China’s Shakespeare, The Poet Du Fu (712-770)

painting of Du Fu
painting of Du Fu

Introduction

Some years ago, I was interested in expanding my reading from Japanese Masters (Basho and Issa) to Chinese Masters and somehow found my way to Du Fu’s poems.

It was frustrating that it was so difficult to find the work of Du Fu and other Asian masters in online sources, particularly in light of Harvard professor Stephen Owen’s comment: “We have Dante, Shakespeare and Du Fu (712-770). These poets create the very values by which poetry is judged.”

If Du Fu is so highly regarded by the world’s literary scholars, why is it that the Chinese poet-sage Du Fu . . . an immortal in the East Asian cultural sphere, still remains largely unknown in the Western world. And particularly by poetry enthusiasts? This and other Du Fu and Chinese Master websites may serve to remedy that.

I liked what I found in Du Fu’s writing. As with Basho and Issa, it warmed me to think I could relate to the experiences and poetic sensibilities of a person writing in 8th century China to my own experiences in 21st century Canada. He’d communicated not just from another country, but across a gap of 1300 years. Perhaps the the joys and sorrows of life haven’t changed as much a we, the current crop of moderns, like to think?

A comparison of Du Fu’s poetic style with haibun paragraph prose

Day’s End. By Du Fu

Oxen and sheep were brought back down
Long ago, and bramble gates closed. Over
Mountains and rivers, far from my old garden,
A windswept moon rises into clear night.

Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn
Dew fills ridgeline grasses. My hair seems
Whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers
Good fortune over and over—and for what?

I was immediately struck by the closeness to what contemporary haibun poets describe as key characteristics of haibun prose:

  • Succinctness
  • More “Show” than “Tell” phrases
  • Realistic (Non-fictional) accounts of personal experiences
  • Present tense or mix of past and Present
  • Some use of poetic devices

Succinctness is an aim of all writing genres. One of William Strunk’s (author of The Elements of Style) most famous adages was, “cut, cut, cut.” In my own writing, I have to continually ask myself “Do I have redundancies?” As an editor for a number of haibun journals over the last two decades, I found that most writers overwrite their pieces.

Returning to Du Fu’s poem, ask yourself, is there anything that could be cut, a phrase or even a single word, without losing something important? I’m not suggesting that there aren’t, but this poem is very lean. Of course, while there’s a focus on succinctness in haibun, writers are also looking for ways of making their pieces poetic.

With respect to the other four characteristics in my list above, Du Fu starts “Day’s End” with a historical reference to the past & place (animals brought down long ago). Then over lines 3 through 7, he shifts to the present, showing us his present experience using images via the primary senses of sight, sound, feel, taste, smell (moon rising, clear night, springs trickling down, dark cliffs, autumn dew, ridgeline grasses, hair whiter in lamplight, flame flickering). And he ends (line 8) with a “tell” – a statement summarizing his present life (good fortune over and over) and a question that I read as the universal search for meaning by sentient beings as they gaze into the night sky and muse about the meaning of life.

Translation Issues

There are some caveats to keep in mind when we non-Chinese speakers who know little about the historical China read these works in English. First, they are the product of translators who have deep understandings of China’s historical, cultural and environmental contexts and often are themselves poets. Thus the translations reflect a conversation where Du Fu’s and the translator’s poetic sensibilities and knowledge interact. Second, the work of both Japanese and Chinese poets sometimes contain allusions that are difficult for English-language readers from western cultures to understand.

As an example of difficulties that a reader might have with allusions or even seemingly understandable phrases from another culture and era, it’s unlikely a reader from a different country fully understands what the use of the phrase “blossoms” means to a Japanese poet. Many words used in Japanese haiku have been honed throughout centuries of poetry writing and are listed in the saijiki – a list of kigo (seasonal terms) used in haiku and related forms of poetry. Each carries it’s own mood and season. Cherry Blossoms (sakura) are such a common topic in Japan that the use of “blossoms” (hana) in haiku leads to an assumption that it references cherry blossoms. And added difficulty is that different types of cherry trees blossom in different seasons, so the use of a particular kind of cherry tree may reference a different season, and thus a different mood.

As a reader not well read in Chinese history and poetry, I have what the translation offers and the associations I bring to the poem’s words and phrases from my own cultural heritage, unless, that is, I want to dig deeper.

Still, it’s possible to enjoy this translated piece without knowing how closely it resembles Du Fu’s original intent and style and without recognizing the embedded literary allusions, if any.

“Day’s End” was one of the few poems from my searches of the poetry of Chinese masters that I felt I could relate to. The recent BBC broadcasts about Du Fu’s poetry suggest that many western readers will also relate to these poems.

Free Verse vs Haibun Paragraphs

Most haibun poets use standard paragraphs for the prose passages, albeit a few sometimes use a free verse style with or without enjambment. I noticed that the translator used a free verse style and employed enjambment to emphasize certain words in “Day’s End.” I thought a look at the poem in haibun’s paragraph style would make a worthwhile comparison. Note that I’ve also rearranged the stanzas to emphasize the shift from the place-description, mostly “show” phrases to the “tell” musings at the end.

