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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

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Christopher Kelen

Conversation with Tang Poets: some notes on the practice

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The pleasures of poetry are – like those of trope play more generally – aligned with affinity for the impossible: the impossible place, the impossible way, conversations that simply can’t happen. What more pleasant impossibility than the cinematic voyeurism which gives us the desert without the flies, fifth century Athens sans war and slavery? Or perhaps a conversation with the giants (and lesser figures) of Tang poetry, minus the sundry privations of their age? Or some other dynasty if that seems better.

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It all started for me with a couple of lines from a poem by Meng Jiao, one of the ancients to whom some of us were introduced by Pink Floyd ( ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’):


Inch of heart in the grass/ no gratitude for the sunshine of Spring


Somewhere revisiting A.C. Graham’s Meng Jiao translations in Poems of the Late T’ang, I lit on the solution to a problem which had been troubling me as a teacher of Creative Writing.


The cluster of related projects I account for here began with a single simple frustration. Teaching poetry (production from reception) between cultures (in China) I have found it difficult to avoid a seesaw of disappointing results. On the one hand we have the greeting card thing (with the motherhood business) on the other the sledgehammer (which deafens rather than changes the world). Both of these poetastings conform to Oscar Wilde’s dictum with regard to the guaranteed sincerity of bad poetry. There is as well a set of problems which relate to what Michelle Yeh has described of the ‘artist as hero’ phenomenon as it manifests in the ‘cult of poetry’ in China today (190) – afflictions recognisably influenced by western Modernism. The poet/artist as incomprehensible (so misunderstood) inspired suffering outsider: this persona has corollaries in practice: obfuscation, moral posturing, superior man business. The artist as hero needs not make sense, rather he (sic.) needs to be fatally flawed.


Mindful of these kinds of danger, my aim has been to skip the genius + inspiration trip in favour of the teaching of writing through models for the purpose intended. Along these lines, a revelation to me was Kenneth Koch’s 1990 book Rose Where Did You Get That Red. Koch’s book seemed to me based on an unlikely premise – that children could learn to write well through exposure to poetic models which appeared to be far ahead of what they could comprehend as readers, let alone produce as writers. But many teachers had found the method did in fact work; I had wanted to take this pedagogy further, to serve more specific (and cross-cultural) needs. In my situation, specifically teaching poetry writing to non-natives, I was looking for a way of bringing the novice non-native writer of English language poetry to models which would help her respond expressively to her own cultural milieu, to introduce that milieu and responses engendered to those foreign to her culture (for instance me) and to respond as well to the process of crossing, i.e. of coming into the new culture. Of course I was interested to see what impact engagement of this kind might have on my own practice in poetry.


The hypothesis operational here is that the poet in modern times wishes to do the kinds of things in and to her own language that the foreign learner cannot help but do to the language she is entering. Consider Octavio Paz’s conception of the ‘new’ poem: ‘Each new poetic work challenges the public’s mind and taste. To appreciate it a reader must learn the vocabulary of the work and assimilate its syntax’ (96). To some extent the creation of such works entails taking the mechanism of language apart to get an idea of how it runs. In these hands the worn coin is re-forged. In the terms the Russian Formalists adopted, the poet strives to de-familiarise the language s/he uses, to bring back to life dead metaphors and metonymies. The non-native cannot help but draw attention to these automatised features of language which are opaque to her. It is by drawing attention to them – for instance through a question – she manages to understand what (and perhaps how) words mean. And so both poet and the subject entering culture (= language) find themselves bearing witness in quite similar ways. Each witnesses the truths of culture which use has drawn from our (everyday) attention. As with witness more generally, we can expect trauma to result from those encounters which draw attention to lost truths, to truths yet to be found. For Immanuel Levinas, this trauma is in the nature of language/communication more generally. Discourse, Levinas writes is the ‘experience of something absolutely foreign, a pure “knowledge” or “experience”, a traumatism of astonishment’ (73).


