I Will Put Chaos Into 十四行詩: A Thought On The Chinese Sonnet

I've noticed something about Chinese sonnets. As is often the case with sonnets, the Chinese sonnet is a marked genre, in that the choice of form implies certain things about what content may or may not be appropriate to it. Unlike the Medieval and Renaissance Italian sonnet, it is not marked as amorous. Unlike the medieval Hebrew sonnet it is not marked as "satirical." Unlike Western European sonnets generally, it is not marked as traditional at all.

Rather, it appears to be marked as slightly "experimental" like the ghazal in German or English. It seems to offer the Chinese poet in the first instance a space to engage in poetic behavior that is metrically structured and rhymed, and quite possibly prosodically complex (using Wen Yiduo's Sishui meter for example) but not traditional. To Chinese Republican poets who were fond of patterned verse, it must have offered an option that wouldn't seem fusty and out of date. On the contrary, the Chinese sonnet seems to be where the poet is allowed to do unexpected or even nonsequitous things. There is a sense in which the real English analogue to Zheng Min writing a sonnet about a Renoir painting is not an English sonnet about same, but rather something like Keith Holyoak experimenting with Chinese prosody, writing regulated verse in English about his time in Tibet, or English "old style" verse about his time with his father.

It seems a worthwhile question because translating the Chinese sonnets of Feng Zhi, Zheng Min, Pian Zhilin etc. as English sonnets, as the kind of sonnets that might be written by modern practitioners such as Kate Light or even Willis Barnstone (or even by Yeats or Larkin or Rilke) seems to miss something. Sometimes it is almost too easy to do. Feng can often be turned into an English that sounds like a good Rilke translation. But Rilke took the sonnet form for granted in a way that Feng could not have.

Feng with his wish to "hold what cannot be held" in the confines of a sonnet is reminiscent of Millay's declaration that "I will put chaos into fourteen lines." But it is Feng who knows that chaos will always escape in the end, and can be only caught in a moment's motion, as wind in a weathervane which is only there at all because it is not at all held there.

I try to think of a model for what Chinese sonnetry in English should sound like and sound with. I take it for granted that there is no perfect option. There never is in any but the most tedious and dry of translation work. Any kind of translation that is worth doing for reasons beyond the narrowly utilitarian, beyond the barest of informational need, will require significant compromise.

But what compromise should there be? The easy thing would be to treat Chinese sonnets like English sonnets. An even easier thing would be to translate Chinese sonnets into free verse. Both seem defensible for different reasons, and to different degrees. But maybe there is something more to be done. A different kind of English rhyming suited to the potential and effect of the 13-track rhymes used by so many modern Chinese poets. Assonance combined with slight consonance combined with full rhyme, maybe, would reduce the contrasting rhyme categories sufficiently. Also, repetition of the rhyme across sestet and octave — as Chinese sonneteers often do — could do interesting things in English. All of which has been done by experimental sonneteers in English of the Larkin/Lowell castes.

I ought to read more about the Chinese sonnet.

When I first started to read Modern Chinese poets using the 13 rhymes of Peking opera, it seemed cheap in a way. I thought: Really? You need all your syllable-codas shoehorned into just thirteen categories? What, rhyming in Standard Mandarin just not easy enough? I almost want to ask "How does this not take all the fun out of it?" but that is actually a stupid question. Still, it seems like Chinese went into rebound not just from the traditional literary language but from everything that went with it, including the tedious discussions of what does and doesn't count as a rhyme (and for what purpose) and just said "ah, fuck it" when it came time to assimilate rhymed forms like this newfangled sonnet thingy.

Anyway, here's an idea:

十四行诗         Sonnet
馮至           Feng Zhi

從一片氾濫無形的水裡,  To freely overflowing formless water
取水人取來橢圓的一瓶,  The water-bearer brings an oval jar
這點水就得到一個定型;  Thus giving definite form to water's matter.
看,在秋風裡飄揚的風旗, Look! The windvane flutters in Fall air.

它把住些把不住的事體,  It holds that which cannot be held at all.
讓遠方的光、遠方的黑夜  Let some of the far dark, the distant light,
和些遠方的草木的榮謝,  The glory and decay of leaves in Fall
還有個奔向遠方的心意,  And the mind launching toward the infinite

都保留一些在這面旗上。  Be captured on that banner-vane this way.
我們空空聽過一夜風聲,  In vain we've listened to wind sough all night
空看了一天的草黃葉紅,  Watched grass go yellow and leaves grow red all day.

向何處安排我們的思想?  How now to focus, hold our thoughts aright?
但願這些詩像一面風旗   These verses be a windvane filled with Fall,
把住一些把不住的事體。  To hold some of what can't be held at all.

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