree/rustle rustle fall
4 不盡/長江/滾滾來 bú jìn/cháng jiāng/gŭn gŭn lái
no limit/Yangtze River/roll roll come
5 萬里/悲秋/常作客 wàn lĭ/bēi qiū/cháng zuò kè
10,000 mile/grief autumn/always be stranger
6 百年/多病/獨登臺 băi nián/duō bìng/dú dēng tái
100 year/much illness/alone climb tower
7 艱難/苦恨/繁霜鬢 jiān nán/kŭ hèn/fán shuāng bìn
trouble strife/suffer regret/many frost hair
8 潦倒/新停/濁酒杯 liáo dăo/xīn tíng/zhuó jiŭ bēi
down & out/new stop/cheap wine cup

For the sake of convenience, the original verse is shown above with different images separated by a forward slash. On the right are the pinyin transcription with tones (the diacritic marks which represent the four possible pitch contours of each syllable), and a literal trot. I’ll explore the aesthetics of it below, on several levels.

The First Aesthetic of Classical Poetry:

tonal pattern – perfect musical design

Every Chinese character is an integration of form, sound and meaning and a combination of many separate parts. Among these elements, sound is the most difficult to apprehend. The syllables of Chinese characters are separated into sounds and tones3. Unlike phonographically-written languages, the sound of Chinese characters is not spelled out, since the pronunciation of a character is rarely apparent, and the four tones of Chinese syllables are all the more singular for this. From its birth with the Book of Songs and Songs of the South to Han dynasty rhyme-prose, or ancient ballads with their five- or seven-syllable lines, ancient Chinese continually explored the musical patterns of Chinese characters, and what I call “the formalistic tradition of Chinese characters”: these all established this musical system. The tonal patterns of poetry formulate a specific rhythm for the verse even before it has been composed. When a verse strictly follows the tonal pattern, slowing and stretching its sounds and tones turns recitation into song. On the other hand, if the poet fails to follow the pattern, he is like an opera singer singing off key, and like the opera singer, the poet too will be thrown off the stage. For more than a thousand years, the rule of “four sounds and eight errors” has been used to diagnose errors in musical design, which shows that the musical design of ancient Chinese poetry has always been conscious. In my opinion, rhythmic design is not merely attributable to the pursuit of musical aesthetics, but is also part of the cohesive and coherent connection between the [syntactically] loosely-connected characters. Suppose that there were no integration of these musical patterns in “Dēng Gāo”, then there could be no necessary grammatical connections between the “bottomless skies”, “howling gibbons” and “gusting wind” of the first line. These would simply be three disparate images set side by side, which the reader could hardly combine to form a visual image. So with the remaining lines of this poem. Thus, the visible images are integrated into the poetic whole by invisible musical patterns. This also explains why I often talk of the musical pattern of a Chinese poem as “a mysterious power”.

“Dēng Gāo” is a good example of the poet drawing with sound, and its “terrible beauty”. The words xiāo xiāo at the end of the third line perfectly mimic the sound of dry leaves falling. And the following word xià, in accord with its meaning of falling, uses a falling tone, so sight, sound, and meaning are combined into a harmonious whole. Likewise, the dipping tone of gŭn gŭn, in the next line, is compatible with the sound of rolling waves: along with the rising toned lái which follows it, the words create an image of the Yangtze River coming from far away and rising up from below, and overwhelming the reader. The poet as composer: isn’t that amazing?

The Second Aesthetics of Ancient Poetry:

