A Path to Meaning in T'ang Poetry
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA.,
Thursday Feb. 9, 2006
I find it interesting that from Imperial times in China, all children, including children now in Taiwan, have been required to memorize and recite the same poems. At the same time, children are not expected to understand these poems. The idea behind the Chinese approach is that the memory from childhood will finally bear fruit when the student as an adult later reflects on the memorized poem.
The T'ang Dynasty occurred between 618 A.D. and 907 A.D. It is generally considered the high point of arts in Chinese history.
The Empress Wu Chao governed then. She coalesced early poetry forms into one slightly varying pattern. This pattern stipulates four or eight or twelve lines, with five to seven words in a line, and requires perfect rhyming on the toned end word. Only geniuses could be expected to write poems in this form before adulthood. Wu mandated that all graduating students or others who wanted official civil service positions must bring original poems in the formal style to their application appointments.
The first universally required poem for all children to learn is "Quiet Night," by Li Bai, who lived from 701 until 762 A.D. My Taiwanese friend Wei Min told me that when she was a child, she and her classmates made silly parodies of it in the playground.
Li Bai's Art
This is the poem. It fits the four-line stipulation.
A moonbeam by my bed
Or frost on the ground?
I look up at the full moon.
I look down and think of home.
The universal experience of longing lies buried in these few nouns and verbs. The language is simple and teasing even, belying its profundity. There is one adjective, "full," and one adverb, "home." The rest, in Chinese, is nouns and verbs that do not tell directly but do imply.
All Chinese learn in childhood that "moon" by itself is a symbol of distance and reunion. Li says "full moon" to extend the power of the image. Looking up at the moon conjures for the isolated poet his distance from family. Looking down allows him to imagine that moonbeams are frost in front of his home. Moon along with "light" or "beam" conjures for the poet a vision, a memory. When the poet drops his head, he apparently becomes lost in homesickness. The underneath meaning and the emotion in it are revealed in a reflection connecting, like magic, known symbols.
The two-level art in this poem is called "parallelism." "Quiet Night" presents a fine example of this two-level poetry writing.
Many consider Li Bai to be China's single best poet. Ironically, in terms of the primacy of poets in public life, this revered poet never applied for entry into civil service. In his book, Five T'ang Poets, David Young quotes the writer Arthur Waley: "(Li) was too unruly for court life. . . ." In other words, Li was a drunk who was intoxicated by alcohol and nature and undoubtedly, too, by the miracle of words with which he could express himself.
T'ang poems are short lyrics. Similes are rare. Conventional subjects include meditations on nature, death, birth, travels, visits to temples, academic accomplishment, music, memories and musings on warfare.
A flowering of 50,000 poems occurred over the 300 years of the T'ang Dynasty. Scholars of the time chose 300 out of the 50,000, and these are still considered the finest of all poems composed throughout Chinese history. The poems are called "shi" in Chinese.
Before we look at more of the poems, I want to comment on the culture of the T'ang period. Six hundred eighteen to 907 was a unique time of peace and prosperity in China. The uniquely frozen culture enabled the perfection of art forms. Almost every T'ang Emperor was a patron of poetry. Poetry writing and presentations were extremely popular, also poetry contests, including a kind of "exquisite corpse," the poetry game we indulge in today. Block printing was being perfected. Fortunately, even without tones and without rhymes, and adding adjectives and adverbs in some cases, we are able to enjoy much of the essence of these poems in English.
Here are four characteristics of T'ang poetry:
. economy of words
. simplicity of expression
. easy memorization, even among modern-day schoolchildren
. parallelismtwo levels of meaning
In Best Words, Best Order, Stephen Dobyns says that the reader, not the writer, is the ultimate protagonist in a poem. Dobyns says (to paraphrase) a successful poem will entail the reader's participation in a creative process that results in an epiphany or experience of sudden and universal emotion. "Quiet Night" includes another techniquethe repeat of words for emphasis. In this case, the symbolic power of the moon is emphasized in its repetition. The experience in reading or reciting the Li poem is reflective rather than receptive.
I am so taken by Li's poetry that I want to include just the ending of another one here. It is laden with what David Young calls "intoxication." "Life at its best, as Li Po envisions it, is a kind of intoxication, an elevation," Young says. "Even nature, as Li Po likes to present it, has a kind of intoxicated quality, especially in spring . . . he handles the metaphor of the bibulous poet in a tipsy world as well as anyone before or since."
