Monday, February 1, 2016

Thinking about Tu Fu, Poems XVIII-XXI

This morning I revisited poems XVIII-XXI without any pre-vision of what sort of discussion starter I might toss out to those of you who are participating in our Read the Poems of Tu Fu Book Club. But as I read, I immediately noticed how differently the poet (or translator) manages his sentences in each poem. The differences involve not only the styles of individual sentences (e.g., simple subject-predicates, more elaborate combinations of dependent and independent clauses, complete sentences, fragments, etc.) but also the ways in which those individual sentences stack, one after the other, to guide a reader through the poem. Thus, the position of line breaks comes into play, as does a shift back and forth among sentence styles in the course of a single poem, as does straight repetition of similar sentence styles, as does fattening or paring down the density of sentences (e.g., a simple subject versus a more complex subject, adding or avoiding prepositional phrases, etc.).

In my book The Conversation, I wrote:
The Oxford English Dictionary's definition [of sentence] focuses on the individuality of articulation rather than the rules of the game: "[a sentence is] a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command." 
In other words, sentences comprise a large variety of language patterns, many of which don't follow official grammar-book prescriptions. So when I talk about sentences in poetry, . . . I'm thinking about the way in which a poet arranges words to express a thought.

Of course, whenever I even mention the word grammar, I immediately call forth certain readers' recalcitrance and defensiveness. Grammar has a bad rap. Too many people believe the term is limited to a punitive focus on correct or incorrect. But poetry is not interested in prissy constructs of correct or incorrect. It is interested in conversation. How does the structure of a sentence contribute to or detract from the conversation that the poet ideally hopes to spark?

So I'm asking you to look at the grammar of these four sentence-constructed poems and respond emotionally, intellectually, sonically to what you notice. You can respond in the comments or send me an email, if you prefer.


Peg Duthie said...

I am making time for XIX and XX this morning, and here is what I'm noticing:

Both poems contain a swaying willow, and the translator handles it differently in each. In XIX, "Willow / Branches sway." In XX, "My neighbor's willow sways its frail / Branches, graceful as a girl of / Fifteen."

The line breaks seem to me more beckoning in XIX; they end in the way that I want to find out what comes next, as if discovering the cottage environs for myself:

A peasant's shack beside the (beside the what?)
Clear river, the rustic gate (the gate what?)
Opens on a deserted road. (Are you about to go down that road?)
Weeds grow over the public well. (Maybe not a good idea, if you didn't bring water.)
I loaf in my old clothes. Willow (Willow what?)
branches sway. Flowering trees (Trees what?)
perfume the air. The sun sets (and...?)
behind a flock of comorants, and...?)

Whereas in "The Willow" the line breaks don't do much for me, other than "girl of" (girl of what?). That said, the comparison of the girl to the willow in XX is haunting. I could liken reading XIX to playing chess at the pub and XX to glimpsing a lurid headline at a news website (line breaks being often out of the headline-writer's or page-coder's control in any case).

It's interesting to realize this. Thank you for prompting it.

Dawn Potter said...

Peg, I love the way you see the line breaks as a sort of beckoning. That's a truly lovely and incisive perception, and one I hope to hold on to as I think about line breaks in my own work. I agree, too, that contrast between the way in which he treats "willow" within the sentences is also notable. I wonder if other readers respond to one version more than the other.

Carlene said...

I have withheld comment for a few days on the poems, because I am troubled by the lineation; I keep wondering if it's the function of translation, or if it's intended to feel disconnected. The last poem you've asked us to consider, "Sunset," feels the most cohesive to me, and I feel more like I can engage with the imagery more comfortably. Now, I realize that these are not really scholarly observations, but are more my responses to how the poems settle with me.

That all being said, I found myself going back and considering the last statement made in each poem in the four we are working with this time. There I found the heart of the matter: "It isn't much to offer./ But it is given in friendship" is then followed by "The sun sets/ Behind a flock of cormorants,/ Dryng their black wings along the pier." The next poem, "The Willow" is so brief, that the entire thing sings its own version of what Tu Fu is building, coming to "the violent/Wind broke its longest bough." The fourth poem under consideration sums it all up well, I think, with "Who discovered/ That one cup of thick wine/Will dispel a thousand cares?" Somehow, my brain is almost composing a new poem of these four statements, which are weaving together nicely. Perhaps it is in this way I am finding the cohesion among and between the poems--they are talking to one another as well as to the reader--that I miss in the individual poems when read and considered separately.

Dawn Potter said...

So, Carlene, are you reading this set as a linked series, an interdependent partnership, rather than separate poems? I know I find myself doing that with, say, Plath's bee poems too.

I think the lineation must be, in large part, a function of translation. Chinese characters are just so different from our letter/word/sentence system. I wonder how Koch's thought process varied as he worked on this set of pieces. I know my own thoughts about lineation shift with every single poem I write. Sometimes that's productive and sometimes it's not.

Carlene said...

I think it's as an interdependent partnership; I read the whole collection when I first got it in order to get a feeling for what I was going to investigate further. Now, exploring the poems in smaller groupings is highlighting other things about the poems, things that, taken individually, I would not have noticed. I certainly didn't sense these things when I read the whole collection end to end. It's kind of like shining a light in varying degrees of brightness on the poems, picking them up and shifting them in the light, and seeing what they show me.

Thanks for the validation about what I suspected about the function of translation; I find the lineation awkward, and at times a little distracting. This is why I like reading the poems in different ways. I am not as enthusiastic about the line breaks, but I love parts and pieces of the poems, and how they move with and against one another is really enjoyable to discover.