The Chinese Poem: The Visible and the Invisible in Chinese Poetry

Michelle Yeh [tooltip content= “Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, Michelle Yeh and N.G.D. Malmqvist (eds) (Columbia University Press, 2001)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] In his 1928 introduction to Pound’s SelectedPoems, TS. Eliot lauded Pound as the “inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,” but continued: “This is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound. It is not to say that there is a  Chinese poetry-in-itself waiting for some ideal translator who shall be only translator.” Eliot clearly recognized the creative transformation involved in translating poetry from one language to another; hence his distinction between Pound’s translation and “Chinese poetry-in-itself.”Although it is well known that Pound’s translation is a particularly free, often ingenious rendition of the Chinese-fully justified in view of his Imagist project-what neither he nor Eliot could have foreseen was how powerful and lasting this translation would be in shaping poets’ and translators’ perceptions of Chinese poetry. In recent decades translators of Chinese poetry have given us many wonderful translations that are far more faithful to the originals than Pound’s; interestingly, however, the “Chinese poetry-in-itself” that they strive for remains informed by aesthetic and cultural assumptions that underscore the earlier modernist model. ln “The Poem behind the Poem,” Tony Barnstone expands on the work of a long line of poet-translators-from Pound to Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and, most notably Wai-lim Yip-in describing the Chinese poem as “imagistic,” consisting of “largely pictographic characters,” and presenting a moment of “empty, pure perception.” If for Pound the metaphoric basis of Chinese characters was central to his translation of Chinese poetry, Snyder, Yip, and Barnstone tend to emphasize the nonfigurative quality of Chinese poetic imagery and further link it to a state of mind that resonates with a Daoist or Zen Buddhist sensibility.Despite some modifications, Pound’s formulation of Chinese poetry as “ideogrammic” underlies what Robert Kern calls “the standard conventions for the representation of Chinese poetry in English.” Borrowing from Eliot, may we not say that “the Chinese poem” in the English-speaking world is a Western invention?By referring to the Chinese poem described above as an “invention,”

…the act of choosing certain poems for translation always presupposes what a Chinese poem is in the mind of the translator

I am not denying that those qualities exist in Chinese poetry. I am suggesting, however, that the act of choosing certain poems for translation always presupposes what a Chinese poem is in the mind of the translator, which further influences the way the poems are translated. What does not get translated is at least as revealing as what does. It is therefore meaningful to look at the Anglo-American modernist paradigm of the Chinese poem in terms of what it accentuates as well as downplays, what it gives a value to and at the same time excludes.The quintessential Chinese poem is, as suggested by many American poet-translators, imagistic. Pound points out in “How to Read, and Why” (1929) that visual image-phanopoeia-is the most translatable part of poetic language. It is natural, then, that visual imagery receives the most attention in translation. But the tendency to see the Chinese poem as a concatenation of concrete visual images with few discursive elements is inseparable from the conception that the Chinese language is “largely pictographic” or ideographic. Such a view, with a long history that goes back to Catholic missionaries in the sixteenth century, is based on the notion that Chinese written symbols are visual embodiments of particular things in nature rather than artificial signs of phonetic import. Despite efforts by sinologists-for example, Peter Boodberg, Yuen Ren Chao, and John DeFrancis-and others to dispel the myth, it remains strong to this date, and it is but a short step from seeing the Chinese language as pictographic to seeing Chinese poetry as an unmediated expression of the concrete world of experience.

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.