Rhyme AND Reason

2018-09-20 Carrs Road Clouds 3

There’s a lot of white quartz in Chinaman Creek, and occasionally in that quartz you find small marvellous crystals.

It happens like this. You see an intense, bright light shining off in the distance. It may be a piece of glass, or the slick of morning dew on an ordinary rock, but you never know for sure. The trick to crystal-catching is that once you begin to walk towards the source of that glow the light disappears, and all you have left is your memory of the location to guide you. If something interrupts you as you walk ― if you shift your gaze elsewhere, or if you are suddenly interrupted by some stray thought in your head ― you end up losing the “thread” and you wind up finding nothing but gravel. But if you can hold on to your concentration to the very end, perhaps once out of every ten times, you catch a crystal, generally tiny and imperfectly formed, but of unique power and beauty.

Writing poetry is a bit like this.

The Chinese poet Yu Jian describes the process memorably in a set of notes he wrote back in the 1980s. “Obscurely, you get a kind of premonition that there is something out there, and so you unfold your language in its direction. In this process of approaching there is poetry. The premonition of an objective lasts a split-second, but the unfolding and the approaching must be, as far as it is possible, calm, objective, and even somewhat analytical with regard to the terrain.”

In these notes, it strikes a convincing balance between intuition (rhyme) and intellect (reason). It is intuition that detects that initial flash of inspiration, but it is calm rationality that “unfolds” that mini big bang in the most adequate and energetic of forms.

Yu even believes that it is possible to work on one’s mysterious intuitive capacities. One can enhance this ability by means of exertions, he insists, and he also implies that an openness to all the influences an individual is subject to in the world can also improve both the quality and the frequency of such momentary inspirations.

But before we get carried off into mysticism and the irrational, he also adds, to even up the balance, that “the sublime aspects of language come to the fore when language is used objectively”!

It’s certainly no recipe! Poetry can’t be cooked. But it does provide us with a way of reconciling that glaring opposition at the heart of poem-catching between reasoning and rhyming.

I Remember Shigatse • Yu Jian (2018)


Tashi Lhunpo Monastery_17 SEP 2018

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Photograph from https://bloogs.com/

“I Remember Shigatse”

that day in red Shigatse     when I was young     with a travelling bag and a drinking-flask on my back     and on my feet a pair of Liberation running shoes

I strode across fields of highland qingke barley     a forest combed its hair in the mist     dawn rinsed its face     crows bore the name of a divine being

a snow leopard flew in the Himalayas     some Tibetan’s white house stood poised on a hill-top     prayer-flags

fluttered with a pantheon of gods     a paper lion overcame its altitude sickness     as imps and a fine steed

rolled in its erect body     I strode past villages     fortresses     temples     cream-coloured tents     a Tibetan mastiff

roared against a railing     this mighty collector     took care of a Black Hole from the Middle Ages     I had no way of getting near to

bells tolled from high up in the clouds     the Doors of a Whole Household opened     a crowd of matsutake mushrooms put on their caps

the Doors of a Hundred Rivers opened     a hundred thangkas bloomed riotously on slopes covered in a hundred kinds of flowers     a hundred bronze cauldrons

were brewing a whole day’s yak-butter tea     Baidumu stood in a country fair of weiqi chess-players     bearing Tibetan woollen pulu cloth and a love

very soon to be realized    Sakya Monastery was raining     Mount Qomolangma was chanting scriptures     the Doors of the Galsang Flowers opened     every horse

in a pack of horses had lowered its head to the ground     having found the root     a vermilion monk with one shoulder bare pulled out a key from somewhere at his side

the Doors to the Sun opened wide     its brilliance lighting up the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery lost in thought     Doors of Stone opened

the Doors of Wood opened     Doors of Eggs     Doors of Orchards     fathers and sons

worked on the rooves of Autumn     fifty-one years old, Jiangmu’s mother     had a row of white teeth

in her apple of a face     the Doors of the White Poplars opened     I met people spinning prayer-wheels

made of sheep’s hide     people dancing behind white clouds     people offering their hands in support     people walking along roads     people on their way

to Lhasa     these joyous clocks     crawled along the ground     and moved more slowly than time itself     I met with people

lying stretched out in fields of grass     and I met kings without crowns     the mothers of mothers     riders on horseback     ladies of noble birth

necks encircled with turquoise     beautiful woman cooks     a reincarnated descendant of King Gesar     just like a stupa     I met with young girls

like white cranes     bronzed boys     and at the long-distance bus station I met with butter gilded with gold-leaf     as well as people

carrying scars     fleas and love songs     people come from corn and potato     who led me

and guided me past precipices and streams     with hands scythes had once cut into     o     that day in faraway Shigatse

the Doors of the Choir opened     everywhere lips were singing     Jamyang Gyatso     sang in each and every prayer wheel

sorrowful songs     that day     Shigatse was bathed in an auspicious glow     that day     all the doors opened

the white hair of grandmothers hung down in doorways     the world was so old     Beauty was slow in coming     but how I hoped that this was not

the End of the World     that day, with Shigatse lit up in the light of the setting sun     I found the main gate to an Old Heaven     sheep

making their way back home     trod my footprints into the mud’s oblivion as they passed     there was no electricity in Shigatse that day

no hotels     the Doors of the Stars opened     and together with the motionless yaks on a plain of grass

