The Art of Writing


It is like being adrift in a heavenly lake or diving to the depths of seas.

The Art of Writing
In his “The Art of Writing” [Wen fu]”, Lu Chi (261-303 CE) created a an essay in rhyming prose about poetry. It deals with the personal imagination and its activity in the process of composition, treating literature as a calling, as a craft, and as a means to truth. In it, Lu Chi provides an unusual insight into how a professional writer goes about the creative task and gives an account of the intricacies of composition.

In the preface Lu Chi writes:

I am therefore writing this essay on literature to tell of the glorious accomplishments of past men of letters, and to comment on the causes of failure and success in writing. Perhaps some day the secret of this most intricate art may be entirely mastered. In making an axe handle by cutting wood with an axe, the model is indeed near at hand. But the adaptability of the hand to the ever-changing circumstances and impulses in the process of literary creation is such as words can hardly explain. What follows is only what can be said in words.


When studying the work of the masters,
I watch the working of their minds.

Surely, facility with language
and the charging of the word with energy

are effects which can be achieved
by various means.

Still, the beautiful can be distinguished
from the common,
the good from the mediocre.

Only through writing and then revising
and revising
may one gain the necessary insight.

We worry whether our ideas
may fall short of their subjects,
whether form and content rhyme.

This may be easy to know,
but it is difficult
to put into practice.

I have composed this rhymed prose
on the art of Writing
to introduce

past masterpieces
as models for an examination
of the good and the bad in writing.
Perhaps it will one day be said
that I have written
something of substance,

something useful,
that I have entered
the Mystery.

When cutting an axe handle with an axe,
surely the model is at hand.

Each writer finds a new entrance
into the Mystery,
and it is difficult to explain.

Nonetheless, I have set down my thinking
as clearly as I can.

Sam Hamill



Eyes closed, we listen to inner music,
lost in thought and question:

Our spirits ride
to the eight corners of the universe,
mind soaring a thousand miles away

only then may the inner voice
grow clear
as objects become numinous.

We pour forth
the essence of words,
savoring their sweetness.

It is like being adrift
in a heavenly lake
or diving to the depths of seas.

We bring up living words
like fishes hooked in their gills
leaping from the deep.

Luminous words are brought down
like birds on an arrow string
shot from passing clouds.

We gather words and images
from those unused
by previous generations.

Our melodies
have remained unplayed
for a thousand years.

The morning blossoms bloom;
soon, night buds will unfold.

Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!

Sam Hamill


The Masterpiece

I take the rules of grammar
and guides to good language

and clutch them
to heart-and-mind.

Know what is
and what is not
merely fashion;

learn what old masters
praised highly,

although the wisdom of a subtle mind
is often scoffed at
by the public.

The brilliant semi-precious stones
of popular fashion
are as common as beans in the field

Though the writers
of my generation
produce in profusion,

all their real jewels
cannot fill the little cup
I make of my fingers.

As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven;

it comes from nothing,
like air through a bellows.

We carry the bucket from the well,
but the bucket soon is empty.

Wanting every word to sing,
every writer worries:

nothing is ever perfected;
no poet can afford to become complacent

We hear a jade bell’s laughter
and think it laughs at us.

For a poet, there is terror in the dust.

Sam Hamill


Of inspiration

Such moments when mind and matter hold perfect communion,
And wide vistas open to regions hitherto entirely barred,
Will come with irresistible force,
And go, their departure none can hinder.
Hiding, they vanish like a flash of light;
Manifest, they are like sounds arising in mid-air.

So acute is the mind in such instants of divine comprehension,
What chaos is there that it cannot marshal in miraculous order?
While winged thoughts, like quick breezes, soar from depths of the heart,
Eloquent words, like a gushing spring, flow between lips and teeth.
No flower, or plant, or animal is too prodigal of splendor
To be recreated under the writer’s brush,
Hence the most wondrous spectacle that over whelmed the eye,
And notes of the loftiest music that rejoiced the ear.

But there are other moments as though the six senses were stranded,
When the heart seems lost, and the spirit stagnant.
One stays motionless like a petrified log,
Dried up like an exhausted river bed.
The soul is indrawn to search the hidden labyrinth;
Within oneself is sought where inner light may be stored.
Behind a trembling veil truth seems to shimmer, yet ever more evasive,
And thought twists and twirls like silk spun on a clogged wheel.
Therefore, all one’s vital force may be dispersed in rueful failure;
Yet again, a free play of impulses may achieve a feat without pitfall.
While the secret may be held within oneself,
It is none the less beyond one’s power to sway.
Often I lay my hand on my empty chest,
Despairing to know how the barrier could be removed.

Shih-hsiang Chen


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.