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)