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The Perils of Poetry

This week marks the formal launch of our Tang poetry newsletter and web site. Appropriately enough, we are starting off with a poem that highlights the perils of poetry -- a short poem written by Luo Bin Wang in the year 684 as he languished in prison. It's called In Prison the Cicadas Still Sing.

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In the broad sweep of American culture, poetry has been marginalized, lacking clout or strong connection to the greater reading public. While there may be a few million of us who still read, write and love poems, we are confined mostly to the academy or social fringe, forced to pursue our passion more as a hobby, uncompensated and often unnoticed except in the pages of obscure literary journals. A poet may be trotted out once in a while for a presidential inauguration, solemn funeral oration or similar dressy occasion and then quickly shunted off stage, back to the shadows or wherever it is that American poets are supposed to go.

In prison the crickets still singIt’s important to remember that poetry always played a much more vital role in Chinese culture from its earliest years and in some ways even today remains a much more important part of Chinese cultural identity. China is still a place where poets are venerated and where children learn to recite lines of the greatest poems when they first learn to speak. Even Chairman Mao, all-powerful leader that he was, thought he could better impress his hapless subjects by scribbling an occasional poem or two.

And the Tang Dynasty represents something of a high-water mark for poetry, being the period in Chinese history when it flourished as never before, in both the quality and quantity of verse created, and its centrality to every educated person’s life. Poetry very often proved to be a route to success in the Imperial bureaucracy and the best poets became favored intimates of the Emperor, wining and dining and spouting their verse.

But there was also a darker side to the glory of Tang poetics. Palace life was far from sedate, with constant intrigue and jockeying for position among the innumerable princes, concubines, eunuchs and high officials of state. In the rough and tumble of court life, even the best poets could sometimes make a serious misstep, as Li Bai in fact did, writing some quatrain to which the chief concubine took offense, resulting in his banishment for life.

And other poets paid an even higher price. Here is my translation of a great poem by the early Tang poet Luo Bin Wang, who had the misfortune to pick the losing side of palace intrigue during the reign of the Empress Wu Zetian. Luo became involved in a rebellion led by the Duke of Ying, rising to the level of chief correspondent for the rebel forces. But when the rebellion was crushed in the year 684, Luo was rounded up with the rest of the rebels and tossed into prison, where he wrote the following lament of incredible beauty.

In Prison the Cicadas Still Sing

Along the road running west
The cicadas sing
And from the south too
So loudly it sounds like
A visitor approaching

How long the song lasts
From their fragile black wings
Yet my white shaggy head
Detects a note of gloom

As autumn’s heavy mists
Make flight unthinkable
And the wind grows stronger
Their song will be submerged

So too by my fellow man
I have been left here forgotten
No one shows the least regard
For the songs that yet
Would fill my heart



Not long after he wrote the poem, Luo was executed, although the Empress Wu, having been previously impressed by his poetic talents, did arrange for a posthumous publication of a collection of his work. Even so, this great poem provides me with a strange consolation, in the realization that there are indeed much worse fates than the obscurity in which we American poets usually toil.

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In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - March 11, 2012