Monday, April 15, 2013

Daybreak (a Chinese poem)

Another offering for National Poetry Month, but something a bit more unusual this time.

Every now and then, I'll attempt a Chinese poem.  Because I'm not as fluent as I'd like to be, this effort is invariably a little stilted, but (I hope, at least!) progressively less stilted each time.  Before I say any more, here first is my latest attempt in the original Chinese:



Now, those of you who speak Chinese will probably recognize this as somewhat stilted (which is true), while those of you who don't have no idea what I just said.  I'll explain in a moment, but before I do so, allow me to put on my professor hat and insert a few thoughts on Chinese poetry.

I make no secret of the fact that I find Chinese writing to be the most beautiful.  By that I don't mean that I find Chinese prose better than prose in other languages; I mean the actual written characters.  But because I actually do read Chinese (about 60 to 80 percent as well as I'd like to, but that's a story for another time), I instinctively see the meaning behind most of the characters before I see their form.  I often wonder what it's like to see those characters from the perspective of someone who has no idea what they say.

At any rate, one of the appealing features of Chinese writing is that the characters (which are almost universally monosyllabic) are distinct and individual pieces of art, and a Chinese poem puts that all together in a composite that's a piece of art (when properly conceived) at multiple levels.

Because the monosyllabic characters are all distinct, one can easily tell from the above that this poem consists of four lines of five syllables each.  That may remind some of you of the poem's more famous Japanese relative, the haiku, which is three lines of five, seven, and again five syllables.  In fact, I would say thatin Western minds at leastthat is the defining characteristic of the haiku, is that it contains seventeen syllables in that arrangement.

Writing these poems gives me some insight, though, why that conception isn't accurate, even with respect to Asian poetry in general.  (I think it's a remarkably trivial characterization, not the least because it's totally underspecified.  See the postscript, for instance.)

In the first place, there's a difference between Chinese syllables and English syllables.  The majority of Chinese words are polysyllabicthat is, they consist of compounds of two or more charactersbut nevertheless, the characters retain a distinct identity that is different from that of English syllables.  The characters are less subordinated to the line, so to speak.  That is more true of older writing than of modern writing, and also more true of poetry than of prose.

From a more technical perspective, Chinese poetry has its constraints that roughly map onto English meter and rhyme.  For instance, the above poem belongs to a form called 五言絕句, which means (broadly translated) five-character quatrain, which it clearly is.  This form prescribes a simple rhyme scheme: the end of the second line must rhyme with the end of the fourth line.  And they do: the characters in question are spelled, in hanyu pinyin, guāng and xiāng, and even if you don't know a darned thing about Chinese spelling, I think you can tell that the two characters rhyme.  (The macrons over the a's indicate that the tones match, too, which they must do.)

In addition, the tones of the characters must follow certain arrangement rules.  Chinese characters generally have one of four different tones, of which the first two might be called "level" tones, and the last two "deflected" tones.  [EDIT: I should add here that originally, there was only one level tone and three deflected ones.  The one level tone evolved, in Mandarin, into the first two tones, while the second and third tones evolved into the last two Mandarin tones.  The fourth original tone, the so-called entering tone, disappeared from Mandarin, and characters with that tone were haphazardly distributed amongst the surviving tones.]

The tones in the first couplet must complement each other, as must the tones in the second couplet.  That is to say, for every level-tone character in the first line, the corresponding character in the second line must have a deflected tone, and vice versa.  The same is true of the third and fourth lines.  For instance, the above poem has the following pattern of tones (if we denote level tones with = and deflected tones with ×):


What's more, the patterns are traditionally restricted.  One does not generally see ===== or ×××××, or =×=×=, or anything like that.  Some variation is permitted (as is true of English poems, too), but is fairly carefully circumscribed.

In addition to all this is the usual transcendant pressure to make the expression of the form "beautiful" in some ill-defined (and probably undefinable) way, so that it isn't just a bunch of syllables, nor a bunch of syllables conforming to some rules, nor even a bunch of sensible syllables conforming to some rules.

I don't know Japanese at all, really, so I have no idea if some of these considerations apply (or if there are others in their place), but I certainly do not expect that haiku are simply seventeen syllables in a particular arrangement.  I have heard, for instance, that some reference to the seasons is expected, and that the syllables are not really syllables, but mora (the Japanese unit of speech timing), and so forth.

Anyway, enough of this palavering.  Here's a rough English translation of the poem:


The stars gleam in the nighttime,
but the dawning sun drowns them all out.
We venture into the world in our youth,
but thinking always of our hometown.

No, it's not deep, I never said it was!  I'm working on it!

P.S.  Because I'm unable to let a post go without some nerdery involved: Suppose that one uses a vocabulary of English words that are (with equal probability) one, two, or three syllables long.  What is the probability that an arbitrary sequence of words totalling seventeen syllables can be broken into lines of five, seven, and then five syllables without breaking a word?

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