On Du Fu's "Climbing"

The autumn wind, wailing monkeys, pale sand, wheeling birds, borderless falling leaves, endless river waves, a traveling poet climbs a terrace, loneliness fills both time and space. Am I familiar with this picture? Yes, of course. As a poet in exile, I am all too familiar with this situation. The poem I mention here though is not my work, but is instead a poem written over a thousand years ago by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770AD) entitled "Deng gao", or "Climbing". I first selected this poem last year for Poetry International London as the work that has most influenced my writing. During my talk, I noted that while I first memorized this poem when I was ten, it took me nearly twenty years to fully understand it. My own experiences as a poet in exile were the bridge that led me across that gap in time, towards an understanding of the wonderful poetics of Du Fu. The poem has become a meeting place, a place where poets who share similar situations might gather to read each other timelessly.

I selected "Climbing" for the event in House of Wold cultures not only because the poem speaks of exile, but in particular because of how it speaks. It is the best example to show the very nature of Classical Chinese Poetry tradition, as well as the beauty and difficulty of its modern transformation. All these layers like the life experience, the poets’ individuality, the creations of images and forms, the poetry concepts, the philosophical understanding of life and existence….etc are continually alive in Contemporary Chinese Poetry, including my own writing.

As I have said many times, Du Fu's poetic dances so very freely and naturally within the confines of the strictest form of Classical Chinese poetry, the "qi lü". This form (qi lü) must follow the rules of "dui zhang" and "ping ze". A "dui zhang" is created when the first line is joined with the second, forming a pair. Each character in the first line must be mirrored in the second line - noun to noun, verb to verb, adjective to adjective, adverb to adverb, even color to color and number to number. This pairing creates an echo in the space between two lines. Four pairs of lines, eight lines in all, like four levels in mid-air, create something I have come to call a "portable universe". In a similar way, "ping ze" refers to a fixed tonal scheme, created over more than a thousand years, that all poets must follow in order to preserve the musical rhythm of their poems. This form tests the poet's ability to create beauty within difficulty.

The very nature of the Chinese language provides the special poetic for the poem. Chinese phrases are often devoid of an obvious subject/personal pronoun. Thus both Du Fu and Yang Lian could climb the terrace. Chinese verbs have no tenses, therefore the monkeys could wail during both the Tang Dynasty and today. Chinese readers often have to add a prepositional phrase between images to create a linguistic link. There are no fixed relationships between the images - they continue one by one and level by level, until the portable universe focuses finally on a stained wine cup, held by a certain poet at a certain moment. The depth of this poetic is this open situation - the climbing includes all climbers. During that moment, space within the poem is created, time is canceled. We are sent into an eternal exile.

Yang Lian
London, 25, 1, 2008.