Jun 19, 2013
5 Min read time
Here’s part of a very old classical Chinese poem, one from the Six Dynasties period that was written somewhere around or a little bit before 400 CE:
The poem’s loop structure isn’t normal for old Chinese poems, which were usually written in blocks of text, with the ends of poetic lines indicated by the rhymes. The unfamiliar structure produces a question about where to start. If you begin in the upper right-hand corner and read down and to the left, as most Chinese poetry of the time was written, you get a rhyming couplet that you might translate like “The beginning of the chart of the star gauge; a poem made by Lady Su” (璇璣圖始詩平蘇氏). It’s a bit odd as a sentence, especially that “start” or “beginning” in the first line, as well as a strange word for “made.” If you read it going down the right column, then move over a character, then start directly above it and rotate counterclockwise, you get a more balanced couplet: “‘The Star Gauge,’ a poem / by Lady Su from Shiping County” (璇璣圖詩始平蘇氏). If you’re willing to overlook the rhyme and jump around a little, you can get something more or less like this: “Lady Su’s poem / Is the first one written like a star gauge” (蘇氏詩圖璇璣始平). There are lots more possibilities, with varying levels of likelihood and resemblance to standard poems.
It’s an enjoyable game — a “star gauge” or xuanji (I’m borrowing David Hinton’s translation of the term, here) was a kind of ancient astronomical instrument that was used to map the revolution of the constellations, something that looked like this:
The eight characters above rotate in the same way that the xuanji does, making shifting patterns—sometimes just noise, but sometimes coming into focus. Lady Su really was from Shiping County; the effect of reading the piece above is a little bit like a crossword puzzle, with that satisfying snap of recognition you get when you fit one set of words into another. Think about that feeling while you look at the rest of the poem:
The eight characters we saw above are the centermost eight (later editors, after Su Hui’s time, added a ninth character xin, which means “heart” or “center” to the piece, and that’s how it’s reproduced today) of an eight hundred and forty-one character grid that contains a literally uncountable number of poems. To me, at least, the zoomed-in eight-character grid at the center of the piece feels like a game. I feel about it the way that I do about acrostics and palindromes: they’re fun, diverting, but ideas don’t attach to them in any particularly interesting way. When I zoom out to look at the whole “Star Gauge,” though, the game’s over. What seems like a tidy puzzle in eight characters is an endless set of branching paths in 840: the poems are written in four different meters (synonymous, in classical poetry, with line lengths), they jump from line to line, they change direction. It’s hard to be sure if you’re following a path through the piece that was intended for interpretation, or if you’re parsing a sentence that was created by your own wandering. The disorientation is joyous, but it’s not ‘fun.’ The difference between the little poem and the big one is the difference between the kind of mazes parents used to give kids on airplanes and the Labyrinth of Minos: one you hold in your lap, and the other holds you.
The non-game feeling is reinforced by the fact that Lady Su (Su Hui, 苏惠) was one of medieval China’s very rare female poets. The story has it that this poem was hand-embroidered on an eight-inch piece of cloth, and sent from Su to her husband, who had fallen in with a singing girl, in an attempt to rekindle his affection for Su. But it doesn’t matter, necessarily, that Su Hui was not playing a game when she wrote the poem (this is good, because to me the story smacks of a ‘just so’ explanation about how a woman could write such a thing). With or without the context, the poem looks like a game when it is small, and feels like an overwhelming and magisterial opus when it is large. I think of this transition when I hear people discuss the “wordplay” of a poem, or describe a poem as a game. These descriptions can mean a lot of things, but one of the things they often mean is that the poem has some kind of smallness. Either it’s unique and therefore part of a small minority of works, or its audience is extremely small, or it hasn’t been produced with a visible amount of time and care. We don’t usually call a sonnet (or a piece of Tang dynasty regulated verse) a “word game,” although we could.
I like to play and I like to experiment, and when I read poetry I like to read things that feel new and interesting, things that bring me pleasure. The Oulipo poets in France called themselves writers of “prospective” poetry, and I like that feeling of watching the poetry that could be, that’s just now starting to be. At the same time, though, I feel a simultaneous draw towards the drama and gravity of a poet’s investment in the poem. I suppose I mean investment in the financial sense — you can perhaps picture the time and talent Su Hui spent to make this piece, to say nothing of the needlework — but I also mean it in the older sense, to give power. Play is more fun when we realize that we can simply ungame it by taking it seriously, by putting more of ourselves into it. To me, Su Hui shows that the power of a poem is not always simply decided upon by its readers; it can be forced into existence through the energetic, ambitious, fearless writing of the poem itself.
June 19, 2013
5 Min read time