Poetry in Exile
Exile In Paradise by Pat Nolan
(Nualláin House, Publisher, 2017)
Some fifty years ago a friend loaned or gifted me Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, and as is commonly acknowledged a loaned book is often an unintended gift. The immediacy of those translations rests on their plain spoken imagism. Undoubtedly much of that is due to Rexroth being of the Williams-Pound tell-it-as-you-see-it persuasion of American poetry. The gift was my introduction to Chinese poetry.
What at first was merely idle curiosity has become a lifelong passion leading me to read just about everything I can find relating to Chinese poetry, from Witter Bynner to Mike O’Connor. Over the years I have assembled a library of anthologies and collections beginning with Arthur Waley’s Translations from the Chinese and Robert Payne’s The White Pony to more current editions compiled by translators Burton Watson, Jonathan Chaves, David Hinton, Paul Hansen, and Red Pine (Bill Porter). With each collection or critical study I learn something new.
One of the first things I discovered was that Chinese poems have an almost total lack of enjambment. Each line is complete in of itself and works by association with the preceding and following line. This led me to view them as weighted or modular lines, similar to a succession of snapshots, and interchangeable.
At the time of my initial interest in classical Chinese poetry I was also thoroughly engaged in the challenges of being an American poet in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. I was fully aware of the experimental writing that was part of the great American literary reappraisal of the late sixties and early seventies: minimalism, collaboration, manipulation of texts using techniques employed by Burroughs/Gysin as well as appropriation and radical editing by poets aligned with the New York School. Taking a cue from my contemporaries and to verify my hunch about the modular line I engaged in collaboration with the table of contents of Rexroth’s selection of Chinese poems.
The poems produced by this method of appropriation were recognizable as such, reflecting the spare, understated, open ended characteristics of Chinese poetry in translation. I remember relating my method to Rexroth some years later and being met with a look of wary disapproval. The so-called Chinese poems were published in limited edition along with a selection of my work aptly titled The Chinese Quartet (pace T.S. Eliot) by Cranium Press in 1973.
Originally my scholarly interest in Chinese poetry was rather haphazard. I was aware, through my reading of Ezra Pound, of Fenollosa’s thesis on the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry, and was also familiar with Pound’s beautiful if not entirely accurate interpretation of Chinese poems. I had devoured the Gary Snyder translation of Cold Mountain (Han-shan), probably around the same time that I was constructing my obvious forgeries. It was all quite matter-of-fact and on the fly. Then, while browsing in the University library, I stumbled upon Burton Watson’s Su Tung-p’o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet. It was nothing akin to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick—more like the slow steady light of dawn erasing little by little the shadows until it is bright noon overhead. And I heard a voice. It was the voice of a poet ten centuries removed whose poems spoke to me directly as if he were my contemporary. As with Rexroth, it was Watson’s ear for current tendencies in modern poetry that brought these poems into the Twentieth Century. As should be expected, each new generation of translators of the poetry of ancient China into English or American brings something of their understanding of contemporary literature to their renditions.
From then on the pantheon of Chinese poets whose names I undoubtedly mispronounced became a focus of my armchair scholarship. In the pre-internet days I scoured used bookstores for books on and of Chinese poetry and while an undergrad made use of the University library. As it turns out, not only did Su Tung-p’o reach out to me across the centuries but so did such luminaries as Lu Yu, T’ao Ch’ien, Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and Po Chu-I.
To be receptive to these poets it is necessary to understand that the Chinese ideogram as a medium for poetry is a picture, an image of great syntactic complexity. Context serves as the basis for the unfolding of meaning and meaning is derived from a perceptual immediacy. The poet is always in the now, as reader and interpreter of the natural world. Poems are couched in a simple elegance, like the sweep of a brushstroke, but at the same time reflective of a subtle sophistication. A philosophic concept common to Buddhism and Taoism is the meditation on the regenerative in nature as exemplified by the passing seasons, the harmony of earth, sky, and flourishing life, where man is not at the center of the universe, but according to a personal scale, an integral part of the cosmos. The natural world, sacred and profane, is the horizon of this poetry, a poetry of pictures, images, viewed in sequence, as flickering moments of sentience.
