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(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young

During my lifetime, East Asia has exerted ever stronger influences on North America. Part of this took place by immigration. As with my grandparents, the spectrum of motivations running from the wildest optimism to the deepest desperation in the decisions of immigrants lies behind much of what becomes best in this place. The stories of the changes brought about by East Asian immigrants should be told by that particular set of immigrants and their descendants, and, indeed, that background is coming forth, if slowly. Other influential East Asian precedents came from sources as odd, subtle, and divergent as Theosphical Societies and 19th Century mercantilism, the New England Transcendentalists' interest in Eastern religion and the Civil Service, based on misunderstood models of Chinese bureaucracy. In the second half of the 20th Century, Buddhism has emerged in North America through many paths, from appropriations by the literati to the religious proselytizers who accost people in airports and other public places to martial arts studios to the changing fare of restaurants. Words such as "zen," "karma," and "guru" don't get flagged by computer spell checkers, and people throughout American social strata use them, often without thinking of their source. Such manifestations foreground deeper changes in attitudes and orientations toward the world.

Art and literary movements such as, particularly, Impressionism Imagism, based to a greater or lesser extent on Asian models, left an indelible imprint on everything that followed. Perhaps Haiku acted as the most important ambassador and the most thoroughly internalized of Asian literary forms. A measure of how thoroughly this form has taken root here came through to me from talking to a student who was surprised that people in Japan wrote Haiku.

During my teens, I encountered Chinese poetry through three of its great translators and adapters: Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, and Arthur Waley. Although these poets shared some basic assumptions (they all ignored rhyme, for instance), they seemed to present three different Chinas. Translations of the same poem by the three poets acted as three distinct poems rather than three renderings of one. As time went on, I came to realize more and more how much readings and misreadings of Chinese poetry had done to shape western poetry in the 20th Century.

The first influence of Chinese poetry, and its strange baffles of translation and transposition, exerted itself on the lyrics I would later call "plain poems." Some of this influence reflected Chinese concision, restraint, dependence on presentation of perception with little comment, an even tone of voice, and, most important, a sense of proportion missing in much western poetry. At times, Chinese poetry set a sort of standard or means of access for western poets. I'm not sure if my appreciation of Charles Reznikoff, a major influence on my lyrics, would have been as strong if I had not encountered T'ang Dynasty Chinese poetry first. The riddles involved in this situation, like many related to Chinese poetry, begin simply, but lead through labyrinths that double back on themselves.

With Chinese translations in mind, accompanied by odd reports on the nature of Chinese, I began attempting to learn the written language in my teens, but never got beyond the most rudimentary stages. This reinforced and deepened the lyric dimensions that initially attracted me. The odd conceptions of nature of the Chinese language sent me in a number of false directions in my visual poetry.

By the mid 1970s I had lost my illusions about the written language as a base for the kind of visual poetry I had in mind. Part of the disillusionment came from the simple and seemingly obvious fact that Chinese poets had done so much and that I could not hope to make something new from it. Chinese poets did not string out little rows of picture-words or graphic metaphors, as many westerners have assumed. Their practice includes the kind of gesture and gestalt that had first interested me in other contexts, had unified graphics and text in a staggering variety of ways, had made almost encyclopedic use of writing surface and proportion, had integrated writing with what we would now call performance art, and so on and on. The increasing availability of editions with annotations in western languages made reading easier.

