The Poetry of the Far East in a General Education

It is curious that the whole program of humanistic education popular in our own time should ignore Oriental literature generally and lyric poetry in particular. The only poetry that our self-styled humanistic revival seems to recognize at all is dramatic and epic poetry. Nothing could less resemble the situation in Far Eastern countries where traditionally poetry was of almost primary importance in the curriculum of an educated man. It shared importance with the philosophical, ethical and sociological treatises which form the basis of classical Far Eastern education. This, of course, is no longer true of Far Eastern education, but the tradition is still very influential even in “modernist” Japan and in Red China, although the old ways are supposed to have been discarded. Anyone who reads the newspapers must have read many times about the great poetry contests held in Japan in which the royal family, and the generals, and bankers, and all sorts of other people take part. Not only that, but as I always tell people when I read Chinese and Japanese poetry, the greatest generals, diplomats and statesmen, and members of the royal family have been numbered amongst the major poets of both countries. The modern sensibility in Chinese poetry might almost be said to begin with a Han emperor. All the major Chinese poets prior to the Sung dynasty were not merely gentlemen farmers or from that class, but high-ranking courtiers and officials. This does not mean that they had sinecures. Most of them were very practical administrators and some of them — like the poet Wang Wei — were almost universal men — poets and painters, amateur scientists, all sorts of things — reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci.

We recognize in American society that our whole program of education — the kind of man we turn out — is open to serious criticism. We do not produce well-rounded men. The value of poetry in education is just this: that it produces a deeper and wider and more intense response to life. The presumption is not that we will be better men — that’s up to us — but that deeply familiar with poetry, we will respond to life, its problems, and its people, its things, objects, everything, in a much more universal way, and that we will use much more of ourselves. As you know, one lobe of the brain is relatively inactive, and poetry is just like one of those phony ads we read in the newspapers about various kinds of new thought: “Do you realize that half of your brain doesn’t work?” Well, much more of the whole man presumably is involved in the appreciation of poetry than almost anything else, and this is supposed to condition you so that you respond to life generally in a much more whole way. Chinese poetry, which is a product of a culture acutely aware of this fact or hypothesis, is especially, I would say, suited to produce these results. Then, of course, Chinese and Japanese poetry, Chinese poetry certainly, is probably the best — on objective evaluation, empirically let us say — the best non-epic, non-dramatic poetry ever written. There are very few early Greek poets, Sappho, for instance, who can compare with the poet Tu Fu. He is almost certainly the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who ever lived, and a man of immense breadth and sympathy and insight. As I said in the notes to the translations I did of him, he has certainly made me a better man — although that is not the function of a poet.

Of course, the place for Chinese poetry, Oriental poetry, Japanese poetry in American education is also determined by the fact that as we move on into a more interrelated world every day, it is essential that we know more and more about other cultures. I think there is very little doubt that the way we get closest to the minds of other people is through their greatest artistic expression and particularly their poetry. If we want to know about the Roman mind in an idealized form, we read Virgil. If we want to know about the ordinary common man of the Roman upper classes with all his prejudices and self-indulgences and wisdom and so forth, we read Horace. So that appreciation of Japanese poetry — Far Eastern poetry generally — helps us to identify with other people who are relatively strange to us.

In reading the poetry of the Orient we discover, of course, that most of these people are very much like us. Japanese poetry particularly represents the spontaneous and yet stereotyped responses to so many of the basic situations of life summed up in little poems — almost, in my point of view, epigrams, although they are not epigrams in the modern, but in the Greek, sense. They might be called epigrams of the sensibility. I think that the educational level at which this sort of thing could begin is the beginning. Children, very small children, love Japanese poems. The first thing my little girl ever learned to write or read was the Japanese poem: “The deer on pine mountain where there are no falling leaves knows the coming of autumn only by the sound of his own voice,” and it’s still one of her favorite poems. Of course, she spent a good deal of time in the mountains as a little child. Otherwise it would not have made any sense to her. But there are various other poems on all sorts of subjects which particularly lend themselves to elementary education.