antithesis - multi-layered images

Under Pound’s influence, the visual images of classical Chinese poetry have become seen as its unique speciality, and this has led to a dreadful over-use of the notion in our own time. However, a close look at classical Chinese poetry will reveal the fact that the arrangement of images is not random. Within one line, images are bound by the artistic conception of the whole poem and have clear implications when they are set side by side. Between two lines, images are challenged by the antithesis peculiar to classical Chinese poetry. Like two lines of honor guards or two mirrors, antithesis requires the parallelism of words in the same position in two different lines, i.e. nouns paralleled with nouns, verbs with verbs, adjectives with adjectives, adverbs with adverbs, even colours with colours and numbers with numbers, so as to form an echo effect. This is a word game playable only by using the square characters of Chinese. The characters, sentences, couplets and the whole poem are built up into a multi-layered image structure, which forms a crystal-clear architecture in the eye and mind of the reader. In addition, the sounds and tones of each line also help to make this structure pleasing both to the eye and the ear. Hence, every image has to be able to meet the tests of eye, ear and mind. “Dēng Gāo” shows Du Fu’s incomparable skills and his mastery of antithesis. “Dēng Gāo” is not only in accordance with the rule for “seven-syllable regulated verse” that requires the parallelism of two couplets in the middle, but parallelism is also featured in the four “run-on pairs” within the eight lines. This quadruple-image pattern shows an extremely high level of human creativity and skill, even approaching the beauty of nature itself, demonstrating, in Du Fu’s own words, that “until my words amaze men, I will never die”. This is no random “natural beauty” but the result of painstaking effort by the poet.

Besides the above-mentioned “xiāo xiāo xià” and “gŭn gŭn lái”, there is another amazing antithesis in the 5th and 6th lines of this poem. Sun Zhu, the eighteenth-century editor of Three Hundred Tang Poems, added to the poem the footnote “fourteen syllables, but ten layers [of meaning]”, which puzzled me a great deal when I first read it. Not until I myself was in exile, did I understand how much sadness Du Fu put in the seven syllables of each line.

Line 5: be a stranger ---often be a stranger ---often be a stranger in autumn---often be a stranger in autumn’s grief (not golden autumn)-- often be a stranger in autumn’s grief, thousands of miles from home.

Line 6: climb high---climb high alone--- climb high alone when ill--- climb high alone when very ill--- climb high alone when very ill within such a short life. Du Fu’s loneliness was borrowed from Chen Zi’ang’s, as implied in Chen’s poem, “On Climbing Youzhou Tower” - loneliness was already written in Chen’s famous lines of a thousand years ago: “Where are the sages of the past, and the sages still to come?”

The Third Aesthetic of Classical Poetry:

Non-linear narration--- synchronic space

Since Chinese verbs have no tense, sentence patterns remain unchanged even when person, time and number change. This feature of “synchronic space” is a limitation as well as an opportunity, as it leads Chinese to give up linear narration and focus on the building of the poem’s internal space.

This can be clearly seen through a contrast between the multi-layered spiritual structure in Qu Yuan’s “On Encountering Sorrow” (Lí Sāo) in Songs of the South4, and the chronological narrative of western epics. In “Dēng Gāo”, there is not a chronological but a spatial connection between lines. The whole poem centers on the high place where the author stands, and is built into a microcosmic model:

Line 1: looking up high;
Line 2: looking down at the valley;
Line 3: hearing (autumn wind with falling leaves);
Line 4: sight (tidal waves of Yangtze River);
Line 5: space (thousands of miles away);
Line 6: time (within a hundred years);
Line 7: deep into the heart;
Line 8: back to the present.

The organisation of four pairs of antithesis into four corresponding couplets, makes us feel almost as if we are listening to four duets on the same theme.

A closer look will find both horizontal and vertical directions in the verse: the first and the last couplets are complementary, both describing the scenery while standing high; the middle two couplets further extend the theme by elaborating on hearing, sight, space and time. The vertically intensity and the horizontal extension empower the poem with huge tensile force. Finally our sight falls on the tiny winecup the poet is holding in his hand, the focal point of the vast universe. I want to point out that it is not depreciatory to regard the “synchronic space” in classical Chinese poetry as merely a rhetorical device. Its connotations are more philosophical. What is the illusion of time? How has history been fabricated over and again? Besides the deep insights of the heart, what can be called “innovation”? In the concentric circles of the text, is there an eternal rotation? One poem compromises the theory of evolution.

The Fourth Aesthetic of Classical Poetry:
Text---- the transcendental experience of poetry

This is an extension of the previous idea: the forms of classical Chinese poetry inherit the genes of Chinese characters and take the building of non-chronological texts as their ultimate goal; for instance, “Dēng Gāo” is still the slogan of every poet in exile nowadays, we must however eliminate a misconception: “ non-chronological” doesn’t mean “having no chronology”. In contrast: it includes all time. Chinese characters have been used for over three thousand years and “seven-syllable regulated verse” composed for more than a thousand years, and how many generations of poets have been born and died since then?

