Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Autumn's Featured Haiku Poet

An Evaluation and Introspective Look at the Haiku of Chen-ou Liu
by Robert D. Wilson


Moonlight
no wine, reading
li po

Anyone familiar with Tang dynasty poetry knows of Li Po. China, when it colonized the archipelago now called Japan, introduced to its people religious beliefs, writing, mathematics, medicine, a system of politics, and other things indigenous to the formation of a civilized society. Even today, China's contributions to the formation of Japan as a society are deeply engrained into the people's cultural memory.

Matsuo Basho was conversant and literate in Chinese as was any serious poet of his day. His poetry, both overtly and covertly, sometimes include references, legends, quotes, and religious beliefs held by Chinese poets during the Tang dynasty. He was an avid reader and obviously had access to ancient Chinese scrolls. Basho also relied on the oral transmission of Chinese poetry because public libraries were non-existent in Imperial Japan, as written scrolls were reserved for the elite to read and study. Matsuo Basho most likely copied some of the poems written in these scrolls for future reading, study, and reflection; and like most people in Japan do today, committed much poetry to memory.

Says Chen-ou:

"As an individual, Li Po was free-spirited. He took an unusual path in life and career. Well-traveled at a young age, he didn’t bother to take the Chinese civil service examination which was viewed as the only way to elevate one’s social status and guarantee their prosperity. He dared to challenge authority, and loved a good bottle of wine and making friends. His nonconformist personality characteristics continue to stand as a model for me to emulate.

As a poet, Li Po is one of the most loved Chinese poets and his poems are widely taught in schools, memorized by children, and constantly recited on all sorts of occasions. The first poem I ever memorized was his “Thoughts in Night Quiet,” the best known of all Chinese poems, especially among Chinese living overseas:

Seeing moonlight here at my bed,
and thinking it's frost on the ground,

I look up, gaze at the mountain moon,
then back, dreaming of my old home.

-- translated by David Hinton

When I was six, my father recited this poem to me with watery eyes. At that time, he hadn’t seen his family for two decades since he came to Taiwan in 1949, with the defeated Chinese Nationalist Army. I memorized the poem and didn’t fully reflect upon its meaning in my heart and mind. Little was understood about the suffering endured by my father and his generation due to the Chinese Civil War. It was not until the seventh year since I emigrated to Canada that I’d experienced this pang of nostalgic longing explored in Li’s poem through the moon imagery – a symbol of distance and family reunion – portrayed in simple and evocative language. Since then, every time when I thought of my parents, my family, and my hometown, I recited “Thoughts in Night Quiet,” which is not only Li’s poem but also mine.

More importantly, some of the recurring themes in Li’s poems appeal greatly to me, such as dreams, solitude/loneliness, and the passage of time, and they become the key motifs of my work. His skillful use of language, his great sensibility toward imagery, and his deep insights into the human condition through a Taoist lens capture nuanced human experience, which is the main goal I want to achieve in my writing."

Regardless of the language a haiku is written in, be it English, Rumanian, or another, it's imperative to understand the perspective of the cultural memories one's poetry emanates from. Poets build bridges to carry us across the chasm of morning fog. The chasms below are filled with the ashes and petrified feces of pseudo ideologies the insecure sculpt to build mirrors that tell the witch in Snow White what she wants to hear and bullies the weak and naive to believe.

Chen-ou is an avid learner desirous to learn from whatever source of knowledge he can glean from, regardless of geographical origin, aware that truth is international and interpretative.

seeing Fitzcarraldo...
I go around for hours wearing
the actor's face

Learning today is not limited to books. Fitzcarraldo is a German movie based upon the true life story of an Irishman named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald portrayed in a 1982 film.

Wanting to be a rubber baron, Fitzgerald, an Irishman known as Carlos Fitzcarraldo in Peru, had to pull a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory to obtain his dream of becoming a wealthy rubber baron.

One of the joys of reading good literature is the mental ability of a reader to enter another dimension, to become, momentarily, the person he is reading about... a metaphysical journey into what the reader perceives is the mindset of another.

Regardless of where a poet travels and studies, he or she cannot escape one's roots and the influences that paint illusions from their upbringing.

