Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Zhuangzi / Tao

1. Essay on Tu Fu
2. Benjamin Shwartz on Zhuangzi and Creation
3. Essay on Wang Wei and “the not entirely human”

The Order of Poetry: Tu Fu’s Great Peak

Using Eric Voegelin’s sensitive language, the poem as a historical act of attention moves between the immanence of things and the immanence of time in the world, but these immanences are not themselves “objects of primary experience. They are indices of a complex of reality . . . “ (Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, 328).
The poem reveals “a comlex of reality.”

Tu Fu (712-770) is widely considered China’s greatest poet. He lived during the civil war that devastated China in the mid-8th century; though he never got over his desire to help restore order and peace, conditions were such that he finally decided to live as a recluse. To paraphrase David Hinton’s introduction to Tu Fu in Classical Chinese Poetry (2008), Tu Fu’s realism embraced great ranges of human experience, from the vastness of China’s landscapes, to the convulsions of its political disorder, to the intimate details of family and personal life. In sum, Tu Fu explored new depths of “subjective experience.” He is often referred to as the ‘poet-historian.’ We will return to Hinton’s use of “subjective.”

Here is one of Tu Fu’s best-known poems, translated by Stephen Owen (Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World,1985):

What is it like—Mount T’ai, the Great Peak?
Across Ch’i and Lu a green unceasing.
Here Nature concentrated unearthly glory,
Dark north slope, the sunlit south divide dusk and dawn.
Sweeping past breast growing layered cloud;
Eye-pupils split, moving in with homing birds.
The time will surely come when I pass to this very summit
And see in one encompassing vision how tiny all other mountains are.

As Stephen Owen’s commentary shows, Tu Fu’s couplets exhibit internal balance. Notice how the first line of each couplet sets up an expectation that is fulfilled in the imagery of the second line. Furthermore, that couplet structure is elaborated by the structure of the poem as a whole. Notice how the first couplet introduces the mountain as a thing in space and the last couplet reframes that image in a transcending image, not only in the sense of the future of the poet but in placing the mountain into a landscape of mountains from an unrealized if not impossible point of view.

Owen quotes a Chinese commentary on this poem from late 17th century that emphasizes the act of “gazing” and the sequence of far and near gazing that shapes the poem, noting that the last couplet indicates that the poet’s gazing has reached its limit. The compositional order of Tu Fu’s poems has a long tradition.

I believe we are in a position to contribute to this tradition. Reading Tu Fu’s small poem closely suggests that Tu Fu composed his poems according to a pattern, but not a static pattern, a process. I believe the traditional way of understanding the process as moving from objective to subjective does not do the poem justice. Using Eric Voegelin’s sensitive language, the poem as a historical act of attention moves between the immanence of things and the immanence of time in the world, but these immanences are not themselves “objects of primary experience. They are indices of a complex of reality . . . “ (Anamnesis 328).
The poem reveals “a comlex of reality.”

As a poet, Tu Fu need not “immanentize” things and time in univocal categories; rather the act of poetic composition reveals the flow of consciousness between these indices towards transcendence. The poem moves in a rhythm of the process of consciousness as it pulls him through and away from its own limits.

To put the process in terms of affect: The poet is alive to the wonder of things in themselves. The act of meditation involves perplexity along with wonder, and the poet is tested as a witness. His own frailty as a thing does not limit his hope of someday seeing the whole, the great mountain and all the lesser mountains, in one glance. But what is achieved by indirect suggestion in the poem may elude him. The poem is a token of transcendence and the act of composition comes to rest in a virtual state of mind.

Poems are made of words, but the words of a poem exist in the light of truth beyond them. The act of composition moves according to a pattern of consciousness well attested in various forms in many traditions. The fact that poems do not stake their meaning on immanentized universals like “time” and “space” is often taken as evidence that poems are merely subjective. The word “subjective” is itself symptomatic of misunderstanding. The order of poetry, on the contrary, is captured in a paradox. The order of the poem reveals the “immanence of transcendence.” The tension revealed in the paradox is characteristic of the order of the poem.