Even though in Japanese poetry you have an unbelievably high level or degree of formalization both in subject and in style, I don’t think that this formality of Far Eastern verse matters very much. Because, of course, in translation it all disappears. Japanese poetry depends for its effectiveness on very subtle things: on vowel music, on the relative pitch of the vowels (by which I don’t mean it’s a tonic language, but on assonance, and similar effects) and on consonant changes like the changes that take place in the evolution of a language — of p’s and b’s and v’s and f’s, of r’s and l’s and m’s and n’s, and so on. The kind of consonantal music which is much more subtle than anything like our alliteration. All this, of course, immediately vanishes in translation. The only thing that remains of the form is the shortness, the epigram of the sensibility rather than an epigram of wit. So that Japanese poetry, which is the most formal, ceases to be so as it comes over to us in our language, and its formalism is not a block or a difficulty. The prosody of Chinese poetry is very complex indeed. There are a large number of rules governing it, almost all of which have to do with the specific nature of the language itself. For instance, the music of Chinese poetry depends to a large degree on patterns of the Chinese tones. As you know, the Chinese language is a tonic language like Irish or Swedish and goes up and down, and this is built into the poet — this is his language. It is the most natural thing for the Chinese poet to use this outstanding peculiarity of his language this way. Since there is nothing at all like it in English, it disappears in translation. So that what happens is that in the translations of Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound or Amy Lowell or Florence Ayscough or Witter Bynner or any of the major translators from the Chinese into English, you get a simple objective, extremely objective — objectivist — unrhetorical kind of verse where the accent is upon various responses of a deep humane wisdom.

How much is lost in translation? Well, of course, in one sense everything is lost; in another sense, no. The job of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry, since there is so much you can’t translate, makes you do certain things as an Occidental poet. It purges so many of the vices of Occidental poetry. It accomplishes in one blow the various programs of the twentieth-century revolutions in poetry — all the manifestoes of the imagists and objectivists and so forth have to be fulfilled if you are going to write decent translations of Chinese verse.

In conclusion what I want to say is that what the job of translating Japanese and Chinese poetry has done for the translators, the effective worth it has had on the translators, is an indication of the role which Far Eastern poetry would play in a general worldwide humane education. You cannot translate Japanese poetry carelessly because as a poetry of sensibility, if handled carelessly, it immediately degenerates into the most mawkish sentimentality. Therefore it behooves the translator to pay attention always to his spiritual bookkeeping. You may know a famous telegram of James Joyce’s with the message: “A sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring a tremendous debt for the thing done.” In other words, any spurious or faked or stolen emotional and spiritual satisfactions show up immediately. And the deep insights into human motivation and the identification of man in his mental and moral and social and spiritual problems with the life of the living universe is the fundamental message of the whole Far Eastern life, let alone poetry. This again forces the translator, if he would not write simply dull pseudo-imagistic verse, to draw close to his own roots, to gather himself down against his own roots as a human being and to approach other people on the most fundamental terms, and all men as part of the universal life. We think so often in the West of ourselves over against an inanimate and insensate and “value-neuter” — as the academic philosophers call it — universe. This leads in existentialism to the picture of the individual soul as a created lonely individual over against his creator (amongst religious existentialists) or over against nothing (in Jean-Paul Sartre and his followers). The existentialist dilemma does not exist in the poetry of Tu Fu anymore than it exists in the poetry of Francis Jammes. Man is at home in the world. Well, since we are very busy in some of our activities making the planet less and less like a home, any propaedeutic which “homifies” things, which makes us more at home with one another and with the world in which we live, is of inestimable value; and that alone, that moral attitude, that kind of aesthetics seems to me very badly needed in the world today. I can think of few things more readily assimilated, more immediately liked and likable by students and more far-reaching in their effects. I can think of few subjects more suited for wide and immediate introduction into our general curriculum, not, of course, as subjects in themselves — but as part of general courses in literature or civilization, and, since the translations of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and Witter Bynner are incomparably the best work of those poets and amongst the best American poems of the twentieth century — as readings in our own literature.



This essay was originally presented at a conference on “Oriental Classics in General Education” (New York, 1958) and printed in Approaches to the Oriental Classics, edited by William Theodore de Bary (Columbia University Press, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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