Selections from


by Karl Young

I'm tinkering with ways to present selections from my Clouds Over Fortjade series on the web. While I'm at it, I might as well put a few up now, and change them at intervals, and keep on going that way until I've figured out the best way to do them from a technical point of view, where to put them, etc. As an explanatory note, the following plaque from a show of my book art at Minnesota Center for the Book Arts may be useful:


Boxed set of screens begun in 1981 and not yet completed.

The texts in this set are based on poems by two T'ang Dynasty Chinese poets, Tu Fu and Wang Wei. Tu Fu was a committed activist poet 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 has been seen as the nations greatest poet, possibly for the wrong reasons, or at least for reasons he would himself abhor. Wang Wei was a detached mystic. He moved easily in elite circles, and 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 have survived, 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.

Throughout Clouds Over Fortjade the two poets hold an oblique debate, usually with one poet taking one side of each screen, though in a couple instances work by both poets appears on the same side of a screen. Occasionally, the two poets express similar ideas, and occasionally trade positions, with Tu appreciating nature and Wang expressing grief or anger.

Both poets wrote in the Shih form, sometimes called the Chinese sonnet. Poems in this form are eight lines long with either five or seven characters in each line. The poems include elaborate substructures including a breakdown into quatrains and couplets, often with careful development of parallelism and antithesis. Given the uneven number of characters per line, the obligatory caesuras can't fall precisely in the middle of a line. This and other features (including antithesis) provide a dynamic imbalance that keeps the form from becoming too static.

In my working of the texts, I have tried to pick up on as many of these characteristics as possible. I have also worked with more general characteristics of Chinese poetry, including the use of the narrow screen fold (often used in sending messages), imaging suggestive of calligraphy, use of various writing surfaces, printing from wood blocks and rubbings from stone. I have even taken cues from the nature of written Chinese, particularly ambiguities and terseness from the lack of inherent number and looseness of tense, the lack of articles and other grammatical forms of English and most other western languages. I have done these things not to make more "accurate" renderings (such accuracy is far beyond my ability), but just to see where this procedure would get me.

Poems copyright © 1996 by Karl Young

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