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On Arthur Sze’s “The Silk Dragon II”

(Tang Dynasty era art—The Emperor Ming Huang Traveling in Shu)

Whatever one may say about the People’s Republic of China today, it once offered the model of the poet-emperor, as well as poets employed in political life, wedding governance to lyric spirit.”

Imagine if our country were governed by poets. As is well known, Plato would have cast us (yes, I am one too) out of an ideal city-state as deceivers, leaving more room for the all-important philosophers. This point of view persists in the present, except that our philosophers today are lawyers practicing philosophy without a license. We are living through an epoch so virulently anti-intellectual, that even the pragmatic Plato would be shocked. Worse still, poetry is not so much despised in the United States as ignored, unless it is comfortable doggerel. Verse will only raise ire from the anti-poetry crowd if it bursts into view by blatantly sporting the wrong politics in the wrong forums.  

Yet poets understand that whatever its current negligible public reception, in poetry reside virtue and truth, sometimes in their purest and most lucid forms. Poetry does not have to wax topical to strike deep into human motives with its swift, keen perception. And that in itself can change minds. It has no imperative to comment on the news because it is the news. In “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley went so far as to declare that through their grasp on reason and imagination, poets are “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.” Big talk, that. But hard to disavow, even though our society leaves room for only one national Poet Laureate to go around rousing the troops. The United States Poet Laureate is like Washington D.C., which sits close to the center of power but does not have congressional representation. Thus its ceremonial presence is symbolic and ultimately ironic.

Whatever one may say about the People’s Republic of China today, it once offered the model of the poet-emperor, as well as poets employed in political life, wedding governance to lyric spirit. In the Tang Dynasty, 10th century, Li Jing and his son Li Yu were both recognized as accomplished poets. Let it be said, however, that poets and poetry were not precisely of the people, by the people, and for the people. Poets tended to be highly trained scholars who had passed grueling imperial examinations, and not infrequently wannabe officials writing mediocre verse to ascend in rank. Nevertheless, poetry mattered in the public sphere. It was believed that if one were well read in poetry, he would be a better administrator—a shocking thought in these United States, where politicians are more likely to read the political biographies of other politicians for talking points than to crack a used copy of Wallace Stevens or Claude McKay. But, in Confucian China, the moral value of poetry, its central place in a subject-citizen’s enlightenment, was patent, as scholar Bo Yün-Tien tells us. It was a primary way to understand the Dao.

Arthur Sze’s concise anthology of translated and edited Chinese poetry The Silk Dragon II, which is to be released next month with Copper Canyon Press, is a welcome volume to enter our own republic of letters at a fraught time of acerbic mutual misunderstanding in the political realm. Alexis de Tocqueville taught us about democracy. Perhaps the Tang Dynasty can teach us manners within the body politic, if only by instructing us in the art of reflection. This book is a balm to apply to the suppurating wound, self-inflicted and visited on others alike, of permanent discord, as we strive (some of us), impossibly it seems, for comity.

The anthology spans 365 A.D. to 1970. As Sze explains in his introduction, Silk Dragon II is a reissue of the 20-year-old version, most specifically in order to add a modern section, which is a wise decision. It is not as though the Chinese suddenly stopped writing poetry, but one mostly sees the classical poems. Sze wants us to know there is a vibrant, living tradition, some of it following ancient principles and forms, yet much of it drafting off Western poetry as well and some taking place in the diaspora. At fewer than 90 pages, excluding the introduction, the anthology might seem meager. But one appreciates how Sze has a principle of selection, in part based on his success over time in producing worthy translations that do not minimize the original form out of existence.  Many an ill-fated anthology of renderings from a foreign language focuses on coverage and neglects the craft, substituting girth for techne.

The preface is straightforward, yet learned, modest, and subtle. Then, in a teaching spirit, Sze walks us through his translation of a single eight-line poem, producing the ideograms, seven of them to a line, on a single page, and explains how he went about rendering these 56 separate icons into eight lines, to facilitate permanent passage into the English tradition, an act Walter Benjamin refers to as a translation’s “afterlife.” Sze is both strict with himself and dares to take liberties, such as breaking each line finally into two lines. By the time I began reading the poems, I trusted his judgement and stopped worrying that I was going to miss something vital.