Chen-ou, when introduced to haiku, felt a bond that shared common philosophical and spiritual belief systemics indigenous to China and Japan. Li Po and poets like Basho had beliefs in common. One day, Chen-ou's name appeared nowhere in English language haiku circles; then like a rabbit pulled out of a magician's top hat, the Taiwanese writer, through study and dedication, developed a unique, fresh haiku voice that only now is getting the recognition it deserves. The timing is also right. People in the world want to see, feel, and understand Japanese poetry from perspectives other than those propagated by the West. In the Greek language, for example, there is a greater variation in word definitions. In Vietnamese, definitions are often determined by musical tone; and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that cultures vary in their understandings of words and actions. Haiku is a Japanese genre that is not dependent upon Western interpretation to earn a wider international audience. It is a genre, as Chen-ou wisely understands, that requires practice, study, and a deeper understanding.

The following poem by Chen-ou reminds me of Basho's famous haiku about the frog jumping into the sound of water.

It's been said the poet's job is to write a poem and the reader's job is to interpret it.

This is one reader's well thought out interpretation.

one by one
frogs make holes in the pond...
starry night

Chen-ou is not one to follow formulas or subject himself to the narrowness of only one master's teaching. Here he makes use of European surrealism Chinese/Japanese yugen:

my mind
between crescent moons...
mother's scent

Composing a quality haiku, which necessitates a minimum of words, is a great challenge. The use of yugen (depth and mystery), ma (dreaming room), the unsaid, and other aesthetic tools are aides to help the poet work within the limitations of a short form poem, giving what western painters call 'white space,' a voice that says more with less. It is this white space, the room to ruminate the poet's hints, to evaluate light and illusion that separate the poor from the good in haiku.

my mind
between crescent moons...

As an experiment, write your own third line:

. . .

Poetry is the world's conscience, a collectivity of emotions that refuses to be silent as evident in Chen-ou's poems about Tiananmen Square.

his gun...
fascinated with
snowflakes

Chen-ou told me, "I was glued to the TV, watching the events unfold… first shocked, angry, then anxious over the lives and safety of the protesting students, later turned to frustration and helpless feelings. The following day (June 5), when seeing a young man, then known as Tank Man as well as Unknown Rebel, stop the advance of a column of tanks..."

he stared down tanks –
eyes opened for Beijing
Olympics

"I just cried out loud for minutes. Later, I turned off the TV and sat quietly in the living room. A sense of calmness emerged. This image, which embodied the demonstration of Confucius’ ideal of courage (“Looking back at oneself, if one is upright, one advances even against thousands upon ten thousands of men!”), has since been etched on my mind."

cherry petals
fall upon cherry petals
shadows apart

Offers Chen-ou, "As one who is an English learner as well as a struggling poet, I feel that writing poetry is to experiment with being -- functioning with relative freedom in an unfamiliar world of the alphabet to strike out toward the unknown, to make myself up from moment to moment. Most of the time, I feel I fail in creating a new personality through fresh language and evocative imagery.

For me now, being a poet means being voluntarily mad and struggling alone with voices whispering, 'we all know you’re a failed poet.'"

Good Friday
deep inside his mouth
no more "why?"

"Writing is a Jobian struggle against noises -- and silence."

Autumn 2010 issue of Simply Haiku


Note: The following are featured haiku chosen and reviewed by Robert D. Wilson

moonlight
no wine, reading
li po

seeing Fitzcarraldo...
I go around for hours wearing
the actor's face


Japanese Translation by Hidenori Hiruta

「フィッツカラルド」を観た後...
何時間も歩き回る
俳優の表情を浮かべながら

one by one
frogs make holes in the pond...
starry night

my mind
between crescent moons...
mother's scent

his gun...
fascinated with
snowflakes

he stared down tanks –
eyes opened for Beijing
Olympics

cherry petals
fall upon cherry petals
shadows apart

Good Friday
deep inside his mouth
no more "why?"


Japanese Translation by Hidenori Hiruta

良い金曜日
彼の口の内側深くに
もう「なぜ?」はない


Autumn 2010 issue of Simply Haiku