Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poetry in parts

A post or two back I indicated I had ordered a book of Chinese poetry for beginners--in fact, How to Read Chinese Poetry, a self-styled "guided anthology" edited by Zong-Qi Cai, and published by Columbia.

Chinese poetry is one of those areas in which my ignorance is vast and profound. I had had, some years ago, a copy of a certain Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, which I enjoyed, but which was physically spoiled, somehow. Dropped in a rain gutter, something like that, and I never got around to replacing it.

Aside from that there was only Ezra Pound's Cathay, with a few pieces anthologized that I came across and always loved, especially "The River-Merchant's Wife," which ends:

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

But then there were those who said it was Pound and not Li Tai-Po, and how was I to tell?

The fidelity of a translation to the original is determinable only to the extent that you can make something out of the original. How accurate are the corresponding words, how closely is the form and the shape of the original preserved? And how can that be even guessed at with a language you know practically nothing about, like Chinese?

When I think back to my old Columbia Anthology I remember it was straightforward English verse, free verse as far as I remember, with no discernable form. Just Roman letters on the page.

Zong-Qi Cai's anthology provides the novice with a little more. With most poems we get the poem in three forms--the English translation, the original in Chinese characters, and a phonetic Pinyin romanization of the characters. This highlights the easily-overlooked fact that every poem has these three aspects: meaning, appearance, and sound. If I can read, I apprehend the meanings of the words automatically (though I may mistake one significance for another, or fail to grasp the meaning of the whole--see, e.g., Pound, Cantos).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

It's hard to imagine how the sound of that passage could ever pass over into another language in substituting non-English words, meaning for meaning. Somehow, there is a sort of constant, a Heisenbergian limiting principle by which, if the meaning is preserved, the sound must fall short. And, short of learning the language, that's part of how I necessarily feel when looking at the dismembered parts of these Chinese poems: meaning, appearance, sound, which, passing from one to the other, I try to blur into a unity.