Although the Chinese of the T'ang era employs a sort of loose, floating grammar, word order resembles that of English. In contrast, Japanese grammar becomes a native English speaker's nightmare. Piles of seemingly unrelated clauses, verbs appearing at the end of sentences, if sentences get formed at all, a plethora of word types with no western counterparts, etc. may suggest possible alternatives, but remain so only on a theoretical level. Making facsimiles of central Mexican manuscripts and other works lead naturally enough into attempting Chinese calligraphy. This I couldn't manage at all. However, it's difficult to learn any Chinese without getting a sense of how to write it. Chinese dictionaries usually list characters according to radicals or stroke numbers, and unless you have some sense of stroke type and order, using reference works becomes problematic. Using Chinese dictionaries and workbooks gave me an extended sense of how differently languages could function, and how writing systems could evolve along different lines. Old English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, Icelandic revealed variations on a basic theme. Added to the iconographic writing system of central Mexico and the etymological layers of Chinese, the nature and possibilities of language formed what Pound might have called a cogent and stimulating ideogram, even though Chinese itself wasn't dependent on the kind of ideograms Pound imagined and put forward as a basis for poetry. Had I become proficient in Chinese, my sense of many of the differences between languages may have decreased. In the twilight zones between ignorance and knowledge, the differences in the way people think and express themselves, the possibilities of alternative perception and expression, seemed particularly profound. There may be advantages for a poet with my orientation to spend considerable time in this valley of uncertainty.

I started doing one-word-per-character translations (at times fudging by making English compounds) in the early 1970s. On one level I liked these translations, particularly in the way they sharpened my sense of the terseness of the poems, and brought to my attention such visual elements as repeated radicals, "visual rhymes," and visual echoes in parallel and antithetical couplets. My sense of the poetic potential made possible by such characteristics of Chinese poetry as ambiguities in tense and number expanded. Most important was getting a sense of couplet formation, and all the possibilities such configurations opened up. As lexical poems, my workings had some advantages, at least for my own use, but read aloud they sometimes suggested a sort of pidgin, reminiscent of the dialogue in Charlie Chan movies. Wai-Lim Yip's one-word-per-character translations eased the problem considerably, but didn't make it go away. Since I did the translations as private exercise, not for publication, it didn't matter much, but still pushed me to try for something better.

While working in this direction, I had been independently experimenting with ways of rearranging the letters in words without making the words illegible. Greater familiarity with the writing practice of Chinese, with its emphasis on logical sequencing of strokes, the reforming of radicals according to other components, etc. suggested possibilities for combining English word elements and the strokes of the Roman alphabet in different orders, in part according to Chinese principles of balanced asymmetry. This lead to use of other techniques I had tried in visual poetry, imagings that took their base from characteristics of written Chinese. These included not only characteristics of traditional brush-calligraphy but also graphic elements reflecting different writing surfaces, printing techniques based in wood- block printing, stone rubbings, and various forms of engraving and inlays. Again, this allowed me to do new things with the graceful but limited forms of the Roman alphabet while introducing freer, more expressive qualities of calligraphy. Although I had shied away from visual poetry that could not be sounded or pronounced, the tonalities of these graphic modes brought out tonalities in the poems as well as recasting their lexical significance in various ways, making a proxy for spoken words - perhaps I could say giving them a type of body language. The importance of working in alternate graphic modes doesn't depend on notions of avant gardiness or experiment for its own sake, but as a means of revivifying language and bringing new energies and new possibilities for expanded significance into it. This becomes particularly urgent at a time when language moves away from perception and toward simple data transference.

At this time I still had not found a way to use the screenfold format of the Mexican manuscripts except as the by-then-fashionable book artists' means of displaying whole books inside glass cases. The glass case approach neglected the most important potentials of screenfold formats - most significantly, the balancing or contrasting of elements across juxtaposed folds. The endless intricacies of parallelism and antithesis in Chinese poetry, working most often between couplets, seemed fitting for screenfold presentation, particularly in the narrow folds often used for urgent messages and texts made for easy portability, and reflecting the origin of some Chinese bookforms in tied together strips of bamboo.

With these potentials in mind, the possibilities of reworking Chinese poems, not as translations, but as bases for something new, almost automatically presented themselves. This process of transformation is similar to a composer taking an existing melody and making something new out of it, without losing the associations of the original tune. Classic Chinese poets themselves used preexisting poems as bases for new works.

