Rat! Do You Suppose the Mountain Knows? Two Favorite Poems

When I thought three or four months ago about my own first contribution to this magazine I figured it would be very very easy. I’d just pick a couple of my favorite translations and tell in a  brief passage why it was that I enjoyed the poem,  what it was about the original or the process of translating it, that made each one a favorite. And easy, sort of, it has been: at least these two of Yuan Mei’s (1716-1798) many truly delightful quatrains, do, after a week of writing and re-writing and one night of restless sleep, seem to me to do the job…and so, as co-editor, I accept them.

I have admitted often to being not much of a lover of “literary criticism”, so it may seem strange that I’m starting with a poem titled “Talking Art”…it is, as it sounds, an argument about literary “theory”. Here Yuan was attempting to graft a contemporary theory of painting to the uses of the poet. So far as I understand it, I think Yuan Mei’s a winner, but for me that’s not the most interesting thing in the poem.

But here’s the poem itself:

Talking Art

In painting it’s catching the “spirit” and “essence”.
In poems that’s “nature” and “feelings.”
An elegant dragon, with its life’s breath gone?
Better a rat, with some scurry left in him.

A rat!
Yuan Mei is setting out here the “critical position” from which he writes all his poems. I won’t, go into the intricacies of the critical positions, much less the arguments. I’m not sure I could any more (I moved on from ten years or so on Yuan Mei to other projects back in the middle of the nineties), but I can give you enough background to allow you to understand the poem, if you don’t feel like your intuition will serve you here:  in the Mid-Ch’ing/Qing  there were only two places to write from. Most poets (one large group with two large subgroups) wrote only using the language of one of the two great periods of Chinese poetry. One subset wrote imitating the language of the High T’ang, of Wang Wei, of Tu Fu, of Li Po (Bai) and the like. The second batch of writers, wrote still imitating, but now imitating the Sung Dynasty poets. Su Shih (shi) or Su Tung-p’o (Dong-po) would be the best known of those in the West. Both groups tried to write not just on themes and from the philosophical and political viewpoints of their Masters  They went so far as even to attempt to construct their poems of the same words as those masters, almost as what we’d call  pastiches of their idols’ works. There were several books including the huge compendium of phrases from poets of earlier Dynasties called the P’ei-wen Yun-fu that were in general use for this purpose. Poets who wanted to could do patchwork quilts using them, on almost any topic. Those two groups, imitators of T’ang and imitators of Sung, made up one of the two positions.

The other group, Yuan Mei and a small group of friends, tried to write in new, fresh language, sometimes with real daring (for classical poets) letting the living language of their own period slip in, as only a few of the T’ang and Sung masters (and the great monk poet Kuan Hsiu (Guan Xiu) who lived between the two dynasties) dared to do. Yuan Mei’s set also refused to let their range of “appropriate topics” be restricted in any way.

But what sets this poem apart for me, as you might have deduced I think, is the “rats”. I’ve had some fairly violent responses to this translation, which appeared in my late ’90s book, I Don’t Bow to Buddhas. There was actually one gentleman who wrote me questioning the poet’s taste in using a rat in a poem. Reincarnation of one of the people Yuan Mei wrote the poem for…wow! They’re still here, I guess. But most of the response was positive, maybe in spite of the rat, and more likely because of it. Readers seemed to know, without a note, what the rat was doing there. We all mostly hate rats, and there is as long, or longer, a history of the same feeling of argh in China as in New York or Charleston about those big ‘ol wharf rats “bigger ‘n a dawg”. In the Classic of Poetry (made up entirely of poems pre 500 BCE) there is even a poem titled “Big Rat” (where the rat is a figure for the King’s tax collectors.) Personally I live with a women who loves even snakes and spiders, and I’ve gotten to the point of enjoying my fairly small North Carolina cotton rats, but I truly do not care much for Norway rats (the big ones). I dislike rats enough to get a great kick out of Yuan’s daring. He knew people would react with shock, first, at his poem’s final word, but he also knew that among people who knew about the competing schools of poetry it must sound a tocsin. “Your poetry is dead. Mine, whatever anyone may say about it, is alive.”  Yuan Mei didn’t dwell on shocking topics. Most of his things are light, and wise…the rat was only to be dropped on his critics. What a laugh his friends must have had.  Maybe a note on the issue of literary critical positions would help the reader understand a little of what was going on in the culture outside the poem…but honestly I think the rat is all we need. Intuition will do the rest. At issue is liveliness versus deadliness.  But that issue, the role of notes, the extent to which the translator can trust the poem, and the reader’s wits, is something we can get into “interactively” at some point in our regular roll your own translation department, WORDs, as we go along.