There is an upcoming contest at Tourney of the Foxes with the theme of “Roses”, and I’ve decided I wanted to enter a poem. I mused a while, and decided I wanted to attempt to write a rose poem in a Chinese style. It appealed to my sense of appropriateness, as most modern ornamental garden roses are hybrids of Chinese roses. Then, I realized I didn’t really know what that entailed, as Japanese poetry forms are much more popular. So, I looked it up! I wanted a form that had strict enough rules to give me a challenge, give me a framework to work in, and also “feel” recognizably Chinese. I rejected fu, as it’s a form that’s highly ornamental and thus not my style, and ci, because a ci poem requires the work to follow patterns based upon lyrics to traditional songs. Which is super neat, but basically, to even begin to understand how to write a ci poem, I’d have to learn Chinese, and I’ve got too much on my “To Learn” plate as it is. The lushi and jueju forms, however, are much more my cup of tea. Both are composed very similarly, have an appealing economy to them, and have a fairly similar structure. I’ve linked the Encyclopedia Britannica articles for definitions of the forms, but I’m not one hundred percent sure of their accuracy. The sources I’ve found online seem to all differ on what the precise rules are (rhyme scheme for the jueju being AABA or AABB, for example) but all agree that the lushi is 8 lines of 5, 6, or 7 characters/syllables/words (pretty much the same thing in Chinese, where the vast majority of words are monosyllabic and written with one character). However, I found this article, A Critical Study of the Origins of “Chüeh-chü” Poetry by Charles Egan, which seems pretty legit, and I will be drawing upon this heavily. It’s worth a read, if you are into literary criticism. For my purposes, I’ll summarize what I’ll be taking from it to influence construction of English Lushi/Jueju:
1) Rhyme on even numbered lines
2) Confirmation that lines were of fixed length (5,6,7 etc)
3) Lines in a couplet arrangement
4) The lines contain a caesura before the final trisyllable (or triword, tricharacter, etc). Possibly trochee line endings?
5) Tonal pattern, referring to an alternation of stressed/unstressed. Tone in Chinese is imperfectly replicated in English, but iambs will be used to approximate this.
6) The conflation of natural imagery with personal mental states
7) A preference for dense words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc) and avoidance of empty words (grammatical particles, adverbs, etc)
8) Parallelism in the second and third couplets (only applies to lushi). To quote Egan’s explanation, “In a parallel couplet, words in the first line are complemented with corresponding second line words that have similar syntactic function but contrasting meaning. Each line is independent, yet tied to the other through a series of equivalences.” For example, “Red flame lights the empty sky/ Green water darkens the swollen earth.” Parallelism does not have to necessarily be this rigid, but for a quick example direct opposites are easiest to compose. I really like this as a technique, for reasons which are off topic, so I will behave and not go into them. 😛 Suffice it to say for an accurate attempt at a lushi, parallelism must at least be attempted. Parallelism sometimes appears in jueju, but is not a requirement of the form.
Next I’ll discuss the issue of how to actually translate the 5 (or 7, etc) character/word/syllable line structure into English. The easiest way is to simply write 5 syllable line quatrains or octets and call it a day. However, I find this method unsatisfactory. English has so many multisyllabic words one ends up either being constrained in expression or nuance. “Brittle” has a different shade of meaning than does “frail”, “terrible” introduces a different feeling than “bad”, but if you use the longer word, the extra syllable may eat into your allowance for other ideas you wanted to express. This can be a fun exercise in challenging composition, but Chinese writers are not fettered by these multisyllabic words, so an English jueju written in this manner is going to be much less “dense” than a comparable Chinese poem. In this manner, I feel that you are sacrificing the spirit of the lushi for the letter, as it were. Professor Jonathon Stalling has invented a method for composing jueju which limits composition to only monosyllabic English words and prioritizes the use of “full words” (nouns, etc) heavily over empty ones (particles of speech), and uses a chart to aid composition, basically a simple table that can be filled in with the desired monosyllabic words, a neat trick which is a big help when setting up parallelism. Here is the pdf for the instructions for an annual contest run for child poets which very neatly explains his system. Here is the website for the contest, which has posted example poems, winners from previous iterations of the contest. Disclaimer: He invented this system, full credit to him, etc, so on and so forth. The thing I like most about his system is the use of the table, which make it easier to visualize that Chinese characters are word “blocks” that convey meaning through arrangement and word order. However, poems composed with this method give the impression of caveman talk. To use a rather tongue in cheek example, composed by the illustrious Master Lorenzo:
Me love you long time
You been here four hour
You go home right now
My wife get home soon!
Hilarious? Yes. And, if recomposed to follow the caesura rule discussed earlier:
You, me, love long time
Four hour, you been here
Right now, home you go
My wife, get back soon!
It actually settles into a rhythm that is not half bad. It sounds pretty decent, actually. The quibble I have with this method is that it is “caveman talk”, rather unsophisticated. If you look at many examples of jueju and lushi translated into English, like the following jueju by Jing Changxu or the examples in the Egan article, they are distinctly more elegant:
Hit the yellow oriole perch,
Curb its singing on the branch.
The song broke my dream,
And kept me from Liaoxi!
In the translation, strict syllable and even character/word rule adherence is abandoned in order to incorporate parts of speech, the more empty words like “the, on, and” that are generally rendered unnecessary in Chinese because they are implied by word order and arrangement, but needed in English in order to form a complete grammatically functioning sentence with elegant flow. Yet, these translations abandon much of the structure of the original, in terms of meter, rhyme, the caesura, and so on. Understandable, given the limitations of direct translation. However, when composing an original composition, one has less of an excuse for this. I have been meditating on a method for composing a more faithful approximation of Chinese lushi/jueju. From this point on, this will be more me thinking aloud than authoritative instruction, and is admittedly tentative, and may be perhaps too complicated to be practical, but I shall make an attempt. One would start by composing a poem using the Stalling method, though it would be my personal preference to allow the inclusion of multisyllabic words. This compromises metrical accuracy for the sake of thematic variety, but I think more is to be gained than lost by doing this. The Stalling method then gives you the bones of the poem, as it were. Think of this as how the poem would look on the page, if was to be written in ideograph form. Think of these as the images and ideas you want your poem to hold/convey. To make less work for yourself later on, it would be best if you already have the rhyme scheme set at this point. For this, example, I went with an AABA rhyme scheme:
Autumn field gives harvest dry
Red flame lights empty sky
Green wheat darken swollen earth
Ending bring life silent cry
From this point, place a caesura, so that each line ends with three syllables. Conveniently, this was mostly already done:
Autumn fields give, harvest dry
Red flame lights, empty sky
Swollen earth, green wheat dark
Ending bring life, silent cry.
Rearranging the third line disrupts parallelism, but as this is only mandatory for lushi, this is acceptable. Next, give the lines grammatical structure to eliminate the “caveman” effect, while attempting to maintain an iambic structure, pre caesura.
Autumn fields gave us, harvest dry
Firelight red gave us, crimson sky
Swollen earth gave us, greening wheat
Ending life gave us, voice to cry
At this point, the poem went completely out of my control, it went in a weird direction, and this was not the end result that I wanted, though I don’t hate the poem. When read aloud, it sounds distinctly western, as well. Somehow every line now has the equivalent of 6 ideographs? I don’t even know what this meter is, but it’s not iambs. Perhaps monosyllabic vocabulary cannot be dispensed with for the right sound? I will have to think on this. And try more poems, which will hopefully not careen out of control. Sometimes poems be pushy, y’all.