I was glad to be darkness


① 勃起的身体中滚着 / 骏马和精灵
I asked Yu Jian about the horse and the imps and he said that all this was in him: “I had become a steed” [我自己的身体内,我成了一匹骏马].

② 一头藏獒 / 在栅栏旁咆哮  伟大的收藏家  保管着中世纪的黑洞  我无法走近
I am still puzzled about the dog being described as a “mighty collector”. Yu Jian explained that he saw it as a kind of spirit [你可以那么想,藏獒在我看来就是神灵]; perhaps he means the kind that protects house and home from unwanted influences. The phrase “meaner than a junkyard dog” also springs to mind in this context: in a way, the dog is both collector and protector of such a hoard. The image of the black hole may refer to the gaping mouth of the dog and to unmodernised Tibet (one characteristic modernization is perpetual bright lighting and the loss of complete natural darkness) and, taking things a step further, to the difficulty modernized individuals experience in approaching other kinds of societies

③ 白度母站在手谈者的集市
Yu Jian does like to literalize words. The word for “chess” here is 手谈, literally “hand talk”. He could have in mind here the scenario he describes in the prose piece “In Lhasa”: “In a certain spot on Barkhor Street, groups of Khampa men do business by thrusting a hand into the sleeve of their trading-partner and moving it around inside. They look as if they’re putting on some kind of play with hand-puppets. An expert on local affairs told me that this was how they haggled. They bargain with their fingers in their sleeves, communicating prices by means of gesture.”


Yu Jian photo SMALL_30 JUL 2018


那一天在红色的日喀则  我正年轻  背着行囊和一壶水  穿着解放鞋

大步穿过青稞地  森林在雾中梳头   黎明洗脸  乌鸦有一个神的名字

雪豹在喜马拉雅山中飞  藏族人白色的房子停在山岗   风马旗跟着

诸神飘扬   一头纸狮子在克服它的高原反应   勃起的身体中滚着

骏马和精灵  大步迈过村庄  城堡  寺院  奶油色的帐篷  一头藏獒

在栅栏旁咆哮  伟大的收藏家  保管着中世纪的黑洞  我无法走近

钟声响起在云端  一家人的门打开了  一群松茸戴好了它们的小帽子

一百条河流的门打开了  一百张唐卡盛开在百花山坡  一百只铜锅

在煮着一日的奶茶  白度母站在手谈者的集市  带来氆氇和将至的

爱情  萨迦寺在下雨  珠穆朗玛在颂经  格桑花的门打开了  马群

低着头  它找到了根  朱红色的僧人袒露肩膀从腰间取出了钥匙

太阳的门大大地打开了  光辉照亮沉思的扎伦布寺  石头的门打开了

木头的门打开了  鸡蛋的门打开了 果园的门打开了  丈夫和儿子们

在秋天的屋顶上干活  降姆的妈妈五十一岁  苹果般的脸上含着一排

白牙齿  天空的门打开了  白杨树的门打开了  我遇见摇着羊皮转经筒

的人  尾随白云跳舞的人  彼此搀扶的人  走在路上的人  要去拉萨

的人  这些快乐的表  匍匐在大地上  走得比时间还慢  我遇见躺在

大草原上的人  遇见无冕的国王  母亲的母亲  骑士  戴绿松石项链

的贵妇  美丽的厨娘  格萨尔王的转世后裔  像一座塔  我遇见白鹤

少女  古铜男子  在长途汽车站我遇见镀着黄金的酥油  遇见那些身上

有疤痕  跳蚤和情歌的人  那些来自玉米和土豆的人  他们牵着我

绕过悬崖和溪流  用被镰刀割伤的手  哦呀 那一天在遥远的日喀则

唱诗班的门打开了  所有嘴唇都在歌唱  仓央嘉措在每一只经筒中唱着

伤心之歌  那一天  祥光笼罩日喀则  那一天  所有的门都打开了

门洞里挂着祖母们的白发  世界如此老迈  美姗姗来迟  但愿这不是

末日  那一天在夕光中的日喀则  我找到旧天堂的大门  一只只羊

在归家  我的脚印跟着它们在泥泞中隐去  那一天日喀则没有电

没有旅馆  星星的门打开了  跟着草原上那些一动不动的牦牛



Notes on Thick Brown Paper: In Tibet • Yu Jian (1994)