As for the poems and poets themselves, one does not expect treatises on good government. After all, poetry was often their after-hours job, like a carpenter who goes to play jazz at a little club in the evenings. Besides, classical Chinese poetry does not tend toward dogma or direct instrumental philosophy. Rather, the practice of poetry is directed at the refinement of the inner being. This can take the form of fleeting perception of the natural world, as in the single included poem of Zhang Ji, who according to Sze, “passed imperial examinations and held various government posts.”  






The poet’s concise, specific engraving of the details of his surroundings nimbly gives way to light torment. Yet there is tacit acceptance of life as containing suffering, to be folded into reverence for the enfolding landscape. One might speculate that Zhang Ji understood how politics does not solve everything; it is merely an aspect of existence, to be borne if not altered. Sze concludes the biographical note with the same stark acceptance of ephemerality as the poem: “Little is known about his life.” This is not the obituary any governmental administrator wants printed 1,200 years later, yet it is perhaps the one that all, including the emperors, deserve.

On the other hand, more pages (five) in this slim volume are devoted to Li Shangyin, recognized as one of the greatest Chinese poets. Sze comments that Li “tried to pursue a career through the examination system but was blocked by numerous political rivalries and power struggles near the end of the Tang dynasty.” This is dispiriting news yet true to what one knows about the nature of political life.  

Li Shangyin’s “The Brocade Zither” evokes the tale of the Zhou emperor, who ordered the instrument built with 50 strings, but upon hearing its music, found it impossibly melancholy and commanded that it be broken in two. This event coincides with the fable of a person who did not know whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

Zhuangzi had a morning dream of a confused butterfly.

Emperor Wang’s passion was transformed into a calling cuckoo.

On a vast sea, when the moon is bright, pearls contain tears.

The qualities of allusiveness, introspection, meditation on paradox, and blank compassion for the Emperor’s perversity and subsequent strange destiny—all that subtlety—may have been what kept Li from achieving the career status he strived for. Yet, paradoxically, those human qualities are precisely what might have made him a more fit governor, or even emperor, one who would not break a zither in two in a tantrum.

Certainly he came to a better end than Li Yu, another Tang Dynasty poet, who was the final ruler of the Southern Tang, but who died when the Song emperor sent him poisoned wine as a gift.  Ironically, one of his poems was written to be set to the tune of the song “Meeting Happiness.” Perhaps Yu was prescient as to where things would ultimately go, for title aside, this poem is downbeat.

In solitude, the wutong trees

imprison the clear autumn in the deep courtyard.

Scissored but not severed,

trimmed but still massive:

it is the sorrow of parting,

another strange flavor of the heart.

This is a soulful ruler to be sure, sensitive, complex, and at the same time disarmingly direct. The poet presents as a person one could understand, believe in, drink wine with (Chinese poets do that often), be a friend to, and eventually you and he could share that mentioned sorrow of parting, whether by rift or death. “Scissored but not severed,” could, impishly, stand as the slogan of any of our current political parties, as each strives to endure the brutal landscape. Better still, it could be our own motto, we powerless citizens, as we struggle to endure the political parties and their endless, life-altering shenanigans, while remaining whole persons.

The ten 20th century and beyond poets published in the final 25 pages of The Silk Dragon, including some from the diaspora, have their political interests, for sure, and some of them make direct social commentary in their poetry. Yet their biographies are more conventional, the kind one would find in any contemporary literary journal. They are career writers and artists, mostly, the kind who hold university positions rather than climbing the government ladder. They observe governance, rather than participating in it. None of them was poisoned by wine.

Given the obvious risks, perhaps today’s poets, given the choice, would decide that it is better to be cast out of the republic, instead to become art influencers on social media, safely “influential” in the comparative anonymity to which most poets have been consigned by history and geopolitical reality. Whatever the case, we have Sze to thank for inviting us into reflection by bringing to our attention a collection of Chinese poets, some of whom stood within the palace, governing with one hand and writing with the other.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles and earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

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