[lit-ideas] Re: Poetry x 2 = Sabbatical

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 14 Oct 2006 11:22:51 +0900

I have been following with delight the discussion of poetry. Here are
a few random thoughts, scattered along the way.

1. Mike makes a strong case, a la reader-response theory, that a poem
is what the reader makes of it, which may be very different, indeed,
from whatever the poet intended. Judith notes that Romantic poets, in
particular, wanted very much, indeed, to attract attention to
themselves and their personal stories. Combining these observations, I
see a familiar conversational pattern: A says X, B hears Y, A
complains that B isn't listening properly. B replys that what B heard
was Y. A and B talk past each other until they come to blows. go off
in a huff, or, like two Englishmen at a bar, give it up and buy each
other a beer.

2. I note, too, that all of the references so far are to Western,
largely English-speaking, poets. This reminds me to recommend one of
my favorite books,

Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics' Omen of the World. By STEPHEN
OWEN. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. vii, 303 pp.

Owen's central point is that every art of poetry (and, yes, there are
many, depending on time and place) assumes a corresponding art of
readership. This explains, among other things, why readers who bring
an unanticipated art of reading to a poem may find it unintelligible,
or not very good at all in terms of what they expect from a poem.

To illustrate his point, Owen compares the English Romantics with the
great T'ang Dynastic lyric poet Du Fu. In translation, Du Fu comes
across as trite and banal, leaving Western readers to wonder why many
Chinese consider him China's greatest poet. The problem, says Owen, is
that Western readers do what they learn in school, follow the
Romantics' example and look for a "deeper" message somewhere "behind"
the poem. What they lack is what Du Fu and other classical Chinese
poets assumed, that the meaning of the poem is right there on the
surface--to anyone, that is, whose education in the Chinese classics
allows them to recognize that, for example, that the mention of a full
moon seen from a certain place while sailing down the Yellow River
evokes a huge array of allusions to previous poems and commentators.

The Western reader sees only "Full moon rising over X [a place name
she doesn't recognize] and says, "How banal." A Chinese reader steeped
in the classics is instantly aware of the allusions the image evokes
and how they reinforce or conflict with those evoked by the preceding
or following image that may seem, by itself, equally banal to the
untutored. He will also know that when the poem was written Du Fu was
fleeing down the river from the sack of Chang-an, the T'ang imperial
capital, by An Lushan, a Turkish general in the service of the T'ang,
who had risen against the emperor following an infamous affair with
the emperor's favorite concubine. It is the incident and the
complexity of Du Fu's response to it as revealed by his allusions in
which its intended reader finds the power of the poem.

3. I would also like to mention a book I am currently reading, Eiko
Ikegami's _Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political
Origins of Japanese Culture_.  One of her examples is _renga_ (linked
poetry), which was produced at events where crowds of poets would
compete by adding verses to a collectively produced poem on a set
topic. Ikegami sees _renga_ as the prototype for what she calls
"aesthetic publics" and writes,

"The delights and satisfactions of participatioin in aesthetic publics
were summarized by one enthusiast's claim that 'nothing is more fun
than doing _renga_--a line that was given to the husband in a
_kyougen_ comedy of the medieval period. In this play, the feisty wife
threatens to leave her husband because he attends too many linked
verse sessions and spends to much of their money doing so. After a
major quarrel, the wife declares her intention to move out. To win her
back, the husband recites a line of poetry-- to which the wife wisely
replies with a witty poem of her own. The couple is reconciled when
the husband proposes to enjoy _renga_ with his wife at home."

On the one hand, _renga_ is a far cry from the poem seen as an
effusion of individual genius in the Romantic tradition. On the other,
its role in this anecdote is also a far cry from the pleasure of the
solitary reader to which Mike appeals.



John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
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