Friday, September 18, 2009
Poetry Book as Guaduate Thesis
Abe V Rotor
This is one way to earn a graduate degree. Images of China is a book of poetry written by Paul Engle, which he submitted as a thesis for a Master of Arts at the University of Iowa.
No such book about the Chinese people, places, paintings, problems, has been written at that time in the form of poetry. One unique aspect of the book is that it contains most of the verse forms in English - rhymed stanzas, blank verse, the sonnet, free verse, unrhymed couplets.
Since the book is a record of Paul Engle's intense responses to a trip over much of China with his wife, Nieh Hualing, the shape of the poems had to vary as the landscapes, the men and women, the issues discussed also varied.
Images of China is deeply concerned with the people of China. Every poem is about the human condition as Paul Engle saw it, about joy and suffering, about work and pride, about courage and punishment, about the warmth and humor and endurance of the people. It is a people's book.
Luckily I found a copy of this book in a Beijing bookshop in 1982. I was a member of a mission that visited China soon after the so-called "bamboo curtain" was lifted. China was virtually isolated from the rest of the world since the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung in 1949. It was a time when the "sleeping giant" stirred and prepared to wake up, so to speak.
Images of China provides a keyhole view of then China and the China we know today. Many things have changed as its ideology long detested by the West evolved into a hybrid communism-capitalism. China is now the second largest economy after the United States.
Here are selected passages from the book.
"Four thousand year old water buffalo
In your foot-furrowed, hand-shaped, eye-loved land,
Gladly the fields feed the hand that bites them
Out of gray water now sprouts sing green song.
Dragon of history snarls inside your ear.
The old feed it their bodies,
The young stamp on its tail."
- Images of China
"xxx Nothing defeats them. They destroy destruction.
Survival is a word that mans, Chinese."
- Images of China
Paul Engle compares China with an Owl in a Chinese painting, by Huang Yungyu .
"You painted a clever owl
With one eye open and one eye closed.
Are half its eyes open,
Or are half its eyes shut?
Or is it half asleep?
Is it half talking,
Or is it half silent?
Is one eye closed in half fear,
Or is one eye open in half aggression?
Is half fed,
Or is it half hungry?
Is it half alive,
Or half dead?
Is it half watching the world,
Or is it half shutting our the world?
Is it planning to open the closed eye,
Or close the open eye?
Is it half light of dawn
So it will sleep all day,
Or is it half light of evening?
So it will hunt at night? x x x "
"One eye open, one eye closed,
Both eyes closed, both eyes open,
I'm still a better bird than you.
Because you sleep when it's dark
You don't know how beautiful night is. x x x
Why don't you give up
Your foolish human life
And become a wise owl with furious feathers,
Sitting one eye open, one eye closed?"
"Usually I paint with both eyes open.
Sometimes I close one eye
So the other can see only one part of the canvas.
Sometimes I close the other eye
So it can see another part of the canvas.
Sometimes I close both eyes
To see the painting only inside my head.
To paint an owl you have to think like an owl.
Anyone who looks at a painter's owl
Must imagine the artist
Imagining the owl."
Paul Engle Replies
"Thanks for your courteous answers.
I've now decided
I don't want to be a murdering owl
Spitting the garbage of mice out of my mouth.
I don't want to be an artist
Making a pretend owl out of a live bird.
I prefer being a poet
And writing about both of them"
- To Huang Yungyu, Artist, Beijing
The above examples speak of substance and style; they create imagery of what China was then in rich symbolism, irony and metaphor, personification and apocryphal criticism.
At the end of the book, the author once more made reference to another work of the same artist, On a Pond Painting by Huang Yungyu.
"White lotus in a pond,
White crane across the sky:
Wide wing says to the flower,
Wouldn't you like to fly?
Lotus says, Foating's fine.
Would you like to try?
The crane - I float in air.
The flower - I float on land.
White lotus, white bird
Cry, Let us understand -
Forever both of us
Float in the painter's hand."
Ultimately the author wrote, the last poem in his book. Here are concluding passages.
"x x x Steel ruts, wood rots, wind blows itself away,
The greasy wool wears out, the silk brocade,
Delighting in its dragons, flowers and faces,
Turns brittle, crumbles at a finger's touch.
At old Chang'an imperial palaces
Dissolve like dying emperors into dust. x x x
But language is the toughest-tempered thing.
Delicate words survive the written page.
The sound of love, grief, joy outlive the talking tongue,
The poem survives the poet and his pain."
For Ai Qing (Read by the author at the University of Iowa, September 13, 1980.)
Images of China as viewed by Paul Engle are transitory from ancient to contemporary, and at the time he was writing the book, China was strangling out of the shell of the Cold War which polarized the world into two warring ideologies that lasted for almost fifty long years.
It is said that it is darkest before the dawn.
References: Images of China by Paul Engle, 1981; Living with Nature 3, by A V Rotor