L1080735_Yu JIn TIBET

Photograph by Yu Jian

The etymological root of the Tibetan world is “origin”. There is nothing static about this notion of origins, for this world in its vital energies is originary. It is not only a spiritual quality; it is also immediately apparent in the land, in the architecture, in the way of life. For someone who comes from a world of which the etymological root is “progress”, it is simply not possible to make use of the word “backward” in the case of Tibet. Tibet rejects the outlook of Darwin’s theory of evolution so widespread in our world. Everything in this world takes place in an untrammelled time-space, an integrated whole, a powerful consciousness of life and history. Here you might gain an immediate sense of what is known as “eternal life”. When you discover that the time shown on your watch is totally out of sync with that of the Buddhist elders seated on the stone slab at the Jokhang Temple, you begin to suspect that the time of your “progress” is in fact regressing this moment in the direction of death.

In no sense is Tibet a place where spiritual beings are ethereal like the wind. This is pure conjecture on the part of atheists living in the world of “progress”. In Tibet, a spirit is something you can meet with on the road. They are not insubstantial air: they are tangible and have all the intense reality of stone. They are things capable of inflicting injury on the wind and its ilk.

A materialist visiting Tibet who did not become—if only for a split second—a mystic would, I believe, have to be devoid of any feeling.

I do not like discussing the supernatural. Nor am I fond of poets given to liberally sprinkling their works with the word “soul”. I am certain that there is no spirit to speak of in those places where the word “soul” is spoken of with such gusto. I didn’t hear the word once during my stay in Tibet, nor did intellectuals there debate its loss. But the spirit was everywhere.

Prior to my trip to Tibet, an avant-garde friend back from New York told me that he found it surprising that there were people still wanting to go there. Surely such behaviour was well and truly passé? I didn’t quite know what he meant. Could the progress of time mean that places such as Tibet were out of date? To which parts of the globe would future ages travel? No, I felt hopelessly out of step with fashion—I had always imagined the Tibets of this world to be timeless.

Continue reading “Notes on Thick Brown Paper: In Tibet • Yu Jian (1994)”

Opus 4 • Yu Jian (1983)

Sun Face Sai Kung_2012-09-05 09.40.40 crop

I have been re-reading Yu Jian’s second book of poems, The Naming of a Crow (《对一只乌鸦的命名》) from 1993, just to see if there was anything in it that I hadn’t really appreciated in earlier encounters. Here is one poem that suddenly struck me with a force that I had never noticed on previous occasions: without any clear idea of why, I decided just to get to work and translate it, and I was pleasantly surprised by the way the text seemed to open up as I went along. I’m a terrible reader sometimes; I rely on translation to do my reading for me!

If you read Chinese and are interested in how the language works in this poem, there are a few points of grammatical and lexical interest: I’ve listed these after the Chinese version.

“Opus 4 • Yu Jian (1983)”

One half of that white snake of stones is wound around the mountain
basking in the sun, while the other half
crawls through the legs of a pine forest.
A crow watches me grow up out of a field of grass:
it circles overhead to investigate
before hitting the road once more with the clouds ―
it thinks I’m a tree.
A herd of cows keeps a 12-year-old king company
as he dreams beneath Spring’s regal new canopy.
He sees a red bee in his dreams.
I pass as quietly as I possibly can but he wakes suddenly with a start.
In the spaces between mountains and towering trees between grass and the squirrels between sunlight and streams
we have swapped eyes forever.
He stays put far away in his mountains like a fairtytale about a forest spirit.
I spend the rest of my life trying to imagine the sound of his voice.


Yu Jian photo SMALL_30 JUL 2018



  • The particle 着 can be used to indicate that a verb serves as a “background” or “accompanying” action to another main verb. So in 白蛇缠着山晒太阳, the main action is the basking in the sun, while 缠着山 gives us some more information about how this basking is done. Basic Chinese by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington has a brief explanation of this point.
  • You don’t see the noun 华盖 hua2 gai4 very often. It has two meanings: (1) canopy (as over an imperial carriage) and (2) aureole, a meteorological term referring to “a ring of light around a luminous body”. Fortunately, “canopy” in English is a common metaphor for the sky.
  • I’m a bit unsure of the meaning of 交换眼睛. It may be an idiom, but it’s not one I’m familiar with. There’s a hint of swapping places with another person, of exchanging (if only imaginatively) lives: I suddenly saw everything around me with his eyes . . .
  • I guess one would expect the poem to say: he was like a forest spirit. Yu Jian makes a delightful modification here, by suggesting that he was not just like the spirit but the whole mood or atmosphere of a tale for children: 像一个有林妖的童话.


