The Idea of the Chinese Poet

Gary Snyder [tooltip content= “The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, Eliot Weinberger (ed.)(New Directions, 2004)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]The fact is that although first and foremost the translations of Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, a little later Witter Bynner, have had a distinctive impact on people’s thinking and people’s poetics, there was another thing that has been very important, running parallel to that right through, and that has been the idea of the Chinese poet, the image that the Chinese poet as a poet, as role-model, presented to us.

iIt is in just that humaneness, that delicate-I’m almost tempted to use the word sweet-appreciation of the details of human life, families, the frustrations of employment with the government, and the frustrations of being a hermit, that we perhaps respond to most deeply in Chinese poetry.

In a simple way, I think, our first Anglo-American received view of the Chinese poets was that they were civil servants. And in a simplified way, there is some truth in this. There were extremes as great perhaps as Han Yu on the one side as a rigorous, benevolent, socially-minded poet, Confucianist all his life; and at the other end, perhaps a poet like Han Shan, who speaks entirely from the hermits habitat. Yet in actual fact, these two kinds of poetry, which I am artificially separating for the moment, were generally produced by the same people. Now to add to the complexity, we have no real models in Occidental poetry of poets who either were staunch, quiet, solid civil servants involved in responsible positions in society for a whole lifetime as a regular type of poet, nor do we have on the other hand a real tradition of hermit’s poetry in the Occident. So it’s all the more interesting to see that these two types of roles of poetry were both in China coming from the same individuals, often at different stages within one lifetime, or in some cases, it was just a matter of literally changing hats_Confucian hat to Taoist hat while on a trip to the country.

I first responded, in 1949, living in Oregon, to my contact with Chinese poetry on the level of nature; that was what I was interested in. As a student of anthropology beginning to read on Far Eastern matters but really focusing on American Indian studies, I was deeply concerned with the almost abstract questions of philosophy of nature and problems involved when high civilizations impact on nature and impact on natural peoples. As a mountaineer and backpacker, when I read Chinese poetry, I was struck in some of the translations by qualities hard to describe . . . clarity, limpidity, space, and at the same time, a fine, specialized and precise attention and observation of natural detail-natural detail existing and functioning within a very large, 10,000 li, moonlit territory. That was my first interest in it.

Later, of course, reading more widely, and still only in translations, I realized that the extent was quite a bit broader, that it went from the Shi Ching (known variously as The Book of Odes, The Book of Songs, and The Confucian Odes) to, say, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shi Ching to Mao Tse-tung, and that it included a vast range of possibilities of content. I also see now how different American poets came to Chinese poetry and received different things, As I looked initially only to the hermit poet/nture poet for inspiration and for a while took that to be what Chinese poetry really was, so a man whose work I valued highly as a teacher in poetic technology, namely Ezra Pound, found in Chinese poetry something else entirely. Pound was delighted with the possibility of poets having political power in a strong bureaucracy. Those perhaps are the two extremes-myself or someone like myself, and Pound or someone like Pound-in their reactions to the role possibilities implied in Chinese poetry.

Then we begin to notice something else there, lurking slightly below the surface, slightly further back in time-we see a glimmering in Li Ho, it’s there very clearly in the Ch’-u T’zu (The Songs of the South), and we can discern it in certain features in the Shih Ching–and that is the poet as shaman. The shaman-poet role has been explicated for us by Edward Schafer’s recent work, The Divine Woman, that brings out a whole range of images and symbols and underlying energies that are in that poetry, that you might not see there at first glance.

And yet, to go one more step, finally, for myself, what I go back to Chinese poetry for is its humaneness. I’m going to go back for a second to the introduction to the Shih Ching (compiled circa 600 B.C.), the original classic collection/anthology. “Poetry is to regulate the married couple, establish the principle of filial piety, intensify human relationships, elevate civilization, and improve public morals.” That’s Confucius’ estimate, or somebody like Confucius, of what poetry should do; and it must have had great influence because that man was highly respected in later centuries. Thinking this onethrough again, I thought: well, there’s a lot of truth in what he says, and actually poetry in a healthy, stable society (in which poets are not forced willy-nilly to all be alienated revolutionaries) does influence the behavior of lovers, and it does make one think of one’s parents, and put importance on friendship, and give meaning to history and culture, and improve public manners. So then I thought, yes, poetry should do that. Actually, in a visionary way, what we want poetry to do is guide lovers toward ecstasy, give witness to the dignity of old people, intensify human bonds, elevate the community, and improve_ public spirit. And so, it is in just that humaneness, that delicate-I’m almost tempted to use the word sweet-appreciation of the details of human life, families, the frustrations of employment with the government, and the frustrations of being a hermit, that we perhaps respond to most deeply in Chinese poetry, having a poetry ourselves which is so different in a way, so mythological, so political and so elevated, that it can’t deal with ordinary human affairs often.

Gary Snyder
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.