Tuesday, February 06, 2007

New Traditions - Chinese Short Songs in English

Modified on 2/19/2007 because I can't proofread. Thanks, Kathy.

Let's leave off traveling round the Poetic States for the moment. For about eighteen months, Kathy Paupore and I have been penning The Many Names of the Sun, using an English version of the Chinese Short Song or jueju as the form of choice. From time to time, I get asked for the "rules" for the short form. Because, Chinese forms must be modified to work in English, I wrote this essay to explain the requirements for English language short songs. This is a draft, so if you have any comments or recommendations, please mail me at garydawg@msn.com or post them here.


New Traditions:
Writing Chinese Short Songs in English

English is a rich language, taken from many diverse origins, strong in many ways, weak in others. One strength is how successfully English borrows not only words, but ideas and poetics. Another is how it seems to work for nearly any form devised for verse. That success depends on not simply parroting, but adapting to English’s assets. Chinese Short Songs are a primarily quatrain form (also called jueju) composed in Tang Dynasty regulated verse, written at the height of Chinese classical poetry. Arguably, the best poems were written in the form, and best poets practiced writing them.

In this paper, we examine the basic requirements for a Short Song, and how to use the strengths of English to write them.

There are four superior forms that come out of the East: Ghazal, with origins in Persia and Pakistan; tanka, the five line form that preceded haiku; sedoka and its Malay cousin, pantun; and the Short Song from High Tang China.

The basic rules for ghazals and tanka have been codified by short form poets; and although sedoka/pantun are seldom practiced, so have they. The same can not be said for the Short Song.

Chinese supports script and tonal rhyme, or rhyme on three levels. Chinese writing is composed of elemental pictographs, some of which (but not all) representing real world objects, such as sun, moon, tree, or man. Li Bai and others rhymed script through the repetition of basic pictographic elements. It is also tonal, with tone inflections of rising, level, and falling. Regulated verse had specific requirements for tone placement. English has neither, though on rare occasions, poets attempt to rhyme homonyms or homophones.

The best of High Tang poets painted pictures with the script. The most famous might be the first line of Wang Wei’s “Magnolia Basin”

On branch tips the hibiscus bloom.

(Add picture of script here. I can not find the poem in Chinese on the web. See the Introduction to Willis and Tony Barnstone’s Laughing in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei for a study of the poem as script.)

Chinese is a monosyllabic language with a high level of words that rhyme. English also has a rich heritage of rhyme, albeit it seems to be out of favor in the modern age. Regardless, the ability to play with meanings via pun, allusion, entendre and the like is as strong in English as in Chinese. Word games enhance poetry in both languages.

Are we at a disadvantage in attempting to fit Chinese Short Songs into English?
Perhaps, but no more than translation in general, or the author that attempts an epic work; poets often attempt fool’s errands.


Examine these rules for English-speaking poets to consider when penning the Short Song.

1. Length

Four lines of nearly even count from eight to twelve syllables, the average being ten, the latter count being the average English breath. Variation is permissible, but generally couplets should be the same count. For example, the first two lines might be eight, and the last twelve, or all lines might be ten count.

Mudslides block the high mountain roads
Storms flood the valley’s villages.
Tomorrow, rugs and clothes will be hung to dry;
next week, the market sells the last moldy bean.

As an alternative, write the couplets as two quatrains with each line five to seven syllable count. Some rewrites may be necessary to get the right rhythm to the poem.

Shouts from the trail below,
visitors arrive from afar;
Dust from ox and porters,
relatives at the East gate.

Every chicken prepared,
even the ancient rooster;
every child gathers pecans,
even the youngest bride.

2. Parallel construction

Perhaps the format that lifts the form above the average verse is the use of parallel construction. For example in the poems above, the first line in each couplet has an exact parallel in the next line. However, a single word might be the parallelism; and the construction may even be more subtle as in the poem below:

A flowered frock waves from the farm’s front porch;
each hand imagines smiles for him, one knows.
In the eaves, wasps paper their new queen’s nest;
her tea glass sweats, ice melts - flowers flooded.

The parallel lines may be any pair – one and four, one and three – and not simply the couplets.

Although the lines may relate, there should be a tension if the reader’s interest is to be held. It may be overt as in Li Bai’s “War South of the Great Wall”

my husband, my sons – you’ll find them all
there, out where war drums keep throbbing.

- David Hinton, trans.

or subtle, as in line two of Wang Wei’s “Deer Park”

Nobody in sight on the empty mountains
but human voices are heard far off.

- Tony Barnstone, trans

Parallelism is a difficult concept to understand and implement. Although, English poetry used the technique for most its life (consider Poe's “Annabel Lee” or Whitman's “I Sing, America”), it has fallen out of favor in most modern poetry. The connection is like an echo; sometimes it will be hard or solo, and at others, soft, muted and multiplied.

