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CHINESE POETRY by Ezra Pound 327 Part I It is because Chinese poetry has certain qualities of vivid presentation; and because certain Chinese poets have been content to set forth their matter without moralizing and without comment that one labours to make a translation, and that I personally am most thankful to the late Ernest Fenollosa for his work in sorting out and gathering many Chinese poems into a form and bulk wherein I can deal with them. I do not think my views on poetry can be so revolutionary and indecent as some people try to make out, for some months ago I heard Selwyn Image1 talking of Christmas Carols and praising, in them, the very qualities I and my friends are always insisting on. Selwyn Image belongs to an older and statelier generation and it is not their habit to attack traditional things which they dislike, and for that reason the rather irritating work of revising our poetical canon has been left for my contemporaries, who come in for a fair share of abuse. I shall not, in this article, attempt any invidious comparisons between English and Chinese poetry. China has produced just as many bad poets as England, just as many dull and plodding moralizers, just as many flaccid and over-ornate versifiers. By fairly general consent, their greatest poet is Rihaku or “Li Po,”2 who flourished in the eighth century A.D. He was the head of the court office of poetry, and a great “compiler.” But this last title must not mislead you. In China a “compiler” is a very different person from a commentator. A compiler does not merely gather together, his chief honour consists in weeding out, and even in revising. Thus, a part of Rihaku’s work consists of old themes rewritten,3 of a sort of summary of the poetry which had been before him, and this in itself might explain in part the great variety of his work. Nevertheless, when he comes to treat of things of his own time he is no less various and abundant. I confine myself to his work because I can find in it examples of the three qualities of Chinese poetry which I wish now to illustrate. The first great distinction between Chinese taste and our own is that the Chinese like poetry that they have to think about, and even poetry that they have to puzzle over.4 This latter taste has occasionally broken out in Europe, notably in twelfth-century Provence and thirteenth-century Tuscany, but it has never held its own for very long. The following four-line poem of Rihaku’s has been prized for twelve centuries in China: 328 Chinese Poetry THE JEWEL-STAIRS’ GRIEVANCE I have never found any occidental who could “make much” of that poem at one reading. Yet upon careful examination we find that everything is there, not merely by “suggestion” but by a sort of mathematical process of reduction. Let us consider what circumstances would be needed to produce just the words of this poem. You can play Conan Doyle if you like.5 First, “jewel-stairs,” therefore the scene is in a palace. Second, “gauze stockings,” therefore a court lady is speaking, not a servant or common person who is in the palace by chance. Third, “dew soaks,” therefore the lady has been waiting, she has not just come. Fourth, “clear autumn with moon showing,” therefore the man who has not come cannot excuse himself on the grounds that the evening was unfit for the rendezvous. Fifth, you ask how do we know she was waiting for a man? Well, the title calls the poem “grievance,” and for that matter, how do we know what she was waiting for? This sort of Chinese poem is probably not unfamiliar to the reader. Nearly every one who has written about Chinese has mentioned the existence of these short, obscure poems.6 In contrast to them, in most rigorous contrast, we find poems of the greatest vigour and clarity. We find a directness and realism such as we find only in early Saxon verse and in the Poema del Cid, and in Homer, or rather in what Homer would be if he wrote without epithet; for instance, the following war poem. The writer expects his hearers to know that Dai and Etsu are in the south,7 that En is a bleak north country, and that the “Wild Goose Gate” is in the far northeast...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780823281398
Related ISBN
9780823281060
MARC Record
OCLC
1076879185
Pages
364
Launched on MUSE
2018-12-06
Language
English
Open Access
No
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