I found the esthetic sensibilities in Chinese poetry compelling and consistent with the times in which I lived. My undergraduate thesis in literature postulated just such a connection between contemporary poetics and that of the classical Chinese. I also kept up my interaction with the scholarly materials and translations as an active part of my creative agenda. Encouraged by my initial success, I went on to produce more so-called Chinese works with such titles as Top Soil (Exotic Fragments from the Orient), The Chinese Connection, Naked Egg Fu Yung, and The Confusion Odes. Two poem sequences, Eight Chinese Poems of Doubtful Origin and Almond Eyes, were published as Obvious Forgeries, a chapbook from Steven Lavoie’s mimeo press, Famous Last Words, in 1976. In the eighties, Jim Haining’s literary magazine, Salt Lick, published a sequence of reworked adaptations titled The Chinese Poems of the Japanese. I began the present selection of original poems in the mid-eighties as a furtherance of my study and understanding of Chinese poetry.
In the course of my reading the Chinese poets I accumulated a list of favorite lines, primarily for my own edification and delight. There was no particular method in how I went about this occasional diversion. At one point I either purchased or was gifted a little hardbound notebook whose cover depicted an Asian art theme. Perfect. The blank pages had given me an idea. I copied a favorite line at the top of each page bracketed by quotation marks to indicate that they were not original with me. I had on previous occasions used well known quotes as the launch pad for poetic improvisation. What poet has not spun off a poem from an immortal saying or phrase? The notebook collection of first lines presented me with an opportunity to practice what I had learned about Chinese poetry. Over time the quoted material engendered poems and the modest accrual of poems led to the current selection.
Of the many themes in classical Chinese poetry, I favor those of the footloose exiled poet and the Taoist recluse/Buddhist hermit. Chinese poets naturally lamented their exile, tied as they were by profound emotion to the geography and locale of their ancestral turf. Educated in the classics, they followed career paths as government officials yet were sometimes exiled to backwater provincial posts to await the pleasure of the court or a shift in political winds. Their poems bemoan their isolation from the bustle of the social world and buzz of the imperial court. Some poets, such as T’ao Ch’ien, the poet of wine, savored the domesticity of their rustication. Others rejected society entirely as did the hermit poets Cold Mountain (Han-shan) and Stonehouse (Shih-wu). Their poems in particular are meditations on the essence of being in exile from the world.
I can count as my good fortune certain circumstances conducive to inhabiting an imaginary space corresponding to that of a poet in exile. Chief among these is atmosphere. I live in a rural river valley in Northern California that has many of the attributes of Chinese landscape paintings: misty hills, coniferous forests, picturesque river vistas, wildlife, and relative isolation. My exile, in fact, is genuine as my native land is over three thousand miles away on the shores of the St. Lawrence in far off French-Canada. Yet daily I celebrate my rustication and exile in the paradise of my abode of over forty years. I may lament that I am not at the center of the action but like the hermit poets I am thankful for the self-reflection enforced by my solitude. And like many ancient Chinese poets, I was also employed in government as a lowly civil servant. Another contributing factor is an adequate personal library of translations from the Chinese that constitute my points of literary reference. The various collections and monographs are reminders that although distant in time, the spirit of these poets is close at hand. They provide a foundation for a reasonably authentic poetry practice while allowing me to remain a poet of the present day, with all that implies.
The sequence of poems of Exile In Paradise trace a progression of days through the seasons in the life of a fictive poet scholar exiled in paradise. Each of the poems in this selection finds its origin in a line translated from a Chinese poet of old. The body of the poem consists of an improvisation from that line with the aim of using elements of Chinese prosody such as parataxis and parallelism while being cognizant that Chinese nouns have no number, verbs have no tense, and there are few if any conjunctions or prepositional indicators. In certain lyrical forms an emphatic repetition of a word beginning a line is paralleled in a succeeding line by precise mirrored syntax. Apart from any overarching discursive intent, each line maintains its own integrity. Chinese poetry is image rich and largely dependent for its overall effect on the juxtaposition of these images in a discontinuous thread that is not unlike the successive frames of a film. Not only are the poems comprised of stacked images but the combination of modular lines presents a deeply resonant mosaic. At its most basic an entire poem can function as the pure coincidence of images, an artfully arranged list.
The poems in Exile In Paradise are ephemeral, literary ghost masks, insubstantial whispering clouds, echoes of an echo. They are stylized renderings representative of the bare bones of Chinese poetry in translation. While clearly original, they also seek to achieve a synthesis between a historically distant culture and the contemporaneous radically different literature of today. Removed by degrees of separation from the originals in time and language, their impulse remains the same: to call up the perceptual as a song of celebration in sacred engagement with the world.
Pat Nolan has lived in silent cunning exile along the Russian River in Northern California for over forty years. His poetry, prose and translations have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies in North America, Europe and Asia. He has worked as a bartender, rock band manager, trail crew grunt, radio DJ, janitor, preschool teacher, and emergency dispatcher. The author of three novels and over a dozen poetry books, he is also a publisher and maintains this literary blog.
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