I began working most attentively with texts by four T'ang Dynasty poets, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Po, and Li Ho. Each presented a different worldview. All four worked in the shih form, sometimes referred to by westerners as "the Chinese sonnet." Poems in this form are eight lines long with either five or seven characters in each line. The uneven number of characters can produce either symmetrical lines or a dynamic imbalance. The use of caesurae inside lines set up yet other sets of pairings, at times favoring imbalance, at times requiring strategies for symmetry dependent on combinations of lines. I had worked with caesurae in Old English verse forms. Models from the two edges of the Eurasian land mass, written at roughly the same historical period mutually enhanced my use of them 1200 years later. I found the five character lines more suitable for keeping the larger patterns of the poems perceptible in my workings. As I progressed, I found the screenfold suitable to dialogue, with a poem by one poet on each side of the screen. From this point, Clouds Over Fortjade took on its final direction, as an oblique debate between two of the poets, Tu Fu and Wang Wei, finding its title in a line by Tu Fu. Tu Fu was a committed activist who took his political offices seriously enough to get himself in trouble. During one period of exile, when he could not take his family with him, one of his children died of starvation. He may be the earliest protest poet whose name we know. In revolutionary China, he was seen as the nation's greatest poet, possibly for the wrong reasons, or for reasons he would abhor. Wang Wei was a detached mystic. He amassed several fortunes, which he used to found and support monasteries. His approach to Buddhism was founded in love of nature and quiet contemplation. Although no samples of his calligraphy survive, he has been considered one of China's most important calligraphers, and copies of copies of his work have been used as models for generations. Occasionally, the two poets express similar ideas or trade places, with Tu appreciating nature and Wang expressing grief or rage. In this sequence, I'm working with the poets' personae, not a sense of true biography. We can see some of the aspects of personae formation in the contrast between Tu Fu's poems and what we know of him outside of them. He began speaking of himself as "old" in his thirties. Although he went through extreme trials, during much of his life he acted as a well-paid public official. Other Chinese poets put forward similar personae. Li Ho also spoke of being old, though he died at age 26. He may not have been wealthy, but he was hardly as impoverished as the figure in the self-portrait his opus suggests. Although Wang Wei wrote extensively of the satisfactions of living simply in solitude, people don't make enough money to found monasteries by contemplating spiritual landscapes in isolated shacks.

At the time I began work on Clouds, I sketched out two other sets. One, based on poems by Li Po and Li Ho, would continue the dialogue form. The other would center on poems by Li Shang-Yin and Tu Mu, with auxiliary poems by other poets. Despite the mystic nature of some of his poems, and stories about brigandage and murder, Li Po seemed a perfect extrovert, skilled at getting along with the world. However much he might venture into romanticism, he always seems to find a center of balance which he seems to radiate under all circumstances. Born outside "The Middle Kingdom," apparently in Afghanistan, and a wanderer throughout his life, Li Po could bring exotic elements into his poems without troubling their decorum more than the desired effect required - a delicate balancing act for a poet of his (or any other) day. He cast many of his poems as dreams, and most, even poems of farewell or longing for home, include a strong element of the wish-fulfillment assciated with positive dreams. This gives a particular cogency to his poems based in Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Li Ho was a poet of troubled and troubeling dreams. He was a thorough anomaly among Chinese poets of his time and remains so today. Though Tu Mu, Li Shang-Yin, and other contemporaries praised him, Chinese readers and scholars didn't know what to make of him, or how much credit to give him until the 19th Century. In the 20th century, Lu Hsun, the most adulated writer among revolutionaries, held him in the highest esteem, yet Marxists have not understood how their hero could advocate such a decadent aesthete. Although his modern critics should note the strong elements of satire and protest in his poems, it seems that fundamentalists, whether religious or political, by nature can never understand subversiveness. At the same time, modern aesthetes who see Li Ho as a proto-surrealist or poet maudit miss his rigorous self-discipline, his social consciousness, and his reliance on such diverse traditions as shamanism and the protocols of the imperial court and the military. Severely ill through most of his life, he wrought elaborate verses, in some respects similar to the English metaphysicals, buzzing with supernatural specters and introspective exploration. Li Po and Li Ho seemed perfectly suited to dialogue. Tu Mu and Li Shang-Yin both tended to a voluptuousness outside the severity of the poetry of their era. Tu Mu tended to look back with regret and nostalgia on the lost possibilities of T'ang glory, finding solace in drink and amorous affairs. Li Shang-Yin also gravitated toward love affairs, paying particular attention to the feelings and interior lives of women. One of his loves was a Taoist nun, and his poems at times allude to abortions, adultery, and other areas of experience usually left out of the work of his contemporaries. The Tu Mu - Li Shang-Yin set would have eased some of the austerity of the first two sets of dialogues. It seemed appropriate to see this set as moving outside dialogue form and see it as something else, perhaps related to work on the Tian Wen, an ancient book of questions. As with Li Ho, however, their more elaborate imagery and syntax made it more difficult for me to work with the Chinese texts, particularly given my severe limitations with the language. I sketched out the Li Po - Li Ho series, but left the Tu Mu - Li Shang-Yin and Co. series as a few pivotal poems as guides for something that had not taken on much formal definition.