Classical Chinese poetry stresses the use of allusion (as I mentioned Chen Zi’ang previously) and even requires the principle “no word but has a source”. In modern terms, it is the inter-textuality that constantly adjusts and rewrites the whole system. In the transcendental space created by the text, this moment is connected to the real conditions of life by aesthetics, while both past and present reality are contained in the text. I wonder, when Ezra Pound was putting segments of different cultures and histories together on a large scale, whether he thought of trying to break with diachronic life and language in order to reach the synchronic? When “Dēng Gāo” illustrates to the fullest extent the pain of exile, does it matter if we call the author Du Fu or Yang Lian?

Part Two:

a contemporary Solution - the Personal poetic space

The more elegant the aesthetic system, the more terrible the pressure it will produce. One general misconception is that the tradition of classical Chinese poetry is like a straight line connecting ancient poetic creativity and contemporary innovation. This misconception originates from a visual illusion: this is the impression that, since through time Chinese characters remain almost unchanged visually, any person with some knowledge of Chinese has no difficulties in reading Laozi or Confucius, works written more than two thousand years ago. However, some hold that the difference between Modern Standard Chinese and classical Chinese is no less than that between Chinese and a foreign language. This seems exaggerated, but at second thoughts, it does make sense. It’s worth noting that more than forty per cent of the Chinese we use today is actually an interpolated “foreign language” - western vocabulary was first translated into Chinese characters by the Japanese, then borrowed into written Chinese. There are numerous examples, such as “democracy”, “science”, “materialism”, “idealism”, “ human rights”, “law”, “politics”, “sports”, “socialism”, “capitalism” and even “self”, “psychology”, “time”, “space”, etc, without which the modern mentality would lose its roots. Because of their belief that meaning inheres in the visually stable character, Chinese people tend to think there have been few changes from classical monosyllabic words to modern polysyllabic ones, but actually there have been dramatic changes. For example, the Chinese word rénmín is an indivisible concept in Japanese, corresponding to English the people, but to us, it corresponds to two Chinese characters: rén as the abstract name for human beings, and mín specifically referring to the citizens, as opposed to guān or officials. When to use which word might need no detailed pondering, or rely entirely on intuition. Here, monosyllabic words are emotional and connected to our tradition; polysyllabic words are conceptualised, translated, and imported. The separation of these two layers is a major cause for the weak cornerstone of much contemporary Chinese poetry. Though they borrowed characters from Chinese, Japanese people are more open-minded, viewing the combined characters as the temporary carriers of western concepts. But - how can we write poems with this second-hand foreign language that is Modern Standard Chinese? How can we acknowledge that these beautiful square characters are not even as old as American English? What’s worse, the aesthetics of classical poetry exert very little pressure on us, or no pressure at all - it’s too far away for that to reach us. We should therefore spare no effort to seek out and rebuild a real connection with the aesthetics of our classical poetry: but to invite that pressure is no easy task.

What I call the first Poetic Mini-Theory of our generation is what post-Cultural Revolution poets did by consensus: they eliminated the boring and meaningless politically-conscious high-register vocabulary from the language of poetry; but to describe the nightmare of reality, the disaster of rebirth and the destruction of the inner self, we went back to images such as the sun, the moon, water, earth, darkness and the sea. What was called “Misty Poetry”5 was a simple return to favoring a pure and classical Chinese. What was different was that it sounded strange to politically-conscious ears. This also brings a way of thinking: energy comes from hardship; nightmares can also inspire us. What’s exciting about contemporary classical Chinese poetry lies in the deeply-buried dilemma of Chinese culture: the transformation of modern society means neither merely going back to the ancient classics nor purely plagiarizing the west. On the contrary, we must root ourselves in the individual, to break out of East-West divisions, and integrate all our intellectual resources. In a word, the ultimate principle of poetry is this: to express one’s own feelings in one’s own words. “One’s own words” must contain the aesthetic power of Chinese characters, while “one’s own feeling” must relate to the in-depth thinking of all humanity. Thus, “Chinese” and “contemporary” are inseparable. The depth of the thinking relies on the innovation in expression. Given this huge question mark about what is “Chinese”, every contemporary Chinese poem is in fact an extremely experimental poem, regardless whether you are conscious of it or not.