While my goals in working with Chinese poetry were immediately pedagogical, they were ethically framed and ultimately ontological, or at least identity-oriented. My hope was to engage students through poetry (as a process) with the meaning of being between languages, cultures; to engage the meaning of a conversation of that kind. The specific focus the work has taken is simply to honour our ancestors in poetry by keeping the conversation with them going. Commencing with Meng Jiao, over the past three years I have evolved a series of overlapping collaborative projects, each focused on responding to a particular classical Chinese poet.


In the rest of this piece I will tell a little of the method involved in these engagements and introduce some results – in the form of a poem or three – from each of the projects. The poets concerned are (in chronological order) Tao Yuanming, Meng Jiao, Li He, Li Yu, Xin Qiji and Nalanxingde. I will conclude with a note bringing these musings up-to-date and considering their implications among the living.

Meng Jiao


The first, largest and longest running of the projects abovementioned is one in response to that grumpy second-tier late Tang poet, Meng Jiao (751-814). Collaborators Hilda Tam, Amy Wong and myself have been at work on translations and responses to Meng Jiao for more than three years now and have two volumes of poetry now nearing completion (one of translation and one of response.) The procedure we followed was essentially this: we first ‘glossed’ the poems (made rough translations into English with notes) and tried to get to know them with the use of commentaries and specialised dictionaries. I then responded playfully to the poems in English in draft form and encouraged Hilda and Amy to do the same (in English and/or in Chinese). When we had worked through all of the poems in this way, we looked again at all of the responses with a view to dividing them into translations, responses or pieces which might go either way. It was only after getting to this stage, more than a year into the project, we began to think that we might have two separate volumes brewing. Because Meng Jiao’s extant oeuvre consists of more than five hundred pieces we had no trouble getting enough distance from each piece. Pressing on relentlessly through the collection, by the time we got back to any one poem (a second or a third time) we were able to approach it as a fresh meeting.


A brief biographical note on our progenitor/interlocutor... Not only was Meng Jiao a self-identified loser in his own lifetime, he is really one of the great complainers of Chinese literature, and has been famously regarded as such by later poets[1]. Working through his oeuvre – apart from general maudlin observations about the cruelty of nature – one might cynically say that the first half of the corpus is dominated by poems about failing examinations and the second half by poems about the deaths of friends and acquaintances. Getting through the extant works became tedious for these reasons but it must also be admitted one never had to wait long for a gem to brighten the work.


Let me reproduce for the reader something of the process with the example of gloss, translation and response for one short poem.


Original poem in Chinese:

喜 與 長 文 上 人 宿 李 秀 才 小 山 池 亭
燈 盡 語 不 盡, 主 人 庭 砌 幽 。
柳 枝 星 影 曙 , 蘭 葉 露 華 浮 。
塊 嶺 笑 群 岫 , 片 池 輕 眾 流。
更 聞 清 淨 子, 逸 唱 頗 難 儔 。
卷四 遊適上


Gloss stage – notes towards translation:

喜 與 長 文 上 人 宿 李 秀 才 小 山 池 亭

Happy to be with Chang Wen Shang Ren and spend a night at Li Xiu Cai’s pavilion near a lake in a small mountain

(Note: ‘ShangRen’ is a title for a respected person. Literally, it means ‘high person’. ‘XiuCai’ is a title for scholars.)

燈 盡 語 不 盡, 主 人 庭 砌 幽。

The oil lamp has died out but our conversations go on,
Li’s pavilion is quiet.

(Note: To talk in a quiet place can make someone feel the place is quieter than it is.)

柳 枝 星 影 曙 , 蘭 葉 露 華 浮 。

We can still see the stars in the sky but there are already gleams of the day in the willows,
There is dew on the orchid leaves.

塊 嶺 笑 群 岫,片 池 輕 眾 流。

The little mountain laughs at the other peaks,
The small lake looks down on the other rivers.

(Note: Although the mountain is not tall and the lake is small, they are beautiful.)

