Classical Chinese Poetry with a Modernist Face –part 3

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By 2017-10-01

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Ceylon Today Mosaic

As I indicated earlier Tu Fu was an outstanding nature poet who was able to capture the vicissitudes and changefulness of nature with a remarkable vitality. To be sure, nature was not his only privileged theme; he was deeply interested in other themes such as politics, social suffering and the march of time. Politics constituted a compelling theme in Tu Fu's writings; it is important to keep in mind that what interested him was not politics in the abstract but politics as felt on your pulse' it is this predilection of his that energized his poems and gave his emotions focus and a large number of his poetic texts politics and personal experience intersect in complex ways. The following poem, which is titled Midnight, bears testimony to this fact.

It is midnight, jang and alps are stilled;
In a steep tower I gaze at the North Star
Long have I been a myriad-league wanderer,
Much ashamed of this hundred year fame
O'er my land, vapor of windblown clods;
Round the high hall, dust from the waging war.
The alien chick betrayed generous boons
Alas I all of you men from a peaceful time.
Similarly, we find kindred traits demonstrated in the following poem titled Outside the City.

Its bitter cold, and late, and falling
Dew muffles my gaze into bottomless skies.
Smoke trails out over distant salt mines
Where snow-covered peaks cast shadows east.

Armies haunt my homeland still. And war
Drums throb in this distant place. A guest
Overnight in a river city, together with
Shrieking crows, my old friends, I return.
As I stated at the beginning my primary intention in these columns is to focus on one facet of Tu Fu's poetry – his modernist outlook that is well inscribed in many poems. Let us consider the following poem which reflects vividly this aspect of his poetic achievement. The poem is called I Am a Madman – the title itself radiating a modernist ring.

My thatched cottage stands
Just west of Thousand Mile Bridge

This hundred flower stream
Would please a hermit fisherman

Bamboo sway in the wind
Graceful as any court beauty

Rain makes the lotus flowers
Even ore red and fragrant

But I no longer hear from friends
Who live on princely salaries

My children are always hungry
With pale and famished faces

Does a madman grow more happy
Before he dies in the gutter?

I laugh at myself – a madman
Growing older, growing madder.
As David Young points out this poem was written during a relatively calm period in Tu Fu's life. He is growing old and is disappointed .at the sane tine he delights in living where he has opted to settle. He is particularly fond of the thatched cottage he has built.
My thatched cottage stands
Just west of Thousand Mile Bridge.

The hundred flower stream
Would please a hermit fisherman

Bamboo sways in the wind
Graceful as any court beauty
Young goes onto point out that in the first half of the poem what we find is largely a sense of pastoral contentment. Deeply sensitive to his surroundings, in harmony with the spring season, the poet is full of praise for the circumstances he finds himself in. Then, perhaps, edged on by his own attraction to bamboos and lotus flowers, he begins to think of his early existence in the glamor of the capital and the disparity between his aborted career and the wealth and comforts if is more successful acquaintances ad friends. Cleary they are close to the court and basking in riyal privilege. His poverty has become an unending source of frustration and unhappiness; it has begun to overwhelm the face of this misfortune. How to feed his family is a troubling question he has to face every day.

In the face of this misfortune how can he savor happiness? A kind of paradox seems to suggest the answer. As David Young remarks, 'if a madman dying in utter poverty is capable of ecstasy at the end, in the gutter, then Tu Fu is too. He laughs at his own, mixed emotions and encounters his own death with an odd sense of joy. His poverty, age, illness, and approaching death ought to depress him; his joy must seem to most people a kind of madness. He claims that that the poem performs enact can be usefully characterized as two emotional summersaults. However, what is most noteworthy is the effortlessness with which it accomplishes that. This poem of Tu Fu exemplifies the modernist face in classical Chinese poetry that I have been referring to.



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