Classical Chinese Poetry With A Modern Face - part 1

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By 2017-09-10

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

Tu Fu (712-770A, D.) is my favorite classical Chinese poet. He is also regarded as the greatest Chinese poet by most discerning critics of Chinese literature. Brevity of expression, formal compactness, deep lyricism and memorability of the images and the misleading simplicity are all characteristics of classical Chinese poetry, and Tu Fu displays these traits brilliantly and cogently in his writings. In the next few columns I wish to focus on an aspect of his poetry that I find most attractive – his ability to explore complex human situations which reminds one of the inclinations of modern poetry. Twelve centuries separate Tu Fu's poetry from that of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

It is interesting to remind ourselves of the fact that classical Chinese poetry was instrumental in shaping certain trajectories of modern Anglo-American poetry. In this regard, the translations of Chinese poetry by Pound – or more suitably trans -creations –and his commentarial writings on the role of imagery which had much to do with Chinese poetic imagery, deserve our close attention. As certain literary scholars have pointed out, Ezra Pound was not always able to comprehend the true nature and significance of Chinese poets like Tu Fu. Lo Po, Wang Wei and Tao Chien. However, paradoxically, his misunderstandings had a positive impact in the sense that they served to energize modern English and American poetry.

In a remarkably perceptive book on the poetry of Tu Fu Eva Shan Chau begins by making the following observation. 'even the most casual acquaintance with Chinese poetry will have made the name of Tu Fu a familiar one, as the poet acknowledged throughout history by his countrymen to be China's greatest. and it is not only the poetry that is admired; the poet himself inspires respect, veneration even, as a good man.; she goes on to claim that though separated from us by a gap of thirteen centuries and an unfamiliar lture,we have the feeling that we know him. This is largely because the nearly 1500 poems reliably ascribed to him form a chronicle of his life and times. Indeed it is not surprising that some literary critics have called him the poet-historian.

It is Eva Shan Chau's belief that there are poets about whom we have scanty information whose poetry is highly valued. Homer and Shakespeare are examples. On the other hand there are those poets of whom what we know does not serve to deepen the appreciation of their compositions. As for Tu Fu, the identification of the poet with his writings is so total that one is left with the question whether the solid esteem for his poetry is an outcome of the deep veneration of the poet. Therefore, it is useful to know something of his background.

Tu Fu was born in Hainan in the region of La-yang. He came from an elite family. His father served as a magistrate. He grew up to be a powerful poet who had absorbed Confucian values. He was reputed to be a devoted family man and it is said that he was intensely loyal to the state, in spite of the fat that had certain disagreements and divergences of views from those of the Emperor. It is evident that he felt deeply about the plight of the poor and the dispossessed. This sense of unease finds memorable expression in his poetry.
It has to be noted that Tu Fu's influence on later generations of poets was profound and consequential. He left behind nearly one thousand and five hundred poems which reflect his indubitable talent and deep commitment to his chosen art. His poetic sensibility, along with his command of the language, technical mastery and social vision born of empathy with the dispossessed, has been frequently commented upon by literary critics. Tu Fu was an undeniably personal and confessional poet; most critics are of the view that his body f poetry can be regarded as a reliable guide to his biography. The following poem titled Siting a House manifests this aspect of his petry.in this poem the poet has succeeded in reconfiguring his emotions immediately after arriving in Sichan where is was able to build a house. For many years he had not experienced the comfort of living in his own house. The translation is by David McCraw.

By the flower-washing waters, by the water's edge
As a master I have chosen this secluded wood and pond.
Well I know, leaving a city decreases dusty business;
What's more, pellucid river dispels a wanderer's woe.
Innumerable dragon flies together rise and drop
A couple of wood ducks facing me bob and drive
Myriad leagues away east, riding on high spirits
I ought to head for Alpshade abroad a little skiff.

As I stated earlier, as a poet Tu Fu was deeply motivated by Confucian values. Hence, it is only natural that his intensely personal poetry is informed by a deep concern for the welfare of is fellow-citizens. Let us consider as an example the following poem. Here one perceives a deft blending of personal emotion and social concern.

Darkling hues march up an alpine path
My steep study camps by the water gate.
Tenuous clouds bivouac bordering cliffs;
A lonely nook tumbles among the waves.
Troops of cranes in silence fly pursuit;
A pack of wolves clamors to find a kill.
I am sleepless. Worrying about battles,
All powerless to right heaven and earth.

There is a certain worry and concern that mark Tu Fu's poetry. It grows out of his concern for the hardships of the poor and marginalized. In addition he was also disconcerted by the decline of social values. David Hinton, who is a celebrated translator of traditional Chinese poetry including that of Tu Fu makes the following astute observation.

'But a much deeper despair can be heard in the background of Tu Fu's poetry; the despair of a Confucian loss of faith. The human community was itself sacred and absolute in the Confucian order (its religious structure was manifest in a system of myth and ritual0.by the end of his life, Tu had precious little reason fir faith in that order and without it, without civilization which was full of embodiment, nothing remained for him but an abyss – a metaphysical abyss come to life in the firm of barbarians armies threatening to destroy China.' This comment by David Hinton opens up an interesting terrain for investigation.

He goes on to claim that one can discern at the heart of Tu Fu's sensibility a strong impulse to detach oneself from things and this included the detachment of the poet from himself. As he says, 'Rather than offering freedom from the mundane world, Tu's detachment is hopelessly complicated by a deep love of things.' Indeed, this tension, in many ways, serves to energize his poems.

( to be continued )

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