The newest issue of Seedings includes Matt Turner’s review of Arrivals and Departures: Poems, Memoir, and Chronology, the selected English language poetry of Wai-lim Yip 葉維廉.
Turner writes of how Yip’s “aesthetic horizon” draws off, but differs from, Chinese poetics:
But how exactly does this aesthetic horizon represent itself? For Yip, by superimposing an understanding of the Chinese language over what are considered Western modernist techniques. The Chinese tradition from the early shamanic songs all the way to the present day is framed by poets and the state alike as a tradition of the creation and control of language. In contrast to his contemporary François Cheng, the French structuralist who theorized that Chinese poetry was more or less symbolic of (Daoist) cosmic orders, leaving real-world relations unaffected, Yip sees verbalization as a decisive factor in poetry. Language performs actions in the world; it is decisive in shaping human relationships. And here he borrows from Ezra Pound, who theorized that the Chinese language, when properly used, was a demonstration of Confucian social values — a stance not far from Confucius’, who saw the function of naming as giving correct proportion to human interactions. Incorrect naming would result in an inability to perform concrete tasks.
So it will not be surprising that Yip is not interested in the stereotypically Chinese features of poetry: moons, drinking, gauze curtains and so on. By incorporating English into his poetics, the “indigenous” is given a different, artificial voice. The slippery language of his poetry demonstrates that modernist techniques of verbal layering and oblique reference alongside the traditional Chinese techniques of figurative distance and subjective alienation are nearly the same techniques, but yield surprising effects.
In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following poem is by Sam Hamill, his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson(Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015):
Salutation to Burton Watson
So very much learned from the feet of a master— the fall of the Ch’in, the rise of the T’ang and Sung, tales from Masters Chuang and K’ung.
The long dusty roads of the various poets and monks, and sutras chanted, the sake cups filled with kinship and harmonies,
Hardships remembered. It is December, the moon full, snow turned to ice on the frozen ground. I raise a cup of good Nihonshu
To a master, a lifetime’s companionship in wandering borders. Through hard times and good, decade by decade, when my heart yearned
For good company, I always knew where to turn. Tonight, just a cup below Li Po’s cold clear moon— because it is impossible to drink alone.
Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.
“They feast and drink merrily despite no accompaniment of strings or flutes. When somebody wins a game or a match of chess, they mark up their scores with drink and raise a cheerful din sitting or standing. The guests are enjoying themselves. In their midst sits an elderly man with white hair, totally relaxed and at ease. That is the governor, already half drunk…The governor can share his enjoyment with others when he is in his cups, and sober again can write an essay about it. Who is this governor? He is Ouyang Xiu.”
In addition to Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修, the article mentions Confucius 孔子, Li Bai 李白, Du Fu 杜甫, and Lu Xun’s Kong Yiji 孔乙己.
In “Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions” Emanuel Pastreich presents a translation of Confucius so as (per an explanation elsewhere) “to write something that does not sound too sage-like [but rather] is essentially of the same style as contemporary American political discourse … If Confucian writings are translated as the words of sages, closer to the register of the Bible or of Plato, their impact on contemporary American political discourse will be limited.” He translates:
If the terms that we employ to describe the institutions in society cease to be accurate representations of what those institutions have become, then, although we can discuss the problems of our age, the discussion will not correspond with the actual reality in a political or economic sense.
Pastreich applies this to the banking industry:
Confucius suggested that the problems we encounter in the political realm are the result of a slippage in the meaning of the terms that we use to describe. For example, there has been tremendous slippage in the significance of the term “bank” and that slippage has introduced chaos into our society. Although we use the word “bank” without even thinking about its meaning, the term’s significance is far from clear. Whereas the word “bank” referred to an organization with a rather limited mandate to lend money under strict regulations, it has evolved into a complex financial instrument whose roles are multifarious and changing rapidly as money itself has shifted in its significance as a result of the IT revolution. We need perhaps to redefine “money” at the same time.
What I find so striking about this is that while the method of translation is very, very different than translation of Chinese according to the imagined Confucian notion by Ezra Pound, both present us with a similar investigation of the morality of economics, specifically as relates to banking.
Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.
The online literary journal Bookslut has posted Greer Mansfield’s excellent review of my translation of Xi Chuan titled “Notes on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems.” Here’s an excerpt:
Xi Chuan has translated Borges and even written a poem about him, but these prose poems bring to mind another great Argentine: Julio Cortazar in quizzical sketches like Cronopios and Famas.
His poems also bring to mind the Western modernists: urban surrealism, clear images expressed in laconic language, black humor, and dialogues with the dead. But one also thinks of the classical Chinese poets: atmospheres and experiences captured in a few words, a slight shift in mood (a change in the weather, the sight of an inscription on a tree) evoking entire worlds … One also thinks of a Chinese wisdom writer as great as Zhuangzi. Xi Chuan has a similarly playful and puzzling mind, embracing the bafflement and ambiguity of the world. Zhuangzi himself makes an appearance in these poems, as do other luminaries of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history: the “grand historian” Sima Qian, the satirical poet Sima Xiangru, the poets of the Tang Dynasty, and even Confucius. These presences are as much a part of Xi Chuan’s landscape as Beijing’s streets, the South Xinjiang mountains, or the huge Chinese plains.
Collections of the “three hundred best poems” have been popular in China ever since the Three Hundred Tang Poems 唐詩三百首, compiled in 1763 by Sun Zhu 孫洙 (a/k/a Hengtang Tuishi 衡塘退士, “the Retiree from Hengtang”), and that anthology was probably riffing off the Shijing詩經 (The Classic of Poetry), whose “three hundred poems” were supposed to have been culled by Confucius.
Now, as reported on Martin Winter’s blog some time ago, poet Zhao Siyun 赵思运 has put together his list of the best poems of the twentieth century (or, from 1917 – 2011), the Three Hundred Chinese New Poems 中国新诗 300 首. In its breadth it’s not a bad representation of the most significant modern and contemporary Chinese poets; it’s mainland-heavy, at the expense of Hongkong, Macau, and Taiwanese poets, but that’s no surprise. Still, with 236 poets by my count, it’s easy to be broadly representative, but of course it’s limited to only a few poems by each poet, leaving a lot to be desired by way of depth (as a point of comparison, I count 77 in the Three Hundred Tang Poems, with some poets having as many as thirty pieces). Here’s the entry, for instance, for Xi Chuan, who at three poems is about as broadly represented as it gets, though only with early poems: