Sketches from
(Dialogue between Tu Fu and Wang Wei)

by Karl Young

As an introductory note, the first five paragraphs were part of a plaque from a show of my book art at Minnesota Center for the Book Arts:


Boxed set of screens begun in 1981 and not 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 nation's 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 dialogue 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 are made from 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 the Chinese language, 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 European 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. In forming English words, I also picked up hints from the construction of Chinese characters. In part to slow down reading speed, I arranged words in blocks of letters. I set up the letters taking cues from the balanced asymmetry of Chinese characters. This is only a faint suggestion from the elaborate etymologies of characters which have created a "body language" out of stroke type and order. This touches a characteristic of Chinese writing so profound, yet so foreign to writing systems such as those which use the Roman alphabet, that it has been difficult to describe to westerners and difficult for them to understand. I don't know to what extent readers of my texts will read my texts. The words aren't difficult, since readers past the rudimentary level read at the level of the word or phrase more often than the individual letter, and pulling letters into squares isn't that much different from reading them in lines. My hope is that they will be able to allow themselves to slow down a bit and rediscover the composition of individual words. That's about as close to the kinesthetic processes of Chinese writing and reading as I can get. It's not that close, but, once more, I'm not translating or attempting to fully recreate originals here, just to pick up what I can from my sources and see how far they will take me.

I have tried to adapt the completed parts of the work to graphic environments other than the original two sided screenfolds. For many years, I set up single sides for two-dimensional, black and white reproduction. In such instances, I added lines to the reproduction to indicate the folds in the screens. This had its benefits, but the limitations were still severe, including virtual elimination of the dialogue between the two sides, loss of color, and lose of the tactile guidance which the folds provided. I considered sides reproduced this way simply as sketches.

Notes on Electronic Presentation

In the electronic environment, color ceases to be a problem, though the feel of the creases and their capacity to reinforce lineation, couplet formation, and a sense of unfolding remain impossible to present. However, something interesting can happen with the dialogue function of the two sides of each sheet. I have set these sections up in such a way that you can go from one side to the other simply by clicking on the image of the side you're looking at. Click the first side, and the second appears. Click the second side, and the first returns to take its place. This does not provide the manual sensation of turning paper, but it brings back the turn from one side to the other which the long conventions of books bound along a spine have made impalpable and so far removed from habit that readers find it difficult to conceive or feel even when it's pointed out to them. To go from one set to another in the current presentation, click the appropriate line below the image. On some systems the transition from one side to another may be quicker and less contemplative than it was in the first paper versions, but this may move the nature of the dialogue ahead in ways just as interesting - perhaps even more so for people whose sense of timing relates to the speed of electronic communication.

For years, this unfinished work seemed to be slowly disintegrating, and I seemed to be going through stages of exile which curiously echoed and baffled themes of classic Chinese poetry. This is a work which almost certainly will not be completed, but it has gone through a number of curious stages of transformation. That may not be such a bad deal.

Begin here.

Poems copyright © 1981, 1982, 1983, 1996, and 2002 by Karl Young