Haibun Paragraph Format:

Day’s End. By Du Fu

Oxen and sheep were brought back down long ago, and bramble gates closed.

Over mountains and rivers, far from my old garden, a windswept moon rises into clear night. Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn dew fills ridgeline grasses.

My hair seems whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers Good fortune over and over—and for what?

Free Verse Original translation formatting

Day’s End. By Du Fu

Oxen and sheep were brought back down
Long ago, and bramble gates closed. Over
Mountains and rivers, far from my old garden,
A windswept moon rises into clear night.

Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn
Dew fills ridgeline grasses. My hair seems
Whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers
Good fortune over and over—and for what?

Free verse enjambment and capitalization tends to create an emphasis of words appearing at the start and/or ending of lines. For example, consider the starting word(s):

Oxen and sheep
Long ago
Mountains and rivers
A windswept Moon
Springs trickle down
Dew fills ridgeline grasses
Whiter in lamplight
Good Fortune

Of course, readers will have preferences for one of the two presentations. Part of that will depend on your experience with the typical formatting of free verse (in this case with caps to start the new lines in each stanza), and about the words that the enjambment emphasizes. If you’re used to reading free verse, then the free verse presentation may appeal more. I’m not, and I found the cap at the beginning of a line, but sometimes in the middle of a phrase, made it more difficult for me to read the poem.

Learning and Improving Writing Skills by Modelling Good Writers

When I read a poem from another writer whose work I’ve enjoyed, I sometimes try to model it with my own content. My aim in doing so is to try to expand my range of writing styles. So I’ve tried to understand the structure and poetics of Du Fu’s “Day’s End” in order to produce a haibun similar in style, but with my own content.

Du Fu’s Style & Structure

Title: “Day’s End.”

This title is gives a sense of a context in which to read the rest of the poem. It may refer to the end of the day, or to the end of the poet’s life or the end of an era. In Japan and China it may have it’s own special meaning.

Opening: Du Fu starts with a historical scene that likely happened many times in the distant past. The use of bramble gate and enclosure, in particular, was an ancient way of penning animals for safety in the night. I suspect that there’s an allusion connected with the second line “and bramble gates closed.”

Oxen and sheep were brought back down
Long ago, and bramble gates closed.

Body: Du Fu switched tense to the present and used mostly “show” phrases to describe the setting. These are sense images (aka what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch). He also found evocative ways to describe the setting.

Over
Mountains and rivers, far from my old garden,
A windswept moon rises into clear night.
Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn
Dew fills ridgeline grasses. My hair seems
Whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers

Ending: Du Fu uses tell phrases. It was a shift in theme from showing the place to reflecting on his life.

Good fortune over and over—and for what?

Poetic Embellishment: Du Fu found poetic ways to express his descriptions and musings. Easy to say, difficult to do. Consider these two phrases which stood out for me:

A windswept moon rises into clear night

My hair seems whiter in lamplight.

I’m not sure what the translator and/or Du Fu meant by a windswept moon, but I like the sound and idea of it. I imagine clouds flowing past the moon, the moon blinking off and on. Consider the flatness of the phrase by removing “windswept.”

A moon rises into clear night.

Modelling: An Example

For my own content, I immediately thought about experiences I’ve had in visiting historical and ancient settings. The example that came to mind is my yearly visits to hike in the American Southwest’s canyon country and visit the ruins of an group called the Ancestral Puebloans.  This area includes not only the 5000 foot deep Grand Canyon, but also a multitude of smaller canyons and tributaries. The region offers the sense of history and emptiness that I sense in Du Fu’s poem.

Day’s End. By Ray Rasmussen

Oceans once filled this arid land and then receded. Layers of sand sediments hardened into stone. Rivers carved deep canyons. Rich soils accumulated in the bottom lands. Humans arrived and built shelters that were used for generations. And then came a 100-year drought. The people left in search for a better watershed, a more stable place to grow their crops.

A waning moon is just peeking over distant cliffs. My tent sits where the Old Ones grew corn, squash and beans. Their stone shelters, empty but for the occasional pack rat nest or web of a black widow spider, look as if they were built yesterday.

Handprints made by pressing white mud on the red sandstone wall, float like ghosts above the entryways – a reminder that they were here, that this was their homeplace.

empty sky –
a scatter of pot shards
in parched soil

Here and there, while wandering these meandering canyons and dry water courses, I find springs and potholes filled with rainwater – too little to have nourished the Old Ones.

I’ve brought food, water and shelter with me. All this sufficient to sustain one man, but what of the spirit’s needs?

a chill wind
in my silvered hair –
will I visit next year?

Note: The title, structure and the idea for this haibun are taken from David Young’s translation of “Day’s End,” a poem by Chinese poet Du Fu (712–770).

