Thursday, January 19, 2006

Thoughts on other poetry (Frost, Bai, etc).

A Chinese student, studying English, asked me; ”What is an instep arch, and why does it ache, and what is the ice, and what are the other meanings in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Apple Picking Time’ ?“ (The Chinese students always seem to ask these ‘efficient’ questions, where they ask everything quickly and deeply, so as to get an answer that will teach them everything at once).

So I spent a lot of time replying, and for once I think I wrote something worthwhile, although the English student needed a couple of books and weeks of studying to understand this reply.

The instep arch. Before we speak of meaning in poetry, think of your foot. The middle of the bottom of the foot is the instep. The part of the bottom that curves upward between the big toe and the heel is the arch, the instep arch. The Instep Arch. If you are standing on a round thing on the instep arch, such as the rung on a ladder, it will hurt after a little while. If you must continue standing on it, your muscles will work hard to maintain your posture and balance, and that is a form of pressure, and can make you tired.

Now, I can tell you what each line means, individually, but that won’t let you understand the poem. First, please think of the poem as a whole. It has many meanings. It is about a person collecting apples, it is about a person getting old, it is about a long life and facing death in old age, it is about wondering if life was enough, and wondering if the time is too soon. It is about regret and hope and the past and future.

Learning about a language and culture through poetry is a wonderful endeavor, but it may mean that some things must be accepted without understanding. There is great ambiguity in great poetry, and even for Americans, we need to read Frost many times before we feel comfortable with more than a few of those many meanings.

Poems always have many meanings, and good poems have deep meanings on many levels. I will try to acquaint you with some of the meanings Frost placed into his poems, but you may want to remember that even for native speakers of American English, and even for people who are part of the New England gentry with small apple orchards, it is still hard to understand all the meanings of this poem.

Robert Frost was an intellectual, who wrote poetry as if he were a farmer, or rough hewn laborer. He identified with these people, the hard working New England farmers and laborers, and indeed, he loved them and wrote much of his poetry from their perspective. I lived and worked in Frost country when I was young, and have read his poetry many, many, times, and have hoped to write poetry that approached his genius. So I will explain this poems as a poet would, not as a teacher of English.

The poem begins its work on two levels. First, there is the sweetness of the rhythm, the flow of the words and the song of the sound the words make. For Frost, especially, we have to think of the native New Englander accent, which may be difficult for a Chinese person. Think of the voice of a farmer from Sichuan Province, old, who smokes too much and pushes his words quickly. First, read the poem with that kind of sound, and make each line roll against the next, pacing for breath and musical timing.

The words here set pace with the swing of the arms, and the pluck of the apples, and the sway of the tree as it is lightened of its load of apples in an autumn wind. And here is the second part of the poem’s structure. The sound and rhythm and meaning of the words leads to an understanding, a picture, an image of what the poet describes. Here is all those things that make a day of work and rest; awakening, facing the work, working through the day, filling the storehouse, being done, and ready for a rest.

Also, we know many small images and emotions in the words. We see the ice on the water, a sort of unexpected mirror, feeling youth fly away before we are ready, not understanding the images, finished with life’s daily routine, seeing the past with satisfaction and fear together, like the small animals facing winter, and perhaps like all other humans facing eternity, tired but ready and dreaming of what was and will be.

So the rhythm of the poem and the meaning of the poem lead to a gestalt of meaning and pictures. In this poem, and in many of Frost’s poems, that gestalt leads to other, deeper meanings, and many lines have more ambiguous meanings than we at first imagined.

As we think of more sets of meanings, we are driven to look for more meaning in the poem, and our clarity is lost. We can see where the verses refer back and forwards to preceding and following verses, referents that were not there at the first reading. If we add all the meanings, we begin to see the small story of a life and a way of living and dying in the story of the apple picking.

And we can also see a beautiful way of speaking about these lives, in the rhythm of the work, and in the smooth rolling cadence of the words, phrases, lines, and images as the poem envelopes our thought, and presents Frost’s lives to our wonder.

Another student discussed the Chinese Poetry of love, and brought up Li Bai, and "A Song of Chang'an". So we discussed the ideas and ideals of love in poetry and song in English culture, and then we looked over the 2 poems, the Chinese Version by Li Bai, and the English Version By Ezra Pound. Pound's version is a translation of a Japanese Translation, but it is amazingly faithful to the original, not only in meaning, but in beauty, and in its cultural expression of time and circumstance, and love.

Li Bai (李白), wrote of a relationship in the poem called 長干行, and Ezra Pound translated it into a sweet song of discovery. In Chinese, it reads like a story of duty discovering love, and in English it reads like a story of romance discovering shared purpose (a subtle difference).

For everyone’s enjoyment, here are the two versions:


妾髮初覆額, 折花門前劇;
郎騎竹馬來, 遶床弄青梅。
同居長干里, 兩小無嫌猜。
十四為君婦, 羞顏未嘗開;
低頭向暗壁, 千喚不一回,
十五始展眉, 願同塵與灰;
常存抱柱信, 豈上望夫臺?
十六君遠行, 瞿塘灩澦堆;
五月不可觸, 猿鳴天上哀。
門前遲行跡, 一一生綠苔;
苔深不能掃, 落葉秋風早。
八月蝴蝶來, 雙飛西園草。
感此傷妾心, 坐愁紅顏老。
早晚下三巴, 預將書報家;
相迎不道遠, 直至長風沙。

Li Bai
The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played at the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out,
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.

Translated by Ezra Pound

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