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Laurance Wieder


Poetry from the end of a great dynasty.

Li Shangyin, First Month at Chongrang House
Locked up tight, barred gate on gate,
cased in green moss,
hallways deep within, tower remote,
here I pace back and forth.
I know beforehand the wind will rise,
a halo around the moon;
and still the dew is too cold,
the flowers have not yet bloomed.

A bat brushes the curtain sash,
I end up tossing and turning,
a mouse overturns the window screen,
somewhat startled, wondering.
I snuff the lamp and all alone
talk with the lingering scent,
still singing unaware
"Rise and Come by Night."

Stephen Owen has written a monumental series of studies devoted to the poetry of China's Tang Dynasty (ad 618-907, with an interregnum between 690 and 705): The Poetry of the Early Tang; The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang; The End of the Chinese "Middle Ages": Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture; and now The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). In these books Owen surveys for English speakers a period widely regarded as the greatest in Chinese literature. In addition to several other freestanding books, worthy of note in their own right, Owen has another other major work, An Anthology of

Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. In just under 2,000 amply annotated pages, he makes a kind of epic, in translation, of the entire Chinese poetic canon.

His books are not prose settings for Chinese poems in English that speak for themselves, the way Ezra Pound's "translation" of Rihaku's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," stands on it own. Instead, they are prose explorations of poetics, of the ways poetry is made, and read, in a

far-off time and place. A highly specialized inquiry? Yes, yet Owen's scholarship resonates nonetheless. When he talks about the difference between contemporary reputation and canonic stature, about the tendency of poetry to either tie itself too closely to the immediate or to cut itself off from extra-literary concerns, to aim high or pitch low, he could as easily be talking about present-day tensions between rhetoric and common sense, technique and truth, tradition and inspiration, art and earnest.

Until the sea change of the Tang, Chinese poetry was measured by and read in light of the Confucian Book of Songs. The "Great Preface," which every aspirant to Imperial service would have had by heart, states that "the sounds of an age of order are peaceful and happy—its government is in harmony." By contrast, "the sounds of a world in disorder are bitter and full of rancor—its government is perverse." Therefore, as a practical matter, "to understand how things have succeeded and how they have failed, to move Heaven and Earth, and to stir supernatural beings, there is nothing more appropriate than poetry."

The Late Tang closely considers the styles, genres, and literary schools that developed as the Great Age of Chinese Poetry ripened into the matured, self-conscious art of the middle 9th century. Five poets—Li He, Du Mu, Cao Tang, Li Shangyin, and Wen Tingyun—dominate Owen's account, with Li Shangyin receiving the dragon's share of ink. In poems and prose, these poets reflected upon their inherited tradition, and upon each other.

The Annals of the Grand Historian of China writes history two ways. In one, narratives recount the fates of nations and dynasties through the words and actions of individuals; imagine Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus combined. A Plutarchan second cycle consists of famous lives, sometimes of large figures in the narrative, sometimes of minor players in affairs, but important in other ways. Famous is not the same as good. Also, the Grand Historian, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, makes a chapter of his own unfortunate career.

Owen notes that how a poem is read depends in part on whose name is attached to it. As Chinese poetry evolved away from the anonymous Book of Songs and came to describe more and more the world of the poet, a poet's biography became more than part of his material. The life story also colored how a poem was read. This prose setting, for individual poems as well for lives, offers access to the living part of the poetry in translation, whether or not one can hear an actual voice. For readers with no Chinese, like myself, the stories are the equivalent of oral tradition.

This may be why, as spirited English, prose Chinese succeeds where verse for the most part doesn't. Ezra Pound probably wrote such beautiful "Chinese" poems because he was convinced that the ideographs were pictures of things, which he could interpret by looking. Yet his "Canto XIII" ("Kung walked / by the dynastic temple / and into the cedar grove"), which collages Confucian Classics dialogue with scenes from an Idaho boyhood, is very close to measured prose, like passages in Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode." The balanced language of Pound's "Chinese" Cantos suggests that there once lived people who knew more than we do and were better than we are (a Chinese of the imagination). Standing tradition on its head, Pound's English implies a literature, a history, an ethic of other possibilities, out there in the white spaces beyond the margins.

