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We have had occasion to cite quite a few of the representative jue ju. No doubt, the translations fall too far short of the standards as described above. Instead of redeeming my sins, I shall repeat them, hoping thus to compensate for mediocrity by fastidiousness. The first three to be quoted are among the most unpretentious. In simplicity they approach Tao Qian's five-syllable lines in the ancient style. They represent a trend that is diametrically opposed to word painting.
Poem #1The last poem must have been written impromptu. It is a note of invitation from your favorite Bai Ju Yi.
The above jue ju are all in five-syllable lines. I shall next present a few pieces in seven-syllable lines from the versatile Li Bai, covering a variety of moods to which the drunkard is susceptible. We have already had four jue ju from the same poet. The Song of the E-Mei Moon, An Elegy to Wu, An Elegy to Yue, and To Wang Lun, his young friend. With one exception, the selections which follow have all been translated by Obata, so my work in retranslating has been greatly facilitated.
The last quoted poem was only a forecast. Neither the government nor the poet himself took the banishment very seriously. He went up the Yangtze River with great leisure. Amnesty was declared before he arrived anywhere near Ye Lang, then the extreme southwest. Li Bai was capable of just such moods. In contrast to that, we may mention the unaffected sympathy and sad humor of the mature years of Du Fu, Li Bai's younger contemporary, the two being China's greatest classical poets. In the following jue ju, Du Fu, the old rascal, dares to tease and bully the innocent little wild birds.
That is, the poet too can see spring returning. In another connection he tells us,
So every poet molds the jue ju in his own way. It goes without saying there can be no universal criteria for excellence in that technique. What is important is that between the poet and the reader there should be understanding. The possibility of playing one's lute to the cows, is always present. The vast majority of the intelligent and educated Chinese are but «cows». An American missionary once asked her friend to read her some Chinese poetry. It happened the latter was reading:
«Go on,» said the missionary. «That's all,» said her friend. They looked at each other and there lies Chinese poetry.
A man like Bai Ju Yi who wrote poetry for something as against nothing was often conscious of this danger, this solitude. A master of the jue ju and a tolerably successful ci writer as well, he voluntarily assumed a different style for his more popular writing. To his chagrin he found the sing-song girls of his day reciting his breezy love poems. His social message fell flat. The irony of fate makes almost every attempt to be merely popularly understood a sad failure.
We have now dwelt at length on word painting and the suggestion of moods. Our discussion is not meant to involve the philosophical poem, the narrative or descriptive poem, or the poem which explicitly tries to teach us a lesson. There is nothing characteristic about the technique of such Chinese poems. So we pass by what is common and perhaps commonplace. If I have left you with the impression that Chinese poetry never rose above the petty tricks and cheap sentimentality of the leisurely literati, that is because I have not been dealing with a topic of deeper social and moral significance than poetic artistry.
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Lectures on Chinese Poetry
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