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Two critical concepts are important to understanding Chinese poetry — feeling and scene. But those concepts didn’t spring spontaneously out of thin air. Pearl from the Dragon’s Mouth: Evocation of Feeling and Scene in Chinese Poetry by Cecile Chu-chin Sun traces the origins of these concepts, how Chinese poets and critics understood them, and how their understanding of the relationship between them evolved.

One idea that strikes me as important is the way that critical activity took place. Chu-chin Sun points out:

“Much critical activity took place in a type of informal writing, known as shih-hua (poetical notebooks), that began to flourish during the Sung period. Consisting of causal jottings about poems and poets, interspersed with anecdotes and other various matters, this kind of writing became an increasingly popular form for critiques of shih poetry.” (133)

She adds:

“Originating in the tradition of ‘casual jottings’ (pi-chi), these poetical notebooks were never meant to be more than personal reflections on poems, poets, and other miscellanea shared for fun and knowledge among poets and critics.” (133)

What strikes me about this method of knowledge generation is how similar it is to the role of blogs today. I think blogs like this one are nothing more than casual jottings. They reflect the upfront concerns that writers engage with during day-to-day writing, but they might also generate critical ideas by shedding light on how these concerns shift and evolve over time.

Feelings, Objects, Thoughts

So I never know how a book like Pearl from the Dragon’s Mouth is going to affect my own writing. Since I don’t read Chinese, there’s a limit to how precisely I can appreciate the application of concepts like ‘feeling’ and ‘scene’ to the poems cited in the book. I accept that limitation. My purpose isn’t to imitate Chinese poetry. What I get out of reading books like these are the way they shift my attention.

For example, this book makes me ask, what do scene and feeling have to do with the poery I write? How do the concepts, as presented in the book, differ from how I think about them, situated as I am in a particular historical and social context?

Practially speaking, the Chinese poets and critics reviewed in this book are concerned with the interaction among objects, feelings and thoughts.

I was thinking about how, as a method, one could use this framework for generating raw material at any given place or time. It is as simple as asking yourself three questions and making three lists:

  • What objects do I perceive? Make a list.
  • What feelings do I have? Make a list.
  • What thoughts do I have, separate from how I feel? Make a list.

Process & Poetics

I picked up this book because I’m searching for concepts and ideas that will help me articulate a process for writing poems about place. I’m not explicitly trying to articuate a poetics. So the framework above is a useful piece of the puzzle.

That said, there might be a poetics buried in my process that aligns with Chinese poetics, if only in my evolving resistance to poetry that prizes abstraction and theory. I was struck by this passage from the book. I think it will stick with me for a long time:

“ … contemplation of abstract concepts (love or friendship, life or death) is far less frequently entertained in China than it is in the West. What we see in Chinese tradition, on the contrary, is an abundance of poems on specific events set in specific locales and at specific times. Titles referring to taking a stroll on the first day of spring, seeing a friend off by the Yangtze River, and climbing heights on an autumn day are very common.” (172)

Read the book for free.

One of the cool thngs about this book is that you can read it for free. Thanks to an NEH grant, it is an open access book through the University Michigan. Check it out.