更 聞 清 淨 子, 逸 唱 頗 難 儔 。

I hear Qing Jing Zi,
He is chanting his poems so happily that I can hardly chord.


pavilion by tarn on just a little mountain

lamp dies

but our talk goes on

telling the silence here

still stars in the sky

but first gleams through willows

dew on the orchid’s leaves

little mountain laughs at high peaks

perfect lake looks down on the rivers

and Qing Jing Zi –

he sings so well

I keep silent

I can’t do justice with my strings


my response:


lamp gutters
but our talk goes on

stars still
but the day unveils willows
shows orchids in dew

little mountain
laughs at the towering peaks

a new song?
this one for dawn

my companion already has words
now that I can see the strings
I cannot find the chords

Xin Qiji


Xin Qiji (1140-1207) was a Song Dynasty poet who wrote in a range of genres and is famous for the more than six hundred ci poems he composed to one hundred and one different tunes. Collaborator Agnes Vong and I have worked through around a quarter of Xin Qiji’s surviving oeuvre. The response here is from a m/s of translations and variations currently in press with VAC in Chicago.


Original poem in Chinese:




Pure Serene Music

a hungry rat quick past the bed
a rat dances towards the light
on the roof, a howling wind
and the rain beats down
broken papers on the windows
are mumbling to themselves

I had a busy life, north to east
now I’m back with white hair and beard
the bedclothes are too thin,
I’m too cold and wake up
on an autumn night
all I can see are the same
thousand miles of mountains


my variation/response:

rat dreaming

a hungry rat runs past the bed
rats always run
they’re always hungry

a rat dances towards the light
this is the rodent’s joy

unending night
up on the roof
a howling wind

paper’s torn
rain beats the walls rotten

think of the shutters mumbling insensibly

‘life took me everywhere’
the old rat said

‘now only my underbelly’s still black
the rest is grey, I’ve snow white whiskers

once I dreamt I woke a man
I’ve long since slept that nightmare off’

bedclothes too thin
see how I turn

the autumn gets inside me

for thousands of miles
these mountains the same

still thousands of years
to this night

Li Yu


Li Yu (936-978) was last emperor of the Southern Tang, and by all accounts a much better poet than emperor. A bit of a lounge lizard, the philosopher cum poet cum painter rarely got out of his slippers. Deposed, he died a prisoner in someone else’s kingdom but not before penning quite a few complaints about cruel fate. Below is a sample of my responses to the collaborative translations I have made with Petra Seak.


first of love’s season

first of spring
is for pleasure

what floats in a cup of wine?
the flower

let us not whisper
of withering

it’s spring – let’s drink to it
you beat the drum

I’ll bring the brush and ink


waking for a piss in the early hours

the palace sleeps

I put on a gown
for the moonlight

stood among the chill bamboo
here’s me – miniature landscape

waterfall of my own making
eyes high in the forest of leaves

just so
I seek a star


hung over
in the imperial bedroom

cherry blossoms
strew the yard seen

from an ivory bed
cast in moonlight
tears fall on scant
garments of love

lustreless hair loosed
showsbitter yearning

so many papers to sign
call the next girl

the emperor
wants to resign

Tao Yuanming


Also with Petra Seak, I have worked on Tao Yuanming (365-427) , a poet of the Six Dynasties period (also known as Tao Qian) famous for his version of the Peach Blossom Spring myth and also for his many drinking poems, for which I have been writing variations. Tao Yuanming was a great role model for poets to follow: he is the character who shakes off the bureaucratic dust of the world in order to retire to the simpler world of poetry, in nature (with a wee dram on a regular basis just to lighten things up). The fragments of variation shown immediately below have their source in a number of Tao Yuanming poems:


truth has been lost
for longer than anyone cares to remember
that’s because the bastards won’t drink –
they’re only interested in reputation

I cherish life
life can’t last long
but when that bolt comes out of the blue
it’s best to have under the belt
one or two



bird lost from its flock
flies on although the sun has set
back and forth
and deep in the night
yearns for a home in heaven
but finally comes to a lonely pine
no other trees here
beyond where winds blow
folds wings and settles down to stay
now you see where my hut is anchored
and you know these friends of mine
nor will it surprise you to learn
in the bird bath
just a drop of wine



spring and autumn
fair seasons in which
to scale far mountains
make fresh verses

passing open doors
I greet folk
who meet me with jugs brimming

out in the fields
there’s no time for this

but now
we talk and laugh
the tiredness is gone

at last step outside
for converse with the moon

stream of gold
I dedicate in this meditation

toil of hands
puts food in our mouths
clothes on our backs

nor is it vain now to profit
from the soil’s beneficence

and give this little back

Li He


Li He (791-817) was a Tang poet of the generation following Meng Jiao’s. A failure as a scholar bureaucrat, he died young and was out of fashion for the best part of a millennium, until a recent revival in interest. Famous for his horse poems, tradition tells us a jealous cousin disposed of much of his oeuvre down the toilet. The responses below are to collaborative translations made with Charlie Li.