Our solution started with building a creative connection between contemporary and classical poetic aesthetics. Consanguinity is not inherited from the ancestors but created after birth, and Ezra Pound is still inspiring us: the individual is the energy which rediscovers language and tradition. Maybe it’s fate that, due to the historical vicious circle brought by the cultural revolution, my writing had to start from “the pain of timelessness” - the tenselessness of the Chinese verb - which is much worse than “the pain of time”. Such a tenselessness was only very awkwardly established in my life. My early works Banpo and Dunhuang do not deal with historical materials, but contain non-historical themes - anti-historical, even. The long poem Yi, which I wrote in the five years before leaving China, also tries to eliminate time by establishing multi-layered textual spaces: by combining the ancient Book of Changes and contemporary writing, by adopting the spontaneous rhythms and musical patterns of Chinese characters, and by building connections between images and structure (not creating single, isolated images), by creating a final work “in symmetry with death”, I allowed the roots of poetry to suffuse me, and relate me to the general experience of mankind. The massacre in Tian’anmen square in 1989 led me to write “1989”, whose last line “this is no doubt a perfectly ordinary year” appalled all my friends.

However, as opposed to many memories of death and an emptiness worse than death, isn’t this timelessness actually the only truth? The works I finished during exile - such as Where the Sea Stands Still, Concentric Circles, Notes of a Blissful Ghost, Lee River Poems and even the collection of erotic poetry Dark Blue Poems - are more of a series of projects than poem collections, each adding more and deeper layers to the space of Yang Lian’s poetry. The only thing they amplify is the weight of my thought.

Contemporary Chinese poetry must lie in the interaction between in-depth thinking and creative forms. With “The Tao (way) that can be spoken is not the unchanging Tao”, Laozi long ago made these breakthroughs: to surpass language within the limits of language; to penetrate to the self through constant self-reflection; to remain in the now until the acceptance of the idea that “the now is farthest away”. Poems never simplify themselves: images full of darkness and pain shine out because of their creativity; words that inherit nothing from classical poetic forms are beautiful because of their man-made music and tones. The synchronic/spatial feature of Chinese characters develops into a unique structural element of every work, forming expressions more profound and complete than a single image or line. The ambiguity of Chinese, the vagueness of Chinese grammar, the basic nature of Chinese being “abstract as soon as written”, the use of classical stories and the inter-textuality of classical poetry, and the ludic element in the evolution of the forms of classical Chinese poetry: these can now be transformed into the concepts behind my work, to lay the groundwork for the artistic installation of the text. When I say “there is no pure poetry, but we have to take every poem as pure as we write it”, I mean we must deal with our thoughts in a “formalistic” way. We must guard against the cheap and commercialised propaganda of “politics” and try to surpass it, as we must surpass every “subject” in a philosophical and aesthetic (i.e. literary) way. Form is never enough, even if it is necessary. The more extreme the original work is, the bigger the challenge it poses, the more valuable the conversation it will create between poems all over the world. “Spatial aesthetics” is my own writing tactic; it penetrates and transforms all my different work, causing the work to blossom into multi-layered “concentric circles”.

The difficulty of contemporary Chinese poetry lies not only in the challenges posed by our classical tradition and western tradition, but also in our own works, which build themselves on a fractured slope. I once described this terrible situation as “a tower built from the top down”: a tower of poems, just like a banyan-tree, has to send its tendrils downwards to seek earth and seek the ground. But can we really find the ground? Can what we find be, not only exotic local specialties in the supermarket, but also an organic part of humanity’s contemporary thinking?

In other words, can the ancient Chinese characters and the classical language inspire the contemporary world? That is to say, do we still have the power to ask ourselves the Heavenly Questions?6 In some sense, I’m very pessimistic about it. But I still believe in “starting from the impossible”: the more “impossible” it is, the more powerful the “start” will be. Isn’t every poem reincarnated as each line finishes?

returning to Du Fu - his work has been honoured as “poetic history”: neither history written in verse, nor a western epic, but history enclosed in poetry. The eight short lines of “Dēng Gāo” is a space big enough for a thousand years of reincarnation. He is marvellous - but what about us?

London, June 28th 2008