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I’ve been enjoying Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited lately (You can find a few of his essays reprinted here). Rexroth’s literary polymathism—his ability to speak (and translate) almost anything—seems touched only by Ezra Pound (who was a great translator, but not a good one).

Rexroth’s admiration for Tu Fu as a poet (along with Joe Weil’s recommended book list) inspired me to purchase One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. And I’ve spent the last several weeks reading, and rereading Tu Fu, in hopes that I would be able to understand and come to some of the insights that Rexroth touts. For example, Rexroth says

You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.

Rexroth concludes his essay saying

If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

I have not come to the profound insights of Rexroth, and I suppose I won’t for many years. I did figure out, I think, how at least one of Tu Fu’s poems functions. Or rather, how Rexroth’s translation functions. Here’s the poem:

Sunset

Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains. Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley. The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume. Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches. Whirling insects
Swarm in the air. Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?

On display here, of course, is poetic montage, which became especially popular in modernist poetry (in part because of the influence of eastern poetry, which was being imported to English via French, if I understand history correctly). I had always been familiar with Ezra Pound’s idea of metaphor as a sort of montage, but what is happening here seems to me to be a sort of directional, linear montage. One image leads to the next in a linking chain of montage. The sunset glittering on the beads is (possibly) refracted, turned into multiple colors. The beads, perhaps, are slowly moving from side to side, like a pendulum. This is similar to the way that the flowers, coming up in Spring, begin to display various colors and perhaps wave in the Zephyr.

The flowers quite readily lead to the garden image—this isn’t really montage. The garden is full of perfume, which leads to the smoke from the barges. The barges lead to the sparrows—perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I can see one saying that barges drift and tumble down a river the way that sparrows hop and tumble through branches. The montage here, I think, is the implied aimlessness. Finally, the sparrows montage into the insects.

We want to ask next, how do all these images culminate in the question “Who discovered / That one cup of thick wine / Will dispel a thousand cares?” It’s a good question, and on the surface it seems that Tu Fu/Rexroth has pulled this last line rabbit-like out of a hat. It’s not a complete non-sequitor. But let’s return to what Rexroth says:

Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things.

Rexroth seems to be saying, in Tu Fu’s poetry, the question I just posed should not even be a question. We perceive a break between images and feeling. But perhaps this break is artificial. We acknowledge that images can evoke feelings, perhaps that there is an “objective correlative” that can reliably evoke feelings. But perhaps what is being suggested here is that the category break is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: “values are the way we see things.”

Thus, we can move seamlessly from the barge to sparrows to the question about wine; it’s all part of Tu Fu’s hermeneutic circle: one thing constantly interpreting the next. Perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word “linear,” given that I just described Tu Fu as using a sort of “circle.” But I don’t want to sit firmly with one or the other. Maybe coil? Spring?

These philosophical musings are not what is poetic here, though. Perhaps they are the fodder of the poetic (though “fodder” downgrades philosophy in an unfair way). Having interpreted the poem philosophically, though, it begs the question: what is poetic about this piece? Rexroth again: [Tu Fu’s] poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

Rexroth’s answer may be a trapdoor: What is poetry? Read Tu Fu and you will understand. Undoubtedly there is a wholeness about Tu Fu’s poem. We enter the poem at the beginning and leave it at the end. Have we gone anywhere? We’ve moved from image to image, and yet I’ve argued we remain in the same place, we have stayed within an interpretive circle.

Yet our minds have been expanded. We are in a different place than before. We can try to define that place, interpret and understand it, but in doing so we are actually moving to a new place. We grasp at it and it slips away.

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Micah Towery teaches writing and literature in South Bend, IN. His book of poetry is Whale of Desire. His writing appears in magazines like AWP Chronicle, Mantis, Slant Magazine, and his poetry and translations appear in Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Loaded Bicycle, and Prime Number Magazine. In the past, he's worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, bus driver, baker, and church organist. He sometimes tweets @micahtowery.

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  • Stewart Kahn Lundy March 11, 2011, 3:38 pm

    This is excellent, and not just because I’m a Sinophile. Rexroth and Tu Fu (and you) seem to have a grasp of this simple spirit — or should I say you do not have a grasp… perhaps it’s that you let be, or grasp by not grasping.

    The procession of this poem is, as Rexroth indicates, pragmatically Chinese, free of the high metaphysical speculation symptomatic of Indian Buddhism. The irony, of course, is that one of the cardinal sins articulated by Siddhartha Gautama was just that: metaphysical speculation. When this “high” Buddhism migrated from India to China via Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Ch’an (later Zen in Japan), the eminently down-to-earth Chinese thought this was a foreign version of their own indigenous Daoism.

    Manifested by this poem are hints of the Zen aesthetic, characterized by the “three marks” of existence: impermanence, incompletion, imperfection. There is an asymmetry to this poem, even as it exposes (as Micah indicates) a “hermeneutic circle.” There is an ephemeral quality to each of its elements: sunset, flowers, rivers, perfume, smoke, fires, sparrows, insects, and even a single cup of wine. Even the hint at a meal brings forth the statement of the Buddha: “At every feast there is a skeleton.” And the flower cannot help but hint to the mind of the lotus.

    The almost-non-sequitor of the cup of thick wine is surprising, but rereading the poem, it shouldn’t be. Saints of many religious have referred to the “distractions” of life and its countless (“thousand”) cares as flies: the cup of wine, like meditation, makes me forget the swarm of insects swarming around me, landing on me, pestering me. But one must always return to the world of cares and suffering (samsara), even if one reaches temporary peace (nirvana).

    What Tu Fu does here (and Rexroth, to give ample credit) is like the Japanese bonsai, or the Chinese penjing: carefully crafted, meticulous even to the point of tedium for the author, and yet its form appears spontaneous, accidental. This is close to the essence of wei wu wei (“doing (by) not doing”) or the austerity of wabisabi: what one does should appear spontaneous, even accidentally beautiful, but can never be feigned or overwrought. It should even be, as the chief example of Chuang Tzu: as a drunkard un-self-conscious of one’s body. When the drunkard falls from the cart, he is not injured.

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