3. Alliteration

Short Songs are musical. While they typically do not rhyme, they lean heavily on sounds, either with alliteration or near rhyme for lyrics.

Soft and green stacked as if winter’s wood.
Notice posted on every door – Free!
Surplus fried with scallions, garlic, cornmeal;
in next year’s soil, discarded seeds live.

4. Economy

Chinese poetry differs from English in more than alphabet and script. The High Tang poets often eliminated pronouns, articles and numerical notation for poetry with extreme economy. Of the techniques we attempt when drafting Short Songs in English, this may be the most difficult for an English speaker. English poetry generally does not sound correct and is too choppy without the standard constructions and grammar. In the poem below, the speaker might be one of the bodies, or simply an observer; and the state of the bodies – alive, dead, sleeping – is also not known. In this case and most, I do not entirely eliminate articles, but keep enough to cut down the chopped feel.

Leaves sink, a brown feather rising on the wind;
Dust devils twist, sheets snapping in the breeze.
Bodies stain a bare mattress, no movement;
no memory of the last rain, only flies.

5. Silence

High Tang poetry excels in silence, a quiet seldom found in poetry from other eras or regions. Wang Wei, of River Wang fame, penned poems that often seem too simple, so light as to nearly not be. Yet, they might be the most peaceful poetry written, as in his “House Hidden in the Bamboo Groove.”

Sitting in the dark bamboo,
I play my lute and whistle song.
Deep in the wood no one knows
the bright moon shines on me.

- Barnstone trans.

Chinese poetry excels in silence, part of the Tao religious tradition. For example, these lines from Section 16 of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (as translated by Ursula K. Le Guin)

16. Returning to the root

Be completely empty.
Be perfectly serene.
The ten thousand things arise together;
in their arising is their return.
Now they flower
and flowering
sick homeward
returning to the root.

No matter how many I write, I doubt that I will ever approach the quietude of Wang Wei’s poems. I seem a locomotive to his feather.

I wake, the light demanding the day be joined,
morning so gentle I can’t resist the call.
By noon, shelter sought from the sky’s power;
twilight, to watch the day end in crimson blaze.

6. Nature and Myth

Chinese poetry takes many of its images direct from nature and uses myth, legends and history, often really legends, as common themes. A poem may be about the poet traveler, yet nothing but natural or historical images will be seen in the poem.

The sharp taste of dust and pollen greets us,
the trail a thin line across the meadow.
A flash of light breaks in the woods beyond:
Feather, horn, a reluctant traveler?

The day the planes came, heroes and their trucks lost;
nickels, dimes saved by bayou and city children.
Gulf coast homes drown, the heroes bring new rides South,
to give care with The Spirits of Louisiana.

7. Variation

Of course, no matter what the rules, interest demands we have sufficient variation to hold the reader. A strict adherence to rules is generally not successful. Or as a friend says, “The only rule is there are no rules.”

In the tall grass, a small boy sleeps
lulled by the grasshoppers’ sharp click;

he dreams of catching a brown trout
with dead flies he found on the road.

Supper waits - brown beans and fried spuds,
cold fresh milk and hot apple pie.

Explore the possibilities; your poem might be in couplets, quatrains or one unbroken stanza. You might find pronouns to your liking, but dump all the articles, and definitely find images in urban and suburban settings.

Practice composing in sets of Short Songs. Poems three to six above are part of a collaboration with another poet called “The Many Names for Sun,” and seven is from a set by this author titled “The Naming of the Seasons.” A group might take the shape of a sonnet or be a crown of five; but whether a single stanza or many, the form is a pleasure to pen.

A passing note about titles:

Chinese has a tradition for what we might see as boring titles – “A Poem Written for Commissioner Chang Lee on His Return to the Village.” I tend to use both this style and standard English title construction. The first two poems in this essay are a set titled “Stanzas Inspired by a Letter from a Friend,” while the last is from “Field and Fin.”

Is it possible to successfully draft Short Songs in English? I believe it is, but to be as successful as other forms, it will take a group of practitioners who work to develop the form beyond the few simple rules I have outlined above.


(All works copyright the authors.)

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, Anchor Books, 2005

Francois Cheng, Chinese Poetry Writing, Indiana University Press, 1982

David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, Counterpoint Press, 2002

Ursula L Le Guin, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A book about the way and the power of the way, Shambhala Publications, 1998

Stephen Owens, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, WW Norton, 1996

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Blogger R.K.SINGH said...

Hi, may I invite you to visit my blogs:
and share your views about my haiku and tanka poems.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Alan Summers said...

Dear Gary,

Happy Birthday for yesterday! ;-)

Could you email me at:

We were rather taken by a sedoka of yours, as well as being fascinated by your jueju article.

website: With Words

9:48 AM  
Blogger Alan Summers said...


Carrie Etter often writes and has pantun published in TLS.

Blog: Carrie's blog

p.s. It's her birthday today! ;-)

9:57 AM  

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