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

[green_message] The other limitation of “the Chinese poem,” as I see it, is that it is based on classical Chinese poetry and hardly applies to modern Chinese poetry, which emerged after 1910. Modern Chinese poetry seems like an alien species compared to classical Chinese poetry because of profound differences in language (the modern vernacular versus classical Chinese) and form (complete formal freedom versus prescribed traditional forms). It is no wonder, then, that when the classical poem is held up as the paragon of Chinese poetry, modern poetry appears wanting.

It is ironic, the claim that classical Chinese poetry is superior to its modern counterpart because the former has exerted such influence on modern American poetry Such an argument is curiously circular. Rather than recognizing the modernist-postmodern American model of the Chinese poem as a highly select and creative appropriation of classical Chinese poetry, the critics accept it as definitive and measure modern Chinese poetry against it. The inevitable result is that modern Chinese poetry is described in terms of loss, lack, or deficienc

In contrast to “the Chinese poem,” modern Chinese poetry often seems expansive, discursive, even prosaic. The modern vernacular allows infinitely more syntactical variations, which in turn engender new semantic and stylistic nuances; and the freedom from traditional forms allows poets to set aside the parallelism central to classical Chinese poetry A modern poem may be elliptical and compact, or it may be discursive and long-winded.

For the purpose of contrast, I’d like to look at a modern prose poem written by Shang Qin. Prose poetry is a notable accomplishment in twentieth-century Chinese poetry. Lu Xun, better known for his fiction from the 1910S and 1920s, wrote the first volume of prose poetry in Chinese: Wild Grass, published in 1926. He was an early influence on Shang Qin, a native of Sichuan who was coerced into the nationalist army at the age of four-teen and moved to Taiwan in 1949. Qin has been writing poetry since the 19505 and is best known for his prose poetry Here is my translation of “The Cat That Passes Through the Wall,” which he wrote in 1987:

Ever since she left, this cat has been coming in and
out of my place as she pleases; doors, windows, even
walls can’t stop her.

When she was with me, our life made the sparrows
outside the iron gate and iron-barred windows envious.
She took care of me in every way, including bringing me the
crescent moon with her hands on nights when there was a power outage,
and emitting cool air by standing next to me on humid summer
nights.

I made the mistake of discussing happiness with her.
That clay, contrary to my usual reticence, I said:
“Happiness is the half that people don’t have.” The
next morning, she left without saying goodbye.
She’s not the kind of woman who would write a
note with lipstick on the vanity mirror. She didn’t
use a pen either. All she did was inscribe these words
on the wallpaper with her long sharp fingernails:
“From now on, I will be your happiness, and you
mine.”

Ever since this cat started coming in and out of my
place as she pleases, I have never really seen her, for
she always comes at midnight, leaves at daybreak.

The contrast between this prose poem and the Anglo-Arnerican model of the Chinese poem cannot be sharper. Contrary to the minimalist lyric, this poem is a first-person narrative, a running monologue. Contrary to a concatenation of clean, sharp images, this poem has prepositions, articles, participles, adverbs, and adverbial phrases, which lengthen the sentences considerably Contrary to a quiet meditation on nature, this poem depicts a human drama in an urban setting separated from nature by an iron gate and iron-barred windows, common sights in crime-infested big cities.
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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.