canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei
by Pain Not Bread (Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Andy Patton)
Brick Books, 2000.

Reviewed by J. Mark Smith

This book of imitations of classical Chinese poetry is the sort of project I admire. The three writers who make up the Bread Not Pain group composed "free variations" on poems by Wang Wei and other writers of the Tang Dynasty: "sometimes [free variations] on the original poems and translations, sometimes on elements of the critical commentaries of the translators, sometimes on a combination of sources" (121).

In his "Preface to the Translation of Ovid’s Epistles," John Dryden defined three kinds of translation: metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is a word-by-word ‘literal’ rendering. Paraphrase, which Dryden favors, is "translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense…" Imitation is "where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases."

Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei is certainly a collection of imitations in Dryden’s sense of the word, though Bread Not Pain perhaps allows itself even more liberty than Dryden could have imagined. The authors’ afterword acknowledges that the poems here were "sparked off by what might, from the viewpoint, say, of a reader skimming the original for content rather than texture, best be called a random selection of words and phrases, i.e. a set of elements scattered throughout the original with no apparent connection, in the sense of the logic and needs of the original piece." (122) Disregard for the ‘logic and needs’ of the original poems will certainly lose you the name of translator. Is it not a weirdly solipsistic exercise to approach classical Chinese poets as merely a set of "constraints" upon the composition of pieces that were, in the end, "constructed out of our individual/collective impulses and experiences" just like ‘ordinary’ poems? (122-23).

Bread Not Pain seems to have had contradictory aims. If the afterword is to be believed, they also hoped to create "some analogue, appropriate to our time and culture, of the high degree of allusiveness of classical Chinese, especially that of the High Tang." (122) Unfortunately, most of the ‘allusions’ in the book they finally wrote are to late 20th c. literary and cultural theory, making for some very low points in the poems.

It's noteworthy that Ezra Pound is studiously not mentioned anywhere in the afterword or bibliography of Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. T. S. Eliot once called him "the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time" in English, a claim that isn't as preposterous as it sounds, in that Pound brought modernist free verse, and the ‘imagist’ image, to Chinese poetry, where it seemed they had always naturally belonged. Pound, the great 20th c. theorizer and practitioner of poetic translation in English, was much attacked by scholars for the liberties he took in Cathay and for his imitations from other languages too. Now this book seems to follow in that Pound tradition. But does it?

One quality sadly not transmitted by high modernism to Bread Not Pain is any great frugality or compression of discourse. And the single most important Poundian insight seems to have been lost sight of as well — that it is precisely out of a poet’s struggle with the content (and not just the the ‘texture’) of a foreign language poem that significant formal invention happens. "Tain’t what a man sez," Pound wrote to W. H. D. Rouse, "but wot he means that the traducer has got to bring over. The implication of the word." Only by straining to make such discriminations will the poet ever get down ‘deep’ into the possibilities of both his language and his thought. Pound was grousing about the metaphrasers, of course. Bread Not Pain is far over at the other end of the translation spectrum, but with equally frustrated results:

I struggled with notes and a dictionary,
just to say that poetry need not be lost.
Words fell; one caught me by the sleeve. ("Frost")

It’s a lovely figure, but one also very telling of the limits of Bread Not Pain’s method.

The first principle of Pound's translation was to make a real English poem out of the translation; that outcome, in fact, is the only justification for "running division on the groundwork" (Dryden’s phrase) of the original. Bread Not Pain acknowledge the difficulty of the task they’ve set themselves, but they also find a way to denigrate that high modernist ambition as well:

A poem is either a poem of sorts,
or nothing, a mistake from first to last,
though existence, on occasion, speaks its feelings...
("Moon-Viewing From the Late Tang")

"Existence … speaks its feelings" indeed, but how many of these pieces – more than 100 pages of them – are in fact "a mistake from first to last"? Quite a few, I think. (The middle of the book, the Du-Fu section, contains some especially wordy and leaden efforts: the earnestly intended "The Language of War" is strikingly bad among these, as are the long-winded, meta-poetical stinkers, "The Rise and Fall of Human Breath" and "Another Universe.")

But Pound would have admired stanzas like the following ones for the way they build up the strange complex that he called "image" out of filaments of sound and meaning:

Thinking of Suzhou,
the rain that blew once in shimmering fans
from the drip plates.
The roof tiles chipped now, and the rain
wild again, staining the mansion walls. ("Thinking of Suzhou")
Across the sea of heaven,
boats set sail;
daybreak sees the characters returning to their stele
in the cool snail-shade. ("Small Wild Goose Pavilion")

Most of the pieces in the book, however, are composed in the service of other aesthetics. "Sun in the Eye" speaks in a poet’s voice of a latecomer’s doubts, creative paralysis, the impossibility of "fidelity to the image." But the lyric is largely submerged in soft mental meanderings – neither image, nor argument, nor even koan:

If there is any particular meaning to this
it is perhaps that what there is escapes me,
or that there is no true meaning,
only the great blue wall of the sky,
against which fidelity to the image is impossible. ("Sun in the Eye")

Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, as I have noted, is full of ‘poetic’ meta-commentary – theorizing about texts and meaning, about poems and images. There’s even one (the heavy-handed "Literary Criticism") on the ‘death of the author.’ These self-referential formulations range from the striking —

Words are like fishtraps. Or twilight,
when sensation, like the river,
is flooded with night's ink. ("Worldly Noise")

— to the godawfully portentous ("Poetics operating in twilight"), to the passingly amusing —

The next four lines
are blown about by winds,
unable to stand, and the rice paddies
shine. ("The Old Man in the Mountains")

"The Written Character" develops a fine image from a Du Fu poem, or perhaps from the look of an ideogram in it:

… egrets clenched like fists. …
but serene, like a flock of fists weeping on sand,
egrets sleeping in the boat’s wake.

