Post Number: 91
|Posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - 06:46 am: ||
Today’s column quotes extensively from the Preface to the new edition of Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres (Duke University Press, 1997) by Wai-lim Yip, Editor and Translator. I believe that what Wai-lim Yip has to say is not only immensely important for our understanding of Chinese poetry but for our understanding of AmerEnglish poetry as well. As he points out, what might be translated as “I am weeping” might be in the original Chinese something like “Weeping is taking place.” Of course we realize that a particular person is weeping, but there is no “I” in the original. Faced with “weeping is taking place,” we might well respond, Yes, I understand that, I have wept too. But isn’t there a distancing between speaker and reader when we read, “I am weeping”? “I,” a person separate from the reader, is experiencing something, but that doesn’t mean that we are experiencing that emotion. “Weeping is taking place” invites us to remember our own tears. Wai-lim Yip:
“Wrong from the start!”
Borrowing a phrase from Pound’s critique of the decline of English poetic art, in 1960 I protested in dismay and anger against a century of gross distortions of Chinese poetry by translators who allowed the target language (in this case, English) to mask and master the indigenous Chinese aesthetic, creating treacherous modes of representation. These translators seemed unaware that classical Chinese poetry emerges from a perceptual ground with a set of cultural-aesthetic assumptions radically different from that of Western poetry; that its syntax is in many ways inseparable from this perceptual ground; and that by imposing Indo-European linguistic habits on classical Chinese without any adjustment the translators were significantly changing the poetry’s perceptual-expressive procedures.
Therefore, in order to remedy these problems in translation, I’ve organized the Chinese poems in this book into a three-part structure. Given first is the poem in the original Chinese. It is followed by my word-for-word annotations, and, finally, my translation with minimal but workable syntax. I’ve done this in order to open up an aesthetic space where readers can move back and forth between classical Chinese and modern American perceptual-expressive dimensions.
Underlying the classical Chinese aesthetic is the primary idea of noninterference with Nature’s flow. As reflected in poetic language, this idea has engendered freedom from the syntactical rigidities often found in English and most, if not all, of the Indo-European languages. In English, a sentence is almost always structured according to rigid syntactical rules, whereas classical Chinese, as it is used in poetry, is syntactically flexible. For example, although the Chinese language has articles and personal pronouns, they are often dispensed with in poetry. This opens up an indeterminate space for readers to enter and reenter for multiple perceptions rather than locking them into some definite perspectival position or guiding them in a certain direction. Then there is the sparseness, if not absence, of connective elements (prepositions or conjunctions), and this lack, aided by the indeterminancy of parts of speech and no tense declensions in verbs, affords the readers a unique freedom to consort with the objects and events of the real-life world.
The words in a Chinese poem quite often have a loose relationship with readers, who remain in a sort of middle ground between engaging with them (attempting to make predicative connections to articulate relationships between and among the words) and disengaging from them (refraining from doing so, since such predicative acts would greatly restrict the possibility of achieving noninterference). Therefore, the asyntactical and paratactical structures in Chinese poetry promote a kind of prepredicative condition wherein words, like objects (often in a coextensive and multiple montage) in the real world, are free from predetermined relationships and single meanings and offer themselves to readers in an open space. Within this space, and with the poet stepping aside, so to speak, they can move freely and approach the words from a variety of vantage points to achieve different perceptions of the same moment. They have a cinematic visuality and stand at the threshold of many possible meanings.
In retrospect, I must consider myself fortunate to live during a time when both poets and philosophers in the West have already begun to question the framing of language, echoing in part the ancient Taoist critique of the restrictive and distorting activities of names and words and their power-wielding violence, and opening up reconsiderations of language and power, both aesthetically and politically. When Heidegger warns us that any dialogue using Indo-European languages to discuss the spirit of East-Asian poetry will risk destroying the possibility of accurately saying what the dialogue is about, he is sensing the danger of language as a “dwelling,” trapping experience within a privileged subjectivity. When William Carlos Williams writes “unless there is / a new mind there cannot be a new / line,” he also means “unless there is / a new line there cannot be a new / mind.” Until we disarm the tyrannical framing functions of the English language, the natural self in its fullest sentience cannot be released to maximum expressivity. The syntactical innovations initiated by Pound (aided by his discovery of the Chinese character as a medium for poetry), Stein, Williams (who, among other sources, took William James’s lesson very seriously, i.e., to retrieve the real existence before it is broken up into serial orders through language and conceptions), and E.E. Cummings, and reinforced in practice and theory by the Black Mountain poets, John Cage, Robert Duncan, and Snyder, suddenly open up a new perceptual-expressive possibility in English, a new ambience whereby I can stage Chinese poetry according to its original operative dynamics rather than tailoring it to fit the Western procrustean bed.
In reprinting this anthology, I wish to make this new perceptual ground and expressive dynamics accessible to more readers who are eager to reach beyond Western frames toward newer landscapes and to enter into an inter-reflective dialogue with Chinese poetry.
This is a poem by Pao Chao, translated by Wai-lim Yip. The Chinese text is included, but in this case there is no word-by-word translation. For me, the poem has the kind of importance that Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” had: it opens up new possibilities not only of translation but of presenting feeling in AmerEnglish verse. My friend Jake Berry comments, “The ‘Transformation’ and ‘feathered men’ here are referring to Taoist alchemy. The ultimate goal of that alchemy was to become an immortal—a feathered man—and fly away, ‘merge forever with the smoke and mist.’” The poem has no “I” in it, only a “We” merging with smoke and mist: “Among steep precipices, traces of Transformation.”
Hanging luggage disturbs shadows in the water.
Our trip ends in a mountain house.
Blocking, piling up, a thousand cliffs rise.
Twisting, turning, descend a million valleys,
Imposing as antiquity itself.
Profuse, confused, one assumes the other's name.
From deep torrents, earth’s veins can be seen.
Among spearing trees, sky’s network is hidden.
Stone bridges reach into dense mist.
Cloud-caves pour down the four directions.
Sombre ice is frozen in summer.
Flaming trees flourish in winter.
In the morning, the clamor of jungle-fowls.
At night, clear cries of monkeys.
Among steep precipices, traces of Transformation.
Upon the peaks, the lasting spirit.
To follow this delight in mountains’ natures
And deep love for long excursions
We will mount upon the road of feathered men
And merge forever with smoke and mist.
Post Number: 92
|Posted on Sunday, July 25, 2010 - 10:20 am: ||
Kathleen Fraser in “Translating the Unspeakable: Visual Poetics, as Projected through Olson’s ‘Field’ into Current Female Writing Practice” (included in Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, Talisman House, 1995): “While seriously committed to gender consciousness, a number of us carried an increasing skepticism toward any fixed rhetoric of the poem, implied or intoned. We resisted the prescription of authorship as an exclusively unitary proposition—the essential ‘I’ position as central to the depiction of reflectivity. As antidote to a mainstream poetics that enthusiastically embraced those first dramatic ‘confessional’ poems, Olson (in ‘PROJECTIVE VERSE’) had already proposed: ‘the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego….’”