I held a sword

I held a sword
I left my home

I slashed the clouds
to pieces

I was a gust
the mountains blew down

proud as spring
I came

morning – clean
the sun rose on my blade

by evening
sunset red

and dark in the night
my sword’s sweet sleep

my cold love

all these deeds
for you


somebody else’s home town

wind blows
in the lotus

the moon
wears bright
ear rings

your red dress
fragrant as laurel

this night
must last
until I go

the boats



Another poet who died young and stayed pretty (died of a cold at the age of thirty one), Nalanxingde (1654-1685) was a Manchu nobleman and bodyguard of the emperor Kangxi. Rather than responding to any poem/s in particular, the response below borrows imagery from a number of poems by Nalanxingde (these from collaborative translations made with Lili Han).



blue gossamer scarf
though a thread of tea smoke

winter dusk crowd
of crows arrived

breeze across the vase –
through plum blossoms

silk quilting the girl’s pavilion

through those shutters
willows catch every cliché on wings

incense in the figure of a heart
falls shapelessly to dust

then back to the dream
and go on with the dream
nothing to wake up for



There are more poets with whom I’ve been working in the ways outlined above – including some twentieth century authors. Over the last year some of my
collaborators in these projects have joined with me and my colleague Dr Yao Jingming (Yao Feng) in a regular Saturday afternoon poetry workshop, called 1958group. Combined with an on-line e-mail list and blog, 1958group brings to the living the skills of translation and response we’ve been practising on dead poets up until now. Let me close then with a snippet of the kind of conversation that’s commencing. Here’s Yao Feng’s poem ‘狼來了’, ‘the wolf’s coming’:






Here’s my translation with Agnes Vong:

the wolf’s coming

the wolf’s coming

the sheep didn’t run
they stopped eating the grass
formed up a queue
like cotton wool

the wolf howled at the flock
‘it’s hot as hell, this weather!’
all the sheep
took off their coats


Continuing in fairytale mode, here’s Agnes Vong’s poem ‘lover of fairytales’

lover of fairy tales

evening light
a valley of shadows

secrets between my footsteps and
the tangled bushes

a twig from the first branch
for the ash girl

a red apple
for the snowy white girl

a magic door
for the nosy girl

at the end of the valley
my grandmother’s grave









And, from the same conversation, Amy Wong’s poem ‘fairytale’ (Note that this and the next poem were written in Chinese and English, so – though each is faithful to the other – neither text can properly be considered as translation):



when I was a girl
I played in a fake forest

the entrance –
a path with no grass covering
lay beyond the clouds

looking around
the trees in the box

leaving the homeless birds
alone in the dark

noise with sudden storm
frightened the beasts

thunder, roaring –
chorus of nature

mists never shine
but through the mirror
they chant and whisper

the exit –
full of flowers





入口 ──






出 口 ──
遍 地 的 鮮 花

No Blank Page


In closing I would like to make brief mention of the impact of the projects described on my own work. I commenced with a pedagogic problem but the process of addressing it may have permanently altered my own poetic practice. At least for the time being it has become my habit to read poetry only in the mode of response – that is, with pencil in hand. This way I refuse the poem as ‘just an artefact’; I insist on a conversation.


