井底之蛙

11/2/2008

Mountains, Vikings, and Chinese Poetry

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:42 pm

Lots of people seem to like Chinese poetry. The latest NYRB has a review of a reprint of A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang by Eliot Weinberger.1 The book was first published in 1965. A review now may seem odd, but it seems like its always a good time for people (everyone from Ezra Pound to Kilgore Trout) to talk about Chinese poetry. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of Chinese poetry, and especially Tang stuff, sounds very much like modern poetry once you translate it. I assume some translator of Chinese poetry has expressed this as well, but I take an example from Jane Smiley’s introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders.2 The Sagas have been tremendously popular (in literary terms) in the twentieth century just like Tang poetry because they are both modern (more a novel in the case of the Sagas) and medieval at the same time. As Smiley puts it.

And yet, these stories are so clearly medieval
And yet, they are not
This is their fascinating paradox

Chinese poetry turns out to be much the same. Weinberger says that when Graham’s translation first came out “most of the poets I knew avidly read it.” One of the poems he brings up is Han Yu’s The South Mountains (南山) It is a very long poem, and he only cites a few lines out of a much longer section of similes describing mountains.

Scattered like loose tiles
Or running together like converging spokes,
Off keel like rocking boats
Or in full stride like horses at the gallop;
Back to back as though offended,
Face to face as though lending a hand

Weinberg says that this “combination of trance-inducing repetitive rhyme and hypersimilitude would not be attempted again for another 1,000 years, until the Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro’s modernist extravaganza Altazor”

As this is a blog an I have unlimited electrons, I can give you the whole section on mountains.3

(more…)

  1. Graham, A.C. Poems of the Late T’ang. NYRB Classics, 2008. []
  2. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. 1st ed. Viking Penguin, 2000. []
  3. This is from the Charles Hartman translation in Liu, Wu-Chi and Irving Yucheng Lo eds. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Indiana University Press, 1990., so it is a tad different []

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