Friday, October 12, 2012

The Poetry of Regret

Our interpretation of literature is heavily influenced by our own experience. Nothing surprising there.

I have been reading Chinese poetry (in translation) for a long time. The experience is sometimes baffling, often discordant, and at times even cartoonishy funny. This has far more to do with the sad state of translations than the poetry itself. Lines like the following are unlikely to be seen as poetic by either English or Chinese readers:
Alone with my zither I wait...

However, recently I've begun to see the classic Chinese poets as poets of regret.

Now, regret is a common theme in poetry across cultures and throughout time. Certainly, the Chinese poets, such as Li Po and Wang Wei express regret. But what makes that an identifying characteristic of their work for me?

For example, The Italian hermetic poets express plenty of regret. Even picking poems at random, they ooze a sense of loss:
Distant into a distant land
like a blind man
they have led me by the hand.
— Guiseppe Ungaretti, trans. by Patrick Creagh
(Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1971)

But this is really a poem about loss, not regret. What could the narrator have done differently? What, ultimately, is the event the catalyst to the poet's fall? The fate that the Italian poets depict is global and uncontrollable. It is mankind's fate they envision, not a specific set of choices consciously made and their consequences faced. There is sadness at the outcome, but there can be no real regret because there is no personal responsibility in play. It is a poetry of loss, not regret.

On the other hand, Chinese poems tend to be clearly focused on personal choice and its outcome:
Away from home, I was longing for news
Winter after winter, spring after spring.
Now, nearing my village, meeting people,
I dare not ask a single question.
— Li P'in, trans. by Witter Bynner
(The Jade Mountain, Alfred Knopf, 1929)

Any sort of generalization about literature is inevitably wrong in the specific. Not all Chinese poets or poems speak of regret. Not all Italian poets speak of loss. It is a tendency, the idiom of their time, that we sense and identify as such.

It is also the tinted hues of our own experience we see it through. As I say, I have read Chinese poetry for years. But now, as I stand examining my own actions, I see the tenor of their poetry, the moral and aesthetic  leanings more clearly.

I can read and appreciate the Chinese poems, despite the clouded mirror of translation I must peer through, because I am looking backwards myself. I am watching a boat that has set sail and  I am thinking of someone I won't see again. And today the poems talk to me more easily than they could ever have in the past.

Friday, January 6, 2012


It is hard to believe it has been almost 6 months since I last posted anything to my blog. I was aware time was slipping away, as each week I didn't publish anything. But 6 months goes by very quickly.

Not that I have abandoned the blog, as it might appear. I just found it difficult to finish anything. I have the usual excuse: not enough time. But who doesn't suffer that? What was more crippling was an inability to feel satisfied that any post was "done".

I have more than 30 posts in draft form and I tinker with them on a weekly basis. But nothing ever gets completed.

So if I had a resolution for the new year, it would be to be more "sloppy" — be satisfied with things the way they are. The rough, the incomplete. I can always add more later.

But the truth is I go though this dilemma cyclically. A rush of euphoric publishing, feeling confident, but it soon slows to a crawl as I start to second guess myself, comparing the present to the past. (Preferring what I did last week to what I am writing this.)

So, no promises. I may publish more — I want to publish more — and clear my "drafts" folder! But having seen this movie before, I cannot realistically guarantee that the ending won't be similar to one you have seen  before.