Friday, August 7, 2015

Tu Fu, Poems XI and XII

These two poems share the same title, "By the Winding River"; and when I was rereading them this week, I found myself thinking about Shakespeare's sonnets--154 poems in the same form about more or less the same subject.

Poets tend to obsess, mull over, second-guess, perseverate, so it's no surprise to me that Tu Fu was rehashing his subject matter. But the fact that they share a title makes me wonder if he was trying to work something out in this pair of poems.

How did copying out these poems affect your ability to recognize their similarities and differences?

Did each poem take you into a different emotional or imaginative place? Or did you feel as if both poems brought you to the same place?

What elements of language (word choice, syntax, etc.) seem individual to each poem? Or shared by both poems?

How have you, as a writer, as a human being, dealt with subjects that you can't seem to get out of your system?


Ruth said...

Before I even start on these directions and prompts, I'd will share an observation I suddenly had about my own copying style versus dictation style. When I take a poem dictation, I just write the words, anxious to get them down properrly; however, when I copy them, I say the words in my head as I write. Then I realized that when I am attempting a poem, I do the same thing. I am saying the words as I write them, perhaps listening to the internal tune?
This is not especially noteworthy for our discussion, but I wanted to share my ah-ha.

Carlene said...

I focused most on word choice and placement as I copied out the poems. In the first, the word every showed up three times in the first five lines. Every, as a word, is pretty final and allows no flexibility or leeway. Another thing I noticed in the first poem is the six “I” statements made, almost all of which connote negative things (“I pawn,” “I owe,” and “I cry out” being the most serious ones.) Conversely, in the second poem, there is only one use of “every” and there are only two “I” statements, both of which are passive in nature.

Because of the shift in focus from the “I” to the experience, I felt less put off by the speaker’s tone in the second poem; in fact, it feels a little more determined and maybe even hopeful. The first poem is so negative and hopeless in tone, except for the brief interlude with the yellow butterflies. I felt that the first speaker has given up on whatever his goals were, and chooses instead to be a sort of victim of his circumstances, drinking and owing money, and then complaining that “men cross each other.” In the second poem, the sorrow is present, but only for a little while (I love “Ten thousand/ Atoms of sorrow whirl away/In the wind.”) The speaker sees pairings (metaphor for unity), and says “After the laws of their being, / All creatures pursue happiness.”

A similarity I see is the in both poems, the speaker’s goals—his happiness—in yet to be achieved. However, in the second one, the concluding question is more of a challenge to the self, whereas the concluding question of the first poem feels more like a lament.

As a writer, as a human being, how have I dealt with systemic questions? Not well, quite often. We tend to keep chewing that sour cud, don’t we? Quietude helps: an intentional date with myself to acknowledge whatever is hanging around in my head and heart, and puzzle out why I feel as I do. Sometimes that helps with perspective, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it usually helps to not just shove it aside and beat myself up for feeling whatever I am feeling. As a writer, I do often find the same topics coming up over and over again. Usually, it’s a similar emotional context that triggers the work. I have a pile of autumn poems, for example. Some good, some not so good, but many of them filled with lament and loss. What I do with the lament and loss, whether I can use it intentionally as material instead of as controlling theme is the difference between a decent poem and a whiny one. It’s the matter of distance, both emotional and in perspective. It takes time to step back from your “stuff” sometimes, it seems. Like this summer’s TAW, I started writing good work about my grandmother—she died in 1983. It seems I have finally enough distance.

David (n of 49) said...

Further to Ruth’s a-ha, my experience transcribing was suddenly and clearly hearing them in the voices of the Frost dictationers (dictators just cannot be the proper word) crystal clear, almost in the room, as if sitting in the morning dictation there. Almost hallucinatory.

Whether copying out helped is unclear, but the poems brought me to the same place: the melancholy of a disillusioned, disenchanted person who recognizes some basic and profound truths about life but cannot act on them, and who in both poems drinks to cope. I did see that wine appears in both, and images of the natural world, except in the first those images are of vivid life, in the second, more shot through with melancholy (although both poems have it, and for the same reason, the passing of the hours). And they’re so simply yet vividly rendered, even in the sound of them: those stone unicorns, for example, and the petals that fly, just fly.