Plato’s grasp of the ramifications of this paradox is preserved in the concept “metaxy.” Voegelin’s account of Plato’s use of “metaxy” is without peer. Simone Weil’s sometimes idiosyncratic use of “metaxu” conveys some of her most powerful insights and has influenced such major poets as Czeslaw Milosz and Seamus Heaney. Recently William Desmond has developed a metaxological metaphysics. Contemporary poets often seem to take this concept for granted. In a series of essays, I explore poems in light of insights that emerge in the works of Eric Voegelin and other writers drawing on Plato’s concept. Voegelin’s work leaves no doubt about the centrality of this concept to our understanding of order in history. To apply it to poetry has seemed only natural.
Benjamin Schwartz. The World of Thought in Ancient China ( 228)

“The notion that nature suggests the same specific fashioning and creating activity that we associate with human artifacts is no more absent in Chinese thought than in Plato’s Timaeus or certain modes of Indian thought. Some were evidently dissatisfied with the notion that the myriad “things” of the world, in all their irreducible and unique specificity, were simply to be accounted for by ‘spontaneous growth.’ As already indicated, things can be looked at in two ways – either in their concrete, tangible presence (shih), like the ‘horse tied up before me,’ or in their ‘emptiness,’ like a horse dissolved into its hundred parts which are further dissolved into emptiness (hsu). The perspecive of ‘Someone causes it,’ Chuang-tzu seems to say, overemphasizes the tangible, concrete, contingent reality of the thing in its unique presence. ‘No one made it’ overemphasizes its ultimate transceince and ‘emptiness.’ When Chuang-tzu concentrated his attention on the unique design, exuberant variety, and astonishing uniqueness of things, the metaphor of the tao as “Creator” or “creating power” somehow involved with the discrete particularity of things comes to mind. . . . [S]omething like an aesthetic-arististic appreciation of the uniqueness of creativity . . . is operative here. Artistic creativity is a mystery which contains both an element of conscious action (wei) and an element of wu wei. It would appear that when dealing with the real of manifold nature (yu), Chuang-tzu is even prepared to relativize the opposition between wu-wei and wei along with all other such dyads.

Wang Wei and the “Not Entirely Human”

Stephen Owens says that Wang Wei didn’t write poems as defined by Western criticism — as fictions, symbolic structures contrived by the poet — but shih, which involves articulating what is on his mind (Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics, 63). A poem by Wang Wei is an “interplay” of the world and the intellectual resources of the poet. This is true, Owens says, for a majority of T’ang and Sung poems. In reading a poem, one follows the poet’s senses, even when the given mode turns out to be “not entirely human.”

The poetics of apophatic form starts where Wang Wei started, according to Owen, with a state of mind. The state of mind is an interplay of materials, objective and subjective, structured by processes of thinking and meditating — that is, by the practice of processes of interpretation both personally developed and passively absorbed from cultural influences. The poem re-presents that state of mind in literary form (literary considerations being among the ingredients of the state of mind).

I believe “shih” is a good model for reading most poems. Apophatic form, then, refers to the ultimate “subject” which the poem is about. Given the influence of form on the shaping process which results in the poem, the ultimate form of a poem is the ultimate subject of the poem. Objective poetics do not go far enough, nor do poetics based on personal emotional response to events. The process of composition transforms the initial impulse to write something into a meditative act whose final energies come from something not anticipated and not understood conceptually. Call it poetry.

And so, the final phrases of Wang Wei’s “Crossing the Yellow River to Ch’ing-ho” are translated thus: “Then peer back towards my homeland/ Vast floods stretching toward the clouds” (Owens, 64). Such “peering” is an act and a state of mind in one. That act, that state of mind, is a contemplative one.

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