Paradoxically, the past century of scholarship devoted to opening Chinese, while often engaging and clear from moment to moment, adds up to a larger confusion. In every sense, China is just so big. It doesn't help that, over the past 40 years, the transcription conventions have changed. Ssu-ma Ch'ien is now Sima Qian. Of the High Tang poets, Li Po (Pound's Rihaku) became Li Bo, then Li Bai; Tu Fu (China's Greatest Poet) now is Du Fu; Po Chü-I passed through Bo Chü-yi to Bai Juyi; only Wang Wei has remained Wang Wei.

This shapeshifting is but one instance of what Owen calls "Chineseness," a firm reminder that even the most serious and respectful English Orientalism lies close to the border of inscrutability, take-out menus, and Surrealist exquisite cadavers. In The Great Age of Chinese Poetry, Tai Shu-lun offers some High Tang literary advice: "The scene a poet creates is as when the sun is warm on Indigo Fields and the fine jade gives off mist: you can gaze on it, but you cannot fix it in your eyes."

Take the story of Li He's literary remains. He died in 816, at 26, without offspring. The poet's literary executor, Shen Shushi, kept Li's collected poems but forgot he had them, trundling them about absent-mindedly with his baggage for 15 years. One night while staying at his brother's place, drunk and restless, Shen came upon Li's manuscript. Stung by guilt, he sent a midnight message to a young writer in his brother's service, and asked him to write a preface. The writer, Du Mu, at first refused. Under pressure he finally agreed, and included the tale of the manuscript in his essay.

Du Mu was a serious young man, and reproved Li He for exceeding the order of things (li), in a catalogue that begins with "A continuous stream of clouds and mist has not such a manner as his … waters stretching far off into the distance have not such a mood as his; all spring's flowering glory has not his gentleness"; and goes on through the attributes until "the leviathan's gaping maw and the leaping sea turtle, the bull demon and the snake god, have not his sense of fantasy and illusion."

Li Shangyin read Du Mu's account of Li He's strangeness and responded with a "Short Biography of Li He." The biographer interviewed Li's sister and discovered a young man who excelled at both "painstaking composition and writing swiftly." Han Yu (a major figure in the transition from High to Late Tang) understood the boy, who never brooded over his poems. Li He rode around on a donkey, writing poems which he threw into a bag. "When he went back in the evening," Li Shangyin reported, "his mother had a serving girl take the bag and empty its contents; when she saw how much he had written, his mother burst out with: 'This boy won't stop until he has spit out his heart.' Then she lit the lamps and gave him his dinner."

Poets always think about immortality, even when they court it fecklessly, like Li He. Du Fu wrote about "a fame that lasts a thousand years." Li Po's River Merchant's Wife says:

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.

And manuscripts were only one way to transmit poems or to speak about poetry in those late days before the 10th century, when redactors began to collect poems into books and fixed the canon.

Early in the 9th Century, the poet Han Yu was asked to compose an inscription for a stone monument commemorating a military victory of his patron, Pei Du. Rivals at court thought Pei Du's role was exaggerated in the poet's account. The stele was toppled, its inscription erased and replaced with another. Yet Han Yu's celebration of the victory endured as one of his most famous works. Li Shangyin's poem "Han Yu's Stele" is written in Han Yu's voice. The poet recalls the composition and destruction of his stele in the third person. Owen cautions that the poem does not welcome translation. Yet something of its complexity, the pressure of time and desire, survive the unmusical English telling. Here is the description of a poem's fate:

His [Han Yu's] text that represents this Culture
is like the Primal Essence:
well before this it had already
entered people's innards.
Tang's basin and Kong's tripod
had their inscriptions;
we no longer have the vessels today,
but their words have been preserved.
and here, a manifesto of poetic ambition:
I wish to make ten thousand copies
and recite it ten thousand times,
saliva dripping from the mouth's corners,
my right hand calloused.
Pass it on for generations
seventy and two,
to use it in the Feng and Shan rites, jade tablets
and the foundation of the Hall of Light.

Laurance Wieder recently returned from a medieval Hebrew poets and Jewish mystics tour of Andalusia. There, he discovered that he can not see that which he can not name.

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