October is my favorite month of the year. And this year October began auspiciously with me doing a poetry reading on October 1st. I read from Hiking the Quatrain Range; my collection of quatrains in various forms. I read from two groupings. The first group was based on the Chinese quatrain tradition of the seven-syllable line. The second group I read from was Englynion based on the Welsh tradition of quatrain poetry.
It was a good audience; attentive and appreciative. One person asked about my use of rhyme. This was after I had read a sequence of quatrains based on the Chinese tradition where the standard rhyme scheme is A-B-C-B. I explained that traditional Chinese poetry is rhymed syllabic verse. I commented that most westerners are not aware of this because translations of traditional Chinese verse rarely map the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry onto their English translations. Furthermore, until very recently, in their introductions they fail to inform readers of these formal characteristics. It took me a long time to uncover these formal characteristics, and even more time to see their potential for English language poetry.
There are exceptions to this general observation. Red Pine does attempt to transmit some of the formal characteristics of traditional Chinese poetry. Here is an example from Red Pine’s translation The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain:
Buddhist monks don’t keep their precepts
Taoist priests don’t take their pills
Count the sages who have lived
All are at the foot of hills
Here Red Pine has retained the standard rhyme-scheme (pills/hills) in the English translation. In addition, he has retained a basic line count; in this case it is 8-8-7-7. The original consists of 5 count lines, but there is a basic similarity in the translation; when reading the translation there is a steady pulse like in the original.
It is very difficult to translate the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry into English; I get that. But there is a heritage of English translators who do not even try to build this formal bridge. Because of this many westerners have the impression that traditional Chinese verse is close to modern free verse and that is a misguided impression.
Not many western poets have attempted to map the formal characteristics of traditional Chinese poetry onto the English language. Robin Skelton is one. I am one. I am unaware of others, but I suspect that they exist.
For both Skelton and myself attempting to transmit a poetic form from one language to another is a rewarding challenge. For me it feels like connecting, as best I can, with another culture. It broadens my understanding of how different people have understood poetry and opens new possibilities for my own creative expression.
It was a rewarding evening. And people bought lots of books; always a plus.