Modeling: The Why of It Summarized

One reason to model the work of others is for content inspiration. In explaining how to write haiku, Jim Kacian suggests:

“You’ll know it when inspiration strikes. Something moves you in a way that it hasn’t before, or you see something in a light you’ve never before considered. It sticks in your mind’s eye, and insists that you look at it. It’s knotting, clotting, taking shape. All you have to do is attend to it.”

In similar vein, if someone’s writing has touched you, as Du Fu’s did me, there’s likely to be something important for you personally in it. If you look into it more deeply, it can become the subject of a haibun just as a fresh experience can.

A second reason to model the work of others is to increase ones range of style options. Our initial attempts at writing haibun prose are imitative of the practices we’ve experienced by lifetime reading of novels, short stories, free verse, flash fiction, news stories, magazines, and so on. In short, we are already using the work of other writers as models for our writing. Why not deliberately expand on our repertoire by pursuing deep studies of poetry we particularly like.

This rationale for modelling is inherent in the profusion of ‘How to Write” articles and books. When a “How To” book explains the importance of the opening lines of a prose piece or of a title and shows good and bad examples drawn from various greats and not so greats, they are inviting us to model the styles used in those works.

A third reason is that by going beyond a surface reading of other writers’ work and delving deeply into how they accomplished it, you will more fully understand it. Basho wrote:

Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk.

translation Lucine Styruk

In similar vein, to understand Bashō’s haiku and haibun, try writing like Basho.

Modeling: Is Derivative Writing Somehow Wrong? Should It Be Published?

When writing derivative pieces, I am particularly concerned about the reactios of an editor who might view them as plagarism. And lurking like dark shadows within this concern are common pronouncements about writing such as “It’s important to be original” and “We should write in our own authentic voices.” Here’s a pejorative expressly stated in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Derivative: “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer . . . and usually disapproved of for that reason.”(emphasis mine).

Counter to these pronouncements is the argument that all art is derivative—that in one way or another we have all been influenced by the literary canon, and everything we read for that matter, that preceded the impulse to pen our own words. Indeed, an suggestion editors are apt to give to aspiring writers when rejecting their haibun is one that I received in my first submission to Modern Haiku:

“You will need to read a lot more haiku and even test your understanding and skill in that genre before you can write a successful haibun.”

Isn’t this a short cut for saying “Let the style of your predecessors influence you and perhaps you too will be able to pen a worthy, aka publishable, haiku, which is an essential part of haibun?”

In this context, Cor van den Heuvel has this to offer about haiku composition:

“The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.”

Modeling: A Summary of How to Do it

If you wish to model someone else’s work and are not feeling hampered by the idea that you are merely copycatting, there are several things that I’ve found useful.

  • As you read novels, short stories, haibun, haiku, free verse, etc., build a collection of pieces that touch you deeply for whatever reason and over time model them.
  • Ask yourself what is happening in your experience that resonates with the writer’s story, what stands out for you? Having done so, use your experience to pen your piece.
  • Examine the structure of the work you like and determine how the writer’s style shaped the story. What passages or phrases stood out? What tropes did the writer use? What was the balance of ‘showing’ vs ‘telling’? How did the writer open and close the piece? Use that structure with your own context.
  • If you submit the piece for publication, add acknowledgments.

Acknowledgments

In penning a derivative piece, there are at least three ways to indicate sources:

  • Acknowledge inspiration from the original writer by name, poem’s title and publication details, e.g., After Du Fu’s “Days End” in David Young, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, Knopf, November 4, 2008.
  • Indicate that you’re using your own context with the other writer’s structure, e.g., The poem is modelled on Du Fu’s “Day’s End.”
  • Specifically acknowledge phrases or passages that are direct copies of the other’s work, e.g., The title is taken from Du Fu’s “Day’s End.”

Brief Biography of Du Fu (712-770):

Du Fu was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. He is frequently cited as one of the greatest of the Chinese poets. Of his poetic writing, nearly fifteen hundred poems have been preserved over the ages. He has been called the “Poet-Historian” and the “Poet-Sage” by Chinese critics, while the range of his work has allowed him to be compared to: Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo and Baudelaire.”

Notes:

This article is a variation of “The Role of Modeling in Haibun Composition” that appeared Haibun Today 7:2 June 2013. The article shows other examples of modeling I’ve done working from a variety of sources.

References:

  • Du Fu, “Day’s End” (trans. David Hinton), from David Hinton, The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, New Directions Publishing, 1989. Tu Fu (Du Fu) was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty.
  • Jim Kacian, “How to Write Haiku,” Retrieved February 12, 2013 from the New Zealand Poetry Society Website, http://www.poetrysociety.org.nz/node/405.
  • Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x as cited in Chen-ou Liu, “Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Bashō’s Transformation of Haikai Prose,” Simply Haiku 8:1 Summer 2010.
  • Lucien Stryk (translator and author), On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho, (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 7, 1986.

Links drawn from and/or that provide further information:

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