Po Chu-i

According to legend, Po Chu-i used to read his poems to an old peasant woman and change any line that she couldn’t understand.

Po-Chu-i – David Hinton
The Book of Songs is the ancient source from which the Chinese poetic tradition flows, and thoughts never twisty may very well describe the essence of the entire tradition… for it is a tradition that consistently valued clarity and depth of wisdom, not mere complexity and virtuosity. In this, Po Chu-i is the quintessential Chinese poet, for although it deeply informs the work of all the major ancient poets, Po makes that sage clarity itself his particular vision.

Rather than Wang Wei’s strategy of losing the self among the ten thousand things, this poetics opens me poem open the poem to the various movements of self, and Po Chu-i was a master of its subtle ways. In a culture that made no fundamental distinction between heart’ and mind, he inhabited everyday experience at the level where a simple heart is a full heart and a simple mind is an empty mind, endowing thoughts never twisty with new depths. Such is his gentle power: the sense in his poems of dwelling at the very center of one’s life, combining the intimacies of a full heart and the distances of an empty mind.

He inhabited everyday experience at the level where a simple heart is a full heart and a simple mind is an empty mind, endowing thoughts never twisty with new depths. Such is his gentle power: the sense in his poems of dwelling at the very center of one’s life, combining the intimacies of a full heart and the distances of an empty mind. [David Hinton]

Po Chu-i – Burton Watson
What is Po Chu-i most famous for? Simplicity of language, for one thing, especially in comparison with the others in the triad. For the large number of his works that have been preserved—far more than those of any of his contemporaries. And for an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particularly in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.

In the end, however, it is the simple, low-keyed works depicting his daily moods and activities, often almost prosy in expression, for which he is best remembered. These are the poems that exercised the greatest influence on the poets of succeeding centuries, In addition, Po, like so many Chinese poets of the classical tradition, employed poetry as writers of other cultures have used the diary or autobiography forms: as a medium in which to record daily activities, contacts with close friends and relatives, scenes along a journey, or quiet musings on the meaning and goal of life.

Po seems to have turned to poetry especially in times of stress and sorrow, to vent his emotions and to some degree sublimate them. And finally, the writing of poetry was for him a source of deep personal delight and satisfaction, constituting, along with wine and music, one of the chief joys of his daily existence. Through his poems of everyday life, with their wealth of detail on his house, his garden, the foods he ate, his pet cranes, and his prize rocks, he greatly enriched the themes and scope of Chinese poetry. He even
scholars have often found his works somewhat too bland for their tastes, lacking the kind of challenge posed, for example, by the knotty and allusive style of much of Tu Fu’s poetry.

Lest one suppose that Po’s simplicity of language was easily achieved—that the poems were merely dashed off, as they some-times seem on first reading—one should note that Sung scholars who had seen Po’s drafts reported that they were heavily revised. The artless effect he achieved was in fact the product of highly controlled art.

Autumn Rain, A Night of Sleep

It’s a late autumn night, cold and quiet.
A lone old man at ease here in idleness,

I lie down late, after the lamp goes dark,
sleep deep and rich amid sounds of rain.

Ashes burn all night under the winejar,
and incense keeps the quilt-rack warm.

Day dawns cold and clear, but I stay put.
Frosty leaves crowd the steps with red.

David Hinton

Written While on Night Duty at the Palace, to Send to Yuan Ninth

Ten thousand threads of thought, two sheets written:
before sealing them, I read them over, wonder if they’ll do.
The palace water clock has just sounded the fifth watch,
the lamp in the window, my one light, about to go out.

Burton Watson


Autumn’s Cold

here’s my snowy crown
time’s tinted decrepitude
there’s the frost in the courtyard
autumn’s glittery breath
now I’m sick and just watching my wife
pick cure-alls
then I’m frozen waiting for the maid
to comb my hair
without the body
what use fame?
worldly things
I’ve put aside
tranquilly
I delve my heart
determined now
to learn from Empty Boats!

James Cryer

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.