Chinese Poetry and the American Imagination

Kenneth Rexroth [tooltip content= “Transcript form 1977 conference reprinted in The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, Eliot Weinberger (ed.)(New Directions, 2004)”] [source][/tooltip] [STATEMENTS FROM A SYMPOSIUM, APRIL 1977] [green_message]

Chinese poetry began to influence writers in English with the translations into French of Henrey St. Denis and others in the mid-19th century who translated Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang into French free verse. If American and English poets did not read French, the translations of Herbert Giles and other Sinologists like him were practically worthless, because of the doggerel verse in which they were rendered. Probably the most influential was Judith Gautier’s Le livre de Jade, which was translated by E. Powys Mathers in Colored Stars and A Garden of Bright Waters. Neither Gautier nor Mathers read Chinese and, in fact, her informant was a Thai who didn’t read Chinese either. Nevertheless, these prose poems (which first appeared in Stuart Merrill’s Pastels in Prose) came across as deeply moving poetry in English.

Approximately contemporarily appeared the first translations by Arthur Waley and, not long after, Ezra Pound’s Cat/my. Pound and Waley taught the West a kind of irregular iambic pentameter or free verse, in both cases as dependent on quantitative rhythms as on accentual. Chinese poetry, in fact, bears no resemblance to this kind of verse. It is rhymed with considerable emphasis, usually, on the rhymed words, and at first was in four monosyllable lines, or five, or seven, and in addition the tones which distinguished the meanings of homonymous Chinese monosyllables came to follow regular patterns. Later in the T’ang, and reaching its flower in the Sung Dynasty, poems were patterned on the irregular lines of songs, as well as being written in the five or seven syllable classic patterns.

Learned and industrious people have tried to reproduce in English the original rhythms, but have managed to produce only absurdities. So Chinese poetry has come to influence the West asa special form of Chinese verse-which annoys some more pedantic Sinologists of Chinese ancestry. It is a special kind of free verse and its appearance happened to converge with the movement toward Objectivism, Imagism, and even the Cubist poetry of Gertrude Stein and Pierre Reverdy-“no ideas but in things,” as Williams says rather naively.

There is almost no rhetorical verse of the kind we find in Augustan Latin and later in Renaissance poetry throughout Europe, nor is there the luxuriously foliate poetry of India (with the possible exception of the Li Sao). There are no true poetic epics in Chinese poetry. The heroic epic of China is an historical novel, The Romance of Three Kingdoms. And, until recent years, the verse of Chinese drama was considered beneath serious literary consideration, although, for instance, “The Flower Burying Song” from the play taken from The Dream of the Red Chamber is quite impressive poetry. There are verse treatises in Chinese comparable to Virgil’s Georgics or Horace’s Art of Poetry, but even they follow the tendency toward direct presentation of concrete images. Most Chinese poetry, whether elegiac or love poetry, situates the reader in a definite mise-en-scene. “The driving wind and rain tear the banana leaves”-we are in the South, “The swallows huddle in their nest under the gilded rafters”-a palace. “I am too weary to pick up my jade inlaid lute”-probably a concubine. “Soon the wild geese will be returning from the North, but they will bring me no message”-he is away fighting the Northern Barbarians. This can become a facile formula, especially when, in the later dynasties, the lines were arranged in strictly parallel couplets, but it is certainly a way to produce effective-affective-poetry, if you are a poet. In fact, it differs little from the poetry envisaged by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the preface to Lyrical Ballad: and often realized in their best poems. But so is it also of Horace’s “Under Soracte” or the best poems of Hafiz or the rare poignant imagistic moments in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Chinese poetry entered the American and, to a much, lesser degree, English poetic consciousness at exactly the right moment to purge the rhetoric and moralizing of l9th century Romantic poetry and the even more moralistic, preachy poetry of the ’90s. Much of the poetry of Ernest Dowson is little sermons of disappointed Epicureanism.

Japanese poetry, which after all is an extremely compressed expression of Chinese aesthetics, became popular among American poets at about the same time and through the same people-Pound, Waley, and Mathers. Today, for a very large sector of American poets, the poetry of the Far East is more influential than l9th and 20th century French poetry, which has dominated the international idiom for so long, and certainly incomparably more influential than American or English poetry of the 19th century. The only rival is the slowly_ dying influence of “metaphysical” verse of the English Renaissance. It would be possible to name over a hundred American poets deeply influenced by the poetry of the Far East and some who have difficulty in thinking about poetry in any other idiom than Chinese or japanese. Now, of course, there are a number of poets, by no means uninfluential, who read Chinese and Japanese and who are philosophically Buddhist or Taoist or both.

Kenneth Rexroth, transcript of 1977 talk
The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry
Eliot Weinberger (ed.),
(New Directions, 2004)


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.