Mountains, Vikings, and Chinese Poetry

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

Climbing up high I reached the summit,
Quickly bolting squirrels and weasels scattered.

Before and below opening wide,
Scattered and strewn corrugations piled up:

Some joined like marriage
Or constrained like combat

Or relaxed like lying prostrate
Or alert like startled pheasants

Or dispersed like broken tiles
Or guided like spokes to the hub

Or floating like boat travel
Or direct like horses running

Or backed off like enemies
Or face to-face like partners

Or confused like bamboos germinating
Or swollen like cauterizing moxa

Or disarrayed like lines in a sketch
Or sinuous like Great Seal Script

Or meshed like star configurations
Or dense like hovering clouds

Or buoying up like waves
Or breaking apart like plows

Or like the valiants Meng Pen and Hsia Yu
Who gamble victory fighting for the prize—

The victor strong exuding power,
The defeated stunned grumbling his anger.

Or like the grandeur of a ruler
Who gathers, at court the humble and youthful;

Intimate, yet never too familiar;
Distant, yet never estranged.

Or like facing a banquet table
With dishes in excess spread for show,

Or like traveling through Nine Plains
Where grave mounds embrace their coffins.

Or stacked up like a double-boiler
Or erect like a sacrificial urn

Or upturned like terrapins sunning themselves
Or collapsed like sleeping quadrupeds

Or undulating like hidden dragons
Or wings flapping like a captured condor

Or equal like friends
Or following like first and second

Or adrift like exile
Or pensive like waiting

Or antagonistic like enmity
Or close like marriage

Or solemn like high miters
Or swirling like dancing sleeves

Or immovable like battle formations
Or encircling like the great hunts

Or submissive—flowing east
Or restful—head to the north

Or like the blaze from a roasting fire
Or like vapor rising while steaming rice

Or moving and not pausing
Or left and not gathered

Or aslant and not inclined
Or slack and not taut

Or naked like bald temples
Or smoking like a wooden pyre

Or like the cracks on tortoise shells
Or like the lines of the eight trigrams

Or level on top like po
Or broken underneath like kou4

Elongated-like: broken then joined again
Unbending-like: deserting then meeting again

Agape-like: fish mouths gasping from duckweed
Sparse-like: constellations traversed by the moon

Majestic-like: trees tall in the courtyard
Peaked-like: granaries stacked up high

Pointed-like: halberds standing sharp
Glittering-like: holding jade and jasper

Opening-like: flowers unfurling the calyx
Dripping-like: rain falling from broken eaves

Leisure-like: stretched out and calm
Obstinate-like: familiar and pushy

Superior-like: emergent and speeding
Squirming-like: frightened, unwilling to stir.

For a Modernist this might just be playing with language, but for Han Yu it was something else. Steven Owen sees the poem as an example of “architectural representation”, where each part of the description is part of a transparently orderly whole. The poem ends

Mighty they stand between Heaven and Earth,
in orderly function like the body’s ducts and veins.

Who was he who first laid out their origin?
Who, in labor and striving, urged it on?
Creating in this place the simple and artificed,
with forces joined, he bore long-suffering toil.
Could he have not applied hatchet and ax?—
he must have used spells and incantations.
No tradition survives from the Age of Chaos,
such a mighty deed none can repay.
I have heard from the priest in charge of
that he descends to taste the offering’s sweet
Finely wrought, I made this poem,
by which I may join in requiting him.

So for Han Yu this is not a riot of descriptions, but rather an affirmation of the orderliness of the universe. Mountains, words, Han Yu, crocodiles, all of them are part of an orderly, knowable whole. Not how I would explain the modernist approach to art or reality. Not that I am really here to tell poets they can’t say anything they want about Chinese poetry, but it is interesting to see the corpus of classical Chinese poetry leading two lives.

  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 

  4. hexagrams from the Yijing 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.