THE ART OF WRITING
Teachings of the Chinese Masters
Tony Barnstone & Chou Ping
Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Paper, 94 pages, $9.00
The teaching of creative writing is not solely a contemporary phenomenon confined to American MFA programs but reaches back nearly 2,400 years to the Poetics by Aristotle and nearly 1,800 years to early masters of Chinese poetry. In The Art of Writing, Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping have collected some of the advice offered by the ancient Chinese, and unlike some of simple theories of Aristotle, what the Chinese had to say remains more than viable today and provides instruction that many might use.
Barnstone and Ping start with Lu Ji, from the third century, who long before Ezra Pound recognized the need, every day, to make a poem new. Yet he also knew you must learn from others, and To learn writing from classics is like carving an axe handle with an axe the model is right in your hand. As for revision, he advised the use of select words to whip the piece like a horse and make it gallop. As for the compact and concise nature of Chinese poetry, Lu Ji said, present your argument with not one wasted word. But if a poem is too short, it trails off with a lonely feeling. And:
One string on a harp is crisp and sweet
but sings without resonance and harmony.
During the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century, Sikong Tu set forth in verse the 24 styles of poetry. While his instruction is often obtuse, there is also much here to be heeded, such as his advice on overwriting that a good line stops you like a great river and echoes profoundly inside you. And also his advice on over thinking a poem that, instead, you should find the natural way of the poem:
The Tao isn t confined by shape.
It s round at times or square.
Later, during the Sung Dynasty, sometime before the 13th century, Wei Qingzhi compiled the Poets Jade Splinters, a collection of poetic notes on technique and skill, such as this:
If you always use a compass to draw a circle and ruler to draw a square, you will always remain a slave. As the ancients say, you can t build a house inside a house. Lu Ji says to avoid the morning flower in fulf blossom and gather instead evening buds that are not yet open.
Or more plainly said: if you follow someone you will always be behind. And this on art and skill: You must shape a poem the way you cut a gem, leaving no trace of your tools. And this in finding the right word: In each line there should be a key word that will act like a magic pill or a Midas touch to make the line work. And the extreme difficulty of achieving simplicity comes from first mastering elegance and then striving for a plain style. As for the immediacy of a poem, the highest achievement is to write words so that, after one thousand years, they still sound as if it s happening right now. Like this:
Clouds break open. Moon.
The flowers play with shadows.
As Ouyang Yia said in the 11th century, it is very difficult for a poet to coin is own expressions. It must not only resonate within the reader but there should also be meaning beyond what words express. As in this quatrain about a princess seized in war:
The mirror and the person are gone.
The mirror returns. The person doesn t.
I don t see the Moon Lady s shadow.
Bright and empty moonlight linger.