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Critics and Commentators: The Book of Poems as Classic and Literature by Bruce Rusk (review)
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At a one level, Bruce Rusk’s Critics and Commentators is about how to transcribe and translate the word shi 詩: Shi, shi, or shi; Poems, poems, poems, poetry, or even verse? Rusk notes, “Although modern annotators and translators have no choice but to choose one or the other, the distinction was not so sharp before modern typographical conventions” (p. 28). Yet, in that delicate choosing and parsing is the core issue of his attention: the mutually constitutive relationship between the great classic Shi, or Shijing (another naming problem, for which Rusk usually chooses Book of Poems) and what he calls “secular” poetry (shi 詩), that is, the everyday verse that begins to fill scrolls and libraries in the second century c.e . (p. 10), reaching tsunami-like conditions in later centuries. Here I will try to stay within Rusk’s typographic distinction of Shi, shi, and shi, rather than also using his nomenclature of Poems, poems, and poems, which does provide variation but must have been a copyeditor’s nightmare.1 Stated more formally, Rusk’s goal is to investigate “significant but often hidden motions between the ideas about literature and interpretation of the canonical poems.” And his aim is not to undertake a broad survey, “but to identify revealing cases, such as Zhu Fu’s memorial and its consequences, of a phenomenon that recurred in and helped give shape to poetics and classical studies alike” (p. 5). That may sound quite abstract, but Rusk’s approach is grounded in both the historicity and philology of those moments, as he displays so well in his opening gambit on Zhu Fu (pp. 1–3). A succinct review of this approach is found somewhat hidden in the last chapter, on p. 199. Here I follow and develop that review, but sometimes give short shrift to important arguments so as to diverge into areas of my own interest.

Chapter 1, “Poems and Poems,” the longest and most generalized of the study, explores the Shi and shi in various moments of contact. Naturally Rusk begins with passages from the Analects, but not just with the typical suspects where Confucius postulates directly on the Shi/shi; rather, Rusk begins by considering the barely glancing contact between the madman of Chu Jieyu’s “Oh Phoenix” verse and the Shi. Although the verse is not even a shi (to say nothing of shi), Rusk argues that Confucius wants to subject it to a shi-like treatment by having a “talk with” Jieyu, as he famously had with Zi Gong and Zi Xia. Through his discursive treatment, Confucius wants to make Jieyu’s piece equivalent to shi. But, of course, Jieyu runs off, leaving Confucius to speak only to his reader. The next contact between Shi and shi that Rusk discusses is more substantial and clearer in its articulation. This is where the Chu ci, especially its central piece, the “Li sao,” was subjected to another discursive manipulation. The editors and promoters of the anthology used a variety of maneuvers to bring the Chu materials into the Shijing orbit, including calling the “Li Sao” a “classic” (jing).

This brings us to a critical juncture in Chapter 1, a section with the unfortunate title “The Shi Thing.” Here Rusk analyzes various passages where shi/shi appear in pre-Han and Han-era canonical texts, especially the famous “Da xu” (Great Preface) and the Han shu. His conclusion shows that although there has been a lot of talk about shi, there really was very little shi. “In Ban Gu’s time, shi was a form in which an elite writer might dabble, perhaps in an archaizing or folkish vein, but not a serious genre on which to build a reputation” (p. 30)—later Rusk will show how it is the rhapsody (fu) upon which reputations were made (romanized as fu for the genre but as fu for the poetic trope). The remainder of the chapter is an exploration of the emergence of shi as a serious genre in the post-Han period, which came to a grand flourishing in the Tang era. In establishing this pedigree, Rusk discusses shi on stelae, the jump from fu to shi as the poetics of...

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