Chinese poetry

2 posts

“Lines Feeding on a Crust of Lamplight”

Yesterday morning, I wrote a “little poem.” You won’t find that in a glossary of poetry terms, of course, because “little” is fraught with multiple meanings. Think of a little apartment, for instance. For one prospective renter, it’s “cramped,” and for the next, it’s “cozy.”

In the poetry world, the Kingdom of Little Poetry can be found in ancient China and Japan. Haiku is best-known, sure, but the number of lines and syllables is of little import. The idea is to squeeze the maximum meaning possible from brevity’s wet towel.

The problem with little poetry? It’s much more difficult to judge. It’s “cramped” vs. “cozy” all over again. That is, one reader may find your short poem bountiful despite its economy, and another may judge it as so many empty calories.

These thoughts came to mind as I wrapped up a reading of Jenny Xie’s National Book Award nominee, Eye Level. Here’s an example of what I call a little poem from her book:


by Jenny Xie

Water striders on a pond’s surface,
light as calipers:
long sentence for which there are no words.

Indoors, silence travels from west to east.
The house I keep
no monastery.

Tsvetaeva, open on my bedside table.
Lines feeding on a crust
of lamplight.


It’s a cliché to say that big things come in small packages, but the truth is that expectations of our readers are heightened with little poetry. If ever there was a writer-reader pact, here it is: the reader is obliged to take what is implied by our few words and, out of it, fashion a house of inference.

As for the writer? His or her job is to judge when “just enough” has been reached. Like salt in Bashō’s broth, too little leaves the poem bland while too much ruins it irretrievably.

And so I look at my little poem again today, and will again tomorrow and many, many more tomorrows, because, paradoxically, little poems take a lot of time to get right.

Do you think Xie hits the right measurements in “Margins”? I only know this: I’m a sucker for famous poets (here, Marina Tsvetaeva) making cameos in contemporary poetry, and I rather like the idea of “Lines feeding on a crust / of lamplight.”

I feed my lamplight, too—nourish it by thinking big while writing little. An occasional “little poem,” that is.

Finding Your Own Way Up Cold Mountain…

cold mtn

Reading Kazuaki Tanahashi & Peter Levitt’s new translation of The Complete Poems of Cold Mountain while also being subjected to news of the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh is a telling study in contrasts. One is pointless, the other enduring. One is noise, the other sound.

Where would you be if you didn’t listen to or read a word of this tribal news from Washington, this much ado about nothing? On your way up Cold Mountain, that’s what.

As the first poem demonstrates, “the way” is not so much a path as a state of mind—one that is pure and protected from the clanging cymbals we call power and greed and hate.


Cold Mountain, Poem #1
by the Hermit Hanshan

You ask the way to Cold Mountain,
but the road does not go through.
In summer, the ice is not yet melted,
the morning sun remains hidden in mist.
How can you get here, like I did?
Our minds are not the same.
When your mind becomes like mine,
you will get here, too.


Deep breath in, slowly out….