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The Song and Yuan poets seem to have taken great delight in such subtlety. Very daring attempts were made. For instance, one of the Han Dynasty folk songs begins with the characteristic expression, What shall I do? It caught the fancy of a Song poet. A lover's spring is what-shall-I-do spring. One of the Yuan Dynasty operatic passages is much quoted mainly for its reference to what-shall-I-do weather. But the most audacious achievement we have to credit to a Song Dynasty ci writer,
Sad to say, we have had too many what-shall-I-do things since those days. Many succinct impressions must have been slurred over and wasted, due to sheer laziness and trite mannerisms. In Hades there is a bridge most difficult to get over. That is the What-shall-I-do Bridge.
But there is no end to such atrocities. I refer you to but one more poet who played havoc with language. Li Yu, more popularly known as Li Hou Zhu, was the last ruler of the short-lived South Tang Kingdom which was incorporated into the Song Dynasty.
The word tack may also mean to step or to tread down, and it is in this latter sense that it has often been used. To tack the horse hoofs, however, is totally uncivilized and ungrammatical even for the Chinese. In the later anthologies, the word has been changed to fang, to let go, a far more respectable expression which unfortunately does not sound like the clattering of horses' hoofs.
In another ci, To the Tune of Mountain Flowers, sometimes attributed to his father, we have a line which upon first reading sounds utterly nonsensical:
It would be futile to paraphrase these seven characters in English or even in Chinese. In a little tower a jade mouth organ is being played – but what is cold? Above all, what is meant by through? Through what? Through the little tower, through one's body and soul. More laboriously a Tang poet has intimated the same feeling:
Li Hou Zhu does not need so many words. He is transported, in orison. Grammar has become helpless but word painting in big strokes still works, provided the reader is not immune.
In the second section to the same tune of Mountain Flowers, «The lilac hopelessly bears (as fruit) sorrow in the rain». This line seems to run more smoothly than the one above but is still much of a puzzle, which I leave to you to work out, i.e., to those of you who have been lilacs, in rain, and in an enclosed Chinese courtyard. To us the impression is not so difficult to absorb, though I cannot tell you about it to save my life.
This man who was a king had the most unorthodox notions about things. The flute which is nothing but cold bamboo, has a brass reed that twangs. Love is a maple leaf, cinnabar colored. Women's fingers are like tender bamboo shoots — asparagus might have done better. Their glances can hook you. In eight syllables he describes for us a naughty girl chewing a tuft of red embroidery silk and then giggling as she spat it at her lover.
I feel I must do this rogue of a king some justice by retranslating for you one of his poems which has been badly desecrated by an American poet and her collaborator who ought to be well versed in Chinese.
This piece, I suppose was written after he was taken prisoner. It happens to be one of the most easily understandable in the whole collection. The term locks in is so characteristic of his style that to omit it is to ruin the poem entirely. And I particularly object to the insertion of the word golden in the second line in the American translation. Almost anything can be compared to gold in Chinese poetry, but hardly ever the moon. To tell you the Chinese truth, under the situation as here faced by the captive king, the moon cannot but be silver.
With Li Hou Zhu and the early ci writers the art of word painting reached the climax of intricacy. Ingenuity was exercised to the breaking point. Perhaps we have already dwelt too long on this topic, which is after all but a minor feature of Chinese poetry. It is a subject that lends itself to concrete treatment. The other aspects of our poetic technique seem to be more intangible. To the Western public the interpreter has to confess his deep sense of defeat.
However, I must point out another important emphasis in Chinese poetic art which may be said to be just the antithesis of word painting. That is the technique of suggesting a mood with delicate touches. Once or twice in these lectures I have referred to our bias as to the function of poetry. It is to create a mood, not to tell a story. The jue ju or curtailed verse is the most adequate means to that end. Indeed I consider that form of poetry our supreme achievement.
A jue ju, as you know, is composed of twenty or twenty-eight syllables. The Japanese took it over in the Tang Dynasty and later made it the haiku, composed of seventeen syllables. Haiku means humorous lines. It originated with travesty, so it seems. We also have a frustrated seventeen-character form which we still use as a means of satire.
In Japan that form of poetry has been exquisitely developed. Its content is no longer merely humorous as the name suggests. The Japanese are probably the only people outside of China who are attuned to the spirit of the curtailed verse.
Now to develop a mood in twenty or twenty-eight syllables is not as easy as one would imagine. One has to eat the cake and keep it. Brevity, economy, terseness — that is presupposed. Word painting is about the last extravagance one can afford. The best of this technique I can transmit to you only inferentially by giving you some inferior examples.
In the style of your Paradise Lost this dragon could perform all the antics of Satan. It could spit fire and sweat smoke and smell as no English word smells. A jue ju writer cannot do that. He must be brief, but brevity in itself does not help much. These seven characters read altogether too queerly. They make one feel foolish and unnatural. «Why, is that so?» I asked the first time I came across them.
The original is in five-syllable lines. I feel the poet has achieved his purpose but at tremendous sacrifice. Too much work! It took a whole night for the ghost to appear from the clouds and then it did nothing except sit pretty.
According to Chinese standards a jue ju has to carry the mood with grace, not by storm and stress. It sweeps on in a gentle curve that envelops the reader with joy or sorrow. It may come to a sudden stop, there being only so many syllables, but one must then be left with the feeling of something beyond. One is not just overcome with a gust of emotion. For instance, while staying at a dilapidated country monastery, one of our more recent literary critics composed the following:
Here we have a complete picture in bold relief. The mood suggested is also sufficient in itself, but the poem barely misses being a masterpiece on account of its very self-sufficiency. One is not led to feel into something broader and deeper. Everything is plainly told. There is no reserve, nothing beyond.
Thus a jue ju is in a sense transcendental. It transports the reader to a different atmosphere so that while he feels his feet on solid ground, his senses are above the clouds. It must have a high tone, as I explained in the first lecture. Above all the writer must have respect for the sensibility of his readers. They too can feel into situations and see beauty in common things when they are given a lead. A word to the wise is sufficient and a jue ju writer has the privilege of twenty or even twenty-eight words. Paradoxically enough, one often finds even the great poets wasting words in a jue ju merely to fill out the pattern. I dare to suggest that in the following line which we have already met in the first lecture,
the last few words in italics (in Chinese,), seem to be quite superfluous and serve only to complete the pattern. Instead of telling us what to see and what to believe, the writer will purposely leave out many things which from the viewpoint of the historian or philosopher, may be quite essential. To read the best jue ju is partly to recreate the poem oneself. One holds communion with the poet. A very simple piece may be recited hundreds of times and then at a happy moment one finds in it a new vista formerly undreamed of. Do not worry whether you are reading something into the poem or out of it. Just respect your poet as much as he respects you. Thus there is a training and a virtue in understanding good curtailed verse.
And glide down past Yuzhou, thinking of you whom I cannot see,
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