Here is the poem's title and the ending:
High in the Mountains I Fail to Find the Wise Man
. . . he's gone, they don't know where
I lean my grief
on two or three pines
and walk away.
One can easily see that not all T'ang poems are as veiled as "Quiet Night," even this poem by the same poet. I can see him leaning sadly against the pines. I can also see that he satisfies his need to grieve and now can peacefully, if drunkenly, "walk away" and resume the rest of his life. The latter is the parallel meaning.
Yu Xuangi's Art
A woman who both benefited from and perished in the unusually open culture of the T'ang dynastry was Yu Xuangi. I have read conflicting accounts of her life. Here, I'm going to use material from David Young's "Introduction" to the collection of Yu's poems, The Clouds Float North.
Young says, "We owe the survival of these poems to the ancient Chinese anthologists' urge to be complete. . . . To their comprehensive period anthologies of what they counted most, the poems of men who were also government officials of varying degrees of importance, they couldn't resist adding curiosities: poems by ghosts, poems by monks, even poems by women. . . ."
This is not to say that women's poems were necessarily of little importance. "In fact," Young says, "the T'ang dynasty happens to have been a time when women had greater freedom of choice and social mobility than was the case both earlier and later. . . . Daoism . . . had become the official state religion. Daoist philosophy has always emphasized quality of being. . . ."
Yu Xuanji was a concubine from a family that valued the arts. In addition, she was a Daoist "nun," and she was also a courtesan, socializing with the literati and powerful men of her world. The sequence in "concubine," "nun," and "courtesan" is unknown and actually may have occurred simultaneously. "Concubine" here is "lesser wife," and we learn that her "husband" was often away. Yu's poems, in a wonderful exuberance, express every emotion, including loneliness. Young says (x11), ". . . resilience and dignity of the human spirit are held in a kind of "suspension." Yu experiments with conventional settings and forms, including letters. She expresses both satisfaction and dissatisfaction with womanhood, in the context of expectations and academic opportunities. Yu comes down to us from 1,500 years back totally alive.
Selling of the Last Peonies
Who can afford these peonies?
their price is much too high
their arrogant aroma
even intimidates butterflies
flowers so deeply red
they must have been grown in a palace
leaves so darkly green
dust scarcely dares to settle there
if you wait till they're transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens
then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.
The poem fits the twelve line stipulation. "Red" is the royal color. "Peonies" are probably fertility. The parallelism is, in Young's words, that "the poet is obviously talking about beautiful young women, but it is just as clear that she is literally talking about her culture's prizing of this flower. . . .Intensity of beauty and of being, almost to excess, is the organizing principle throughout. . . . The teasing tone, the wistful recognition that beauty of any kind is expensive, rare, and ephemeral . . . are typical of Yu Xuanji's poetic voice. . ."
Certainly, the story of Yu's life is one for classical drama.
Official sources from the time report that she was condemned to death and executed for beating to death a novice. The length of her life is disputed. She died at somewhere between 24 and 28 years of age.
I want to close with a letter poem by Yu Xuanji. I can feel her passionate youth as she breathes into the words on this page today.
Matching Poem for My New Neighbor to the West, Inviting Him over for Wine
Imagine a small poem chanted a hundred times
each word bringing new feelings golden
my thoughts have climbed the wall between our houses I gaze into the distance my heart's not made of stone the Milky Way looks expectant out there in the vastness Hunan's rivers are waking up the zither is fully tuned every April the Cold Food Festival leaves me a little homesick silent night, mellow wine don't make me pour it alone.
"Wine" is the symbol for love.
These poems contain, in their perfect detail, a reality of moments that reflect those in our own brief and lonely human lives.
Dobyns, Stephen. Best Words, Best Order. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Ho, Minfong, Tr. Maples in the Mist. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1996.
Protopopescu, Orel, Tr. A Thousand Peaks, Poems from China. Berkeley: Pacific View P, 2002.
Young, David, Tr. Five T'ang Poets. Oberlin: Oberlin College P, 1990.
Young, David and Jiann I. Lin., Tr. The Clouds Float North, The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji. Hanover: University P New England, 1998.