In Clouds, I worked solely with Roman letters, disposed according to ideas suggested by principles of Chinese character construction, and in almost all instances moving down the page instead of from left to right. The dialogue between Wang Wei and Tu Fu should stay as plain as possible, not including any text in Chinese. In poems not meant for Clouds, I added additional lines of my own along with the Chinese texts and English renditions of them. Reading sequence for both English and Chinese don't remain stable, but shift back and forth between vertical and horizontal syntax. I joined elements of the Chinese characters with elements of Roman letters, and worked out ways of superimposing and intertwining the two writing systems. This expanded in a few more or less finished poems and in sketches for others. One of the things that fascinated me was the way that conjunctions of this sort made the stroke sequences and etymology of Chinese characters clearer to me. More important, it broke old gestalts, setting up new associations and suggesting new gestures. This creates what I think of as visual music: sequences of logical development from basic and repetitive patterns. I like to think that this kind of visual music can appeal to other people.

In the late 1980s, I tried doing some of these workings as individual poems without the printing presses on which Clouds depended. Aside from the lack of a press, I also no longer had a good library available to me, and had even lost a fair number of my own books along the way. A few poems nonetheless seemed to work well enough in more or less finished form, and I sketched out quite a few others. I did versions of a few of these in 2000 as part of a collaboration, but that's outside the scope of this essay, and dead-ended in the nature of that specific set of collaborations. In 2001, I tried using computer scans and an inkjet printer to make copies of portions of Clouds. Although I could reproduce single sides of the screens, I couldn't print two sides without excessive bleeds. The results became ad hoc and not altogether adequate facsimiles. Working on these, however, suggested means of producing single page workings of the poems I'd sketched outside Clouds. One of the big advantages came from the ability to use colors that I could not have produced on my old presses. I had sketched out responses to the Tian Wen, a mystical and cryptic early Chinese book in the late 80s. I was able to realize drafts of the first eight parts of the projected work. I also worked up some of the earlier sketches for poems that might have been part of the Li Po - Li Ho and Tu Mu - Li Shang-Yin sets. Working for single 8 1/2 x 11 pages placed a greater emphasis on quatrains - essentially half a shih, or a pair of couplets - which didn't work as well in the Clouds screens.

At the time I worked on Clouds, two publishers were eager to produce the finished work. Now one of them, bpNichol, is dead and the other has lost interest. I am no longer able to run printing presses, and I haven't been able to complete the series without being able to work them on the press. Some of the single page pieces seem good enough in their own right, but don't form anything like the larger structures I had in mind. Ironically enough, much of my work is based on fragments, the wreckage left by the destruction of cultures. Now I find much of my work incomplete due to the accidents of life. But fragments have their valences, and openings can be more important than conclusions. Perhaps these works should remain unfinished.


On-line selections from Clouds Over Fortjade.

Part 2 of "Notation and the Art of Reading" deals with T'ang Dynasty poetry. The essay first appeared in Open Letter magazine in 1984, and has been reprinted a number of times since. It appears on the web in English, Spanish, and Hungarian.

Sides of Clouds appeared with lines indicating the folds in magazines ranging from O.ARS to Paper Air to Kaspahraster.

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