I also thought Carlene’s comments were insightful. Her point about how time can be critical to dealing with subjects “you can’t seem to get out of your system” seems especially true. Dealing with them is one reason I read poetry. To quote James Salter again, “The poets, writers, the sages and voices of their time, they are a chorus, the anthem they share is the same: the great and small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart.” (from Burning the Days)

Dawn Potter said...

When I realized that Shakespeare spent much of his life writing the same story over and over again, I realized that I could stop beating myself up about being boring. That is to say: my poems might be boring but this is not the fault of my subject matter. Part of the work of art is to retell, recast, reconsider; "to chew that sour cud," as Carlene says.

Ruth said...

I find that I write about the same sort of poems or reflections based on true incidents rather than rehashing. However, underlying those is usually a similar theme. As David said, I felt I was being led to the same melancholy place in both poems, but that I had more information and perhaps empathy or understanding.

Ruth said...

I am wondering how close in time these two poems were written. As Carlene said time is an element in dealing with a subject.

Thomas said...

In the second version, I was struck by the power of Rexroth’s enjambments to achieve a sense of the balance between what I guess I’d characterize generally as life or flourishing and decline; just as the poem (like so many of them) seems to step back and place the personal in the larger context of the flow of time, each line break seem to dramatize the way that every moment of joy is in the context of some sorrow or passing (maybe that’s a better general schema: joy/sorrow). “Everywhere petals are flying” seems an exuberant image of spring until the next line tells us that “Spring is fading.” “Ten thousand” begins to suggest plenitude, but the enjambment reveals that it’s a plenitude of sorrows. The kingfishers “mate and nest in” / “the ruined river pavilion.” Again and again, the line breaks dramatize the balance of promise and disappointment. I think on the granular level of line breaks we have to credit this to Rexroth—I’m curious, though, to what extent we could see something similar in the Chinese. It seems a masterful handling of that balance.

So what to make of the last four lines then? Following that logic through, the juxtaposition is of a sense of universal pursuit of happiness (ha! Clever, Rexroth!) with personal sorrow. I like the way that the last line begins with “career” and ends with “goal”—it doesn’t seem as though the two are at all equivalent, despite the powerful social impetus to believe so, whether in Ancient China or 21st century America. I find this second version much more powerful, perhaps because it ends on this very individual note, unlike the more general sense of interpersonal strife at the close of #1. More of a sense of personal responsibility rather than being the victim of court intrigue or politics.

Dawn Potter said...

The question at the end of poem 2--"Why I have let an official / Career swerve me from my goal?"--interests me very much, on several levels. As Thomas points out, there's the connect/disconnect between "career" and "goal," but I'm also intrigued by the line break. "Swerve" is such a strong, mobile verb. Why leave it in the middle of the line instead of emphasizing it at beginning or end? How is the enjambed "official / Career" strengthened or weakened by the break? This is probably a Rexroth rather than a Tu Fu issue, but it nonetheless affects the Tu Fu topic and mood.

Ruth said...

As I reread Part II yet again, I am wondering if the official career belongs to the writer or whether it is an outside force. Did I miss something or misread?

Thomas said...

I'm not sure if anyone's following this thread anymore, but responding to Dawn's observations, I agree that "swerve" is a fit choice of verb. The suggestion that he has been diverted from his natural path or inclination (like that the living, natural world follows)As far as its placement: imagine it as official career / Swerve me from my goal." Somehow I read that as too pat, too focused on the verb in a way that renders the speaker passive. Consider the delay between official / career as Rexroth translates it: "official" suggests the outside force, an interloper, but then the next line's "career" puts responsibility squarely in the speaker's lap. Maybe I'm just too much of a fan of that career-goal balance of the line, but it seems fitting in placing emphasis on a (social) choice he has bought into that has taken over his life and diverted it from what it should have been. It's so difficult to negotiate between social determinants and individual autonomy: Rexroth's lineation seems to perfectly capture the way that yes, we are embedded in social and cultural forces that can determine our choices, and yet we also make those choices which then affect us in turn.

On a related note, I've begun reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, in which he states early on that what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the human invention of culture. It's a great corrective to the Darwinian notion that all cultural forms are in the service of the survival of the species (he uses the mildly humorous example of the Catholic pope, whose celibate power is wholly cultural, not at all following biological imperatives). Anyway, this reminded me of how Tu Fu puts the natural pursuit of creaturely happiness at odds with the social and cultural imperatives faced by individuals.