Allow me to situate this personal change. I have long been committed to what I now call the peripatetic mode – in other words, to poetry as journey cum conversation. Seen one way, the journey is primarily with oneself. ‘Collecting’, I walk and take notes. (In fact I stop to scribble, so as to keep from falling over. I go on.) I’m not hoping to be a spectacle but must acknowledge I sometimes am. Eyes over the shoulder keep me in motion. In China it’s easy to gather a crowd this way. So one can never pause for long. But like the ghost or the criminal I return to the scene. Gathering again, I forget what I found before, how I found it, what it was for. I lose my way. These ways become habits – I try to forget, I try to lose my way. The longer I stay the harder this gets. The more I am of the place the less able I am to disturb its assumptions, but the more I have to say.


Notes for the place proliferate in these paradoxical ways and once I judge I have enough distance (or as much as I’m going to get) I return to them and sift. I do this in some adequately homely place. I begin to try for a poem once there are sufficient observations, strophes, image sets for the different encounters to be themselves a kind of conversation – between subjectivities, temporalities – these mediated by separate engagements of a single place. I call this place-based poetics.


The procedure here is a version of what Stephen Spender named the Beethoven method – composing from fragments. More specifically, the journey I’ve in mind is that of the bricoleur – whose direction is an indirection – that is the journey of one who cannot know beforehand the uses of what s/he picks up along the way. Now this might seem an elaborate hedging purposed to avoid engagement or commitment. But here as elsewhere the analysed life is indicated. Not knowing where one is going, only by stages discovering where one comes from – one needs to have one’s wits about. The uneasy and important thing here is the way one goes ... the exercise of rights and responsibilities of a traveler cum scavenger.


Being in another culture is exemplary for the poet who is always trying to find that kind of relation to his/her own home and idiom. The betweenness of language is the critical space for poetries, the ‘way’ is indirection; being between cultures while one is working makes the needful lost-ness easier.


So much for the conversation with oneself via poetry. What does it mean to draw others (the living and the dead) into this kind of strategy? The idea of a poetry of response to the classics poses some questions concerning position of enunciation – or more specifically, what might be thought issues of disguise. What does it mean to hide behind the masks of the already canonised? Or for that matter, of the long obscure? What kinds of cultural capital are at stake in the making of such choices? With what presumption does one engage in ‘a conversation’ with those who, given the choice, might not deign to speak with us?


For all the dangers of vanity via reflected glory, conversation is more sustaining than dreams of immortality. So why not avail oneself of the best possible interlocutors? Why not have the best conversation available? One doesn’t need a foreign language to do it. One only needs sufficient distance from one’s own words. For me, the best thing about all of this is the privilege afforded of never having to start. There’s no blank page in the poetry of response. Or rather there’s always having to start with where and who you are, with words already given (and whether you understand them or not). Being ‘in conversation’ thus means there’s nothing to finish and there’s nowhere and no need ever to begin.


[1] For instance the Song poet Su Shi wrote two poems ‘On Reading Meng Jiao’s Poetry’ and writes ‘I hate Meng Jiao’s poems’ and that they sound to him like ‘a cold cicada wail’ (Barnstone and Ping, 152).

Works cited

Barnstone, Tony and Ping, Chou. The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry. New York: Anchor Books. 2005.

Koch, Kenneth. Rose where did you get that red? Teaching great poetry to children. New York: Vintage. 1990.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. (tr. Alphonso Lingus) The Hague: Martinus Hijhoff. 1969.

Paz, Octavio. The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry (tr. Helen Lane). NewYork: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1991.

Yeh, Michelle. Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice Since 1917. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1991.

Kit Kelen

Christopher (Kit) Kelen is the author of eight volumes of poetry and two novels, as follows. Poetry: The Naming of the Harbour and the Trees (1992), Green Lizard Manifesto (1997), Möbius (1998), Republics (2000), New Territories (2003), Eight Days in Lhasa (2006), A Map of the Seasons (2006), Dredging the Delta (2007). Fiction: Punk’s Travels (1980), A Wager with the Gods (2006). Several collaborative translation volumes are currently in preparation (Meng Jiao, Li Yu, Nalanxingde) and a volume of responses to Xin Qiji (Spring Wind Brings the Fireworks) is currently in press with VAC in Chicago. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature describes Kelen’s work as ‘typically innovative and intellectually sharp’. Kelen currently teaches Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Macau in South China. Kit has an email address: KitKelen [át] umac [döt] mo