But the poem, focused on the relation between an inexpressible "interiority" and the written character, sinks into prose commentary, and the meta-critical takes over again: "It is only in such austerity that words have enough weight to occur." (!) This sort of wet theoretical gesture reaches its noodly apex with "The Old Man in the Mountains," where a voice intones: "This is the failure of meaning — / no external reference or hermeneutic to unravel the world." ("The Old Man in the Mountains") Why bother to lineate it?

Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei is fairly chock-a-block with aphorisms, most of which make quite un-Zen-like declarations about the limits of language and poetry:

Like the moon she waits for fifteen hundred years,
like water where the rain dwells. She lies down.
Rhyme and iambics are brought to their knees.
Kind language, meaning all that it can mean. ("White Peony")

I quite possibly agree with this closing credo, and am swept along even by the fine first sentence. It is the unfortunate combination of "she lies down" with the cliché of [poetic technique(s)] "brought to their knees" that leaves me coldly standing. I have much the same experience with "As Buddha Did," which ringingly asserts the failing of words as did "John of the Cross in his allegories, / Jesus in the parables, / Kafka in the nightmares." But then the poem demonstrates such merely writerly failings as prosiness and a weak verb:

By now we can decode the familiar,
and separate from the human world.

The insistence on inexpressibility runs too often to verbosity. A strong image ("the present in the hissing of the rain’), for instance, will be ruined by a stilted and portentous ("Time’s diction is a wave…") sentence:

Time's diction is a wave of self-immersion,
a declaration of the present in the hissing of the rain.

But then the poet’s (or poets’) highly self-conscious parentheticization takes it back:

This statement, in a purely honorary time,
is neither meaningful, nor wholly meaningless etc.

And yet the last lines of this piece — "Continuous Elegy" — are very good. It’s just too bad that the poem contorts itself about what it means to be ‘clear.’ Much of the poem’s thematic concern with temporality and deixis belongs as a matter of course to the problematic "I" of lyric anyway:

I envy that apparent clarity,
the brief transparent whiteness of a world
made visible by rain.

On the topic of lyric, it is interesting to watch these poets at once repelled from and impelled back into the North American ‘confessional’ strain, even while supposedly translating Tang dynasty works. Many of the poems in Introduction to an Introduction to Wang Wei are unabashedly atmospheric, conjured out of little more than some hazy idea we all have of "ancient Chinese poets" and "eastern wisdom":

Seeing that pleasure costs more than regret,
I content myself with watching the fine rain, alone. ("Burning Murals")

"Fireflies" begins with an appealingly candid declaration (a warning sign for the reader that we have stepped into a late 20th c. confessional zone, and not the Tang):

The creeping shadows move across the paving stones,
and once more I have taken flight from difficulty.
First the honking of the cranes, and then my mother's weeping,
though I know she is dead, and there is
nothing to it, only the sound of last night's rain.
Too lazy for old age, I've drifted again.
I mistook this existence for poetry.
And now I find myself empty-handed,
with only a name, and a few dubious imitations. ("Fireflies")

It’s a prosy little free verse exercise, adorned with what are almost the brand-name emblems of Chinese poetry. Its sad, self-deprecating ‘honesty’ almost seems right. But in the end, its sentences just don’t do enough work; its metaphors come a little too easily. (But how winning that it should contain its own true-to-type responses to this objection!) No, we shouldn’t mistake it for a poem.

But perhaps I set my criticism too much against the grain of Bread Not Pain’s own ‘post’-modernist and non-monumentalist aesthetic. I’ll finish by reprinting "Friendship," one of the best in the book. Jaunty anapests bounce slightly out of control in places, but this may be only right in a poem advertising such a serious, un-solemn vision of poetry, of translation, of reading:


What if the words Wang Wei now are only a temple?
Or a lodge where one spends the night,
drinking and talking, limited, as always,
to the limited events of one’s life.
A little asocial joy,
the impish hyperbole of friendship—
that one sets out expectant, lucky to be here—
yet all experience is essentially the same,
a sad whistling among the intellectuals. So,
if Wang Wei is an inn then, the inn a resting place,
the moon an ornament, the forest rain—
perhaps our talents blind us after all.
To find it is the old man, elegantly dressed,
and usually so proper in demeanor,
who has made his way between the tables, slightly tipsy,
upsetting the winecups of those engaged in
otherwise quite serious debate.

J.M. Smith is an assistant professor in the English Department at York University.







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