Two New Poems by Yu Jian, January 2018

Yu Jian photo AUG 2014

Chinese poet 于坚 Yu Jian

  • 《雄狮》

哪里是城市  人类  哪里是图书馆
它知道哪儿要奔跑  哪儿要悠游
它知道孤独  欢乐  失败与荣耀
它知道哪儿是草地  河流  沼泽 长颈鹿
它知道  君临一切   运筹帷幄
匍匐在荒野上  苍茫万物中的
一小个点  一粒沙子  一片树叶
一个穿着迷彩服的士兵  一个土著人
烧制的幽暗陶罐  空着  在时间中



  • “Lion”

It has the whole of Africa inside its head.
It knows where it can — and can’t — go.
Where the cities are. The people. And the libraries.
It knows where it must run for its life. And where less haste is best.
It knows solitude. Pleasure. Defeat and glory.

It knows where the plains are. Rivers. Swamps. Giraffes.
It knows how to be King of the World. How to think up strategies.
Slinking through wilderness. In the vast realm of creatures.

A speck. A grain of sand. A single leaf.
Soldier dressed in camouflage gear. Tribesman.
A dark clay pot fired in the flames. Empty. Waiting
in time for food.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Continue reading “Two New Poems by Yu Jian, January 2018”

“Underground Fire” by Yu Jian

Yu Jian photo AUG 2014

Chinese poet 于坚 Yu Jian

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: During the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, Yu Jian set his mind on becoming a poet. At a time when both classical Chinese poetry and foreign literature circulated underground, and when it was virtually a crime to sit on a picture of the Great Leader, the task was a daunting one. Here, Yu recounts his struggle in an account that reminds us just how dangerous it can be to devote yourself to poetry. I’d like to thank Martin Alexander, editor of Asia Literary Review, who published an extract from this “Underground Fire” [地火] in the Spring 2017 issue.

In 1969, I was working in a factory in Kunming. Before finishing junior middle school, the State sent me to a factory in the northern suburbs of the city that specialised in making various kinds of machinery used in the mining industry. Here I worked as a riveter in the riveting and welding workshop.

When I wasn’t at work, I wrote poetry. In those early days, I composed a form of classical Chinese poetry known as gutishi, because in my Chinese classes at school only the classical-style poems of Mao Zedong were taught — I studied every single poem Mao wrote and could recite them off by heart. Owing to this influence, my first attempts to write poems was a kind of literary substitution, replacing some of the words in Mao’s poems with my own.

The factory was split in half by a broad aisle with workshops either side, and on both sides of this aisle, at the entrance to each workshop, there was a notice board for putting up dazibao or “big-character posters”. Big-character posters were used during the Cultural Revolution for the public expression of opinions about current issues — a bit like the internet today — and in the main streets and in workplaces there were notice boards everywhere where you could put up a poster. If you had some idea you wanted to get across, you wrote a big-character poster and stuck it on the board, unsigned if you wanted, although you would, of course, have to face the consequences yourself. It was a bogus attempt at freedom of speech: the number of people who actually dared say anything real was extremely small — people who sneaked out at night to put up a poster publicly expressing their pessimism with regard to the status quo were arrested at daybreak. Every month, each of the workshops would have to stick up a few new things on their notice board such as citations from Party leaders, extracts from newspaper editorials, expressions of gratitude written by workers, rhyming ditties of various kinds eulogizing of the Fatherland or singing in praise of scenes of prosperity and the overall excellence of the state of the nation, written in ink with a brush on a big white sheet of paper and accompanied by water-colour illustrations of the sun and floral motifs. The notice board of every workshop had its own name: the one outside the machining workshop was called “Spring Rain”, while that outside the riveting and welding workshop was named “The Red Riveter”. Not surprisingly, the casting workshop’s had been christened “Steel Flowers”. I had only just turned sixteen when I started work at the factory, and had written a poem in praise of International Labour Day based on the form of one of Mao’s; this was my first ever composition, and the propaganda officer published on “The Red Riveter”. But this didn’t spark any particular interest in writing on my part; it was just a one-off thing. Mao Zedong’s verse had led me to the Gate of Poetry, but beyond it was concealed the vast realm of classical Chinese poetry. These Gates of Civilization were as numerous as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin with her thousand arms — there wasn’t one single gate, and you could go through any of them in order to reach a higher level of skill until you reached civilization’s most profound inner chamber. Continue reading ““Underground Fire” by Yu Jian”