Monday, February 16, 2009

On Poetic Justice

"Li Po Chanting a Poem",
ink on paper, by Liang K'ai (13th century)

I glanced up as the plump, middle-aged, Chinese woman rounded the corner and strode through the church coffee bar, passing my husband and daughters, until she stood square in front of my chair holding a stapled essay. My husband looked perplexed. Clearly I had a sign on my forehead visible only to Chinese visitors who wish to have a blonde grammarian check their writing. I'd never met this woman and still don't know who she is for, without an introduction, she shoved the essay titled "The Consequences of Drunk Driving" in my lap and asked me to check the verbs. Her English was halting but with complete confidence that I could help her.

Three double-spaced pages detailed the devastating physical and emotional trauma caused by driving (and getting arrested) while drunk. Prison, guilt, loss of life, financial ruin, she named them all. The essay was chock full of cold facts and figures, but with few grammatical errors. Toward the end, the author referred to a previous blog post that explained details not relevant to her essay.

"Did you write this essay," I asked.

"Oh, yes," she said. "I write this essay."

"Can you tell me about this blog post?"

"What is blog post?"

"Well, I see nothing seriously wrong with this essay except you must be sure to credit all of your sources."

"I write this myself."

"I understand. You did a good job but if you do not tell every place where you found information, your teacher will give you a bad grade."

She nodded and seemed pleased there were no errors. She thanked me and she left. Why try to reinvent the wheel? And certainly, passing the class is far more important than losing face by exposing poor writing skills in a foreign language. Besides, the teacher wants information, not what I think. You see, in her mind, cobbling together a few sentences from esteemed sources constitutes good writing. The Eastern mindset venerates expert opinion and writing.

In Wuhan, China where I lived for three years, I often visited a site near the Number 1 Bridge over the Yangtze River. Built in 223 A.D., the Yellow Crane Tower has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, yet is one of the central landmarks and tourist spots in the city. With a 360 degree hilltop view of the tri-cities below, over the centuries, it has also captured the imagination of scores of poets. The most famous of the poems tells the lore of a man who, while visiting the tower, was carried away to the celestial city by a crane. Written by a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty, it is considered one of Cui Hao's best poems.

But what captured my imagination during one visit with a translator, was that there was another, equally famous poet during the Tang dynasty who visited the Yellow Crane Tower and read Cui Hao's poem written on the tower wall. Struck by the greatness of the poem, Li Bai (Li Po) vowed he could do no better and would never write again. I was floored until I heard this sentiment repeated again and again during those three years: once greatness is achieved, there is no use going down that road again.

Li Bai does (thankfully) write again and, ironically, in an ensuing series of poems reminiscent of Salieri's frustration with Mozart, his obsessession over that poem on the wall results in some of his most enduring works.

Here is a translation of the poem that inspired so much.

The Yellow Crane Tower
Cui Hào 704-754
The ancient one
flew off on his yellow crane,
Now this place is empty
only Yellow Crane Tower remains.
The Yellow Crane
once gone never returns,
White clouds for a thousand years
empty and remote.
Boats and Hanyang trees
reflect in clear water,
Lush vegetation thrives
on Parrot Shoal.
At dusk I ask for news of home,
These mist shrouded waters
heavy on my heart.

Translator: Dongbo 東波

1 comment:

allison said...

Now I never have to write again. That's a load off.