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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Call and Response Among the Peonies (Tang Spirit Newsletter # 1001

Call and response is a fundamental form or archetype of music that is found all over the world. It is composed as a back and forth exchange between distinct phrases or voices, most often played or sung by different musicians sometimes on different instruments.  It's an integral part of various musical traditions, including classical ragas of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the musical and social rituals practiced throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.  From Africa, call and response found its way via the slave trade into the American musical repertoire where it came to play a prominent role in many genres; from the original field chants it spread into Gospel and then from there found more contemporary form in blues, folk, rap and afro-cuban jazz. 

Call and response is also a form of prosody found in different poetic traditions around the world.  The most prominent example I’m aware of is Renga, which is a Japanese poetic form of linked verse, which is composed as call and response between two or more different authors.  It's somewhat ironic that Renga eventually evolved into Haiku, familiar to us today as the most abbreviated form of verse.  But Haiku originally started out as the jumping off point for a much more extended poetic form, which sometimes ran on for scores of verses.  Each Haiku served as a call, and the response was a call back in turn, giving rise to another go round.

Although it's been many years since I've dabbled in literary theory, I think it's possible to read Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence as a theory of poetry essentially based on a prosody of call and response.  Of course, Bloom's theory works in an inter-temporal fashion, from one generation to the next, down through the canon of great English and American poets.  A strong poet responds to the call of a prior poet by trying to supervene or obliterate it, which poses a stark contrast to the cooperative spirit found in Renga and other traditions. 

I like to think of translation as a form of call and response.  No translation can provide a replica or perfect copy of the original poem.  This is particularly true when it comes to translating a Tang poem into modern English, leaping across a huge cultural, temporal and linguistic divide.  Not that a translator sets out intending to deviate from the sense and feeling of the original poem, but inevitably we must and, in that sense, every translation ends up serving as a response and not just a completely accurate rendering of the original.

Sometimes call and response figures even more directly in my prosody.  Every once in a while I come across a Tang poem that speaks to me so strongly it calls out not just for translation but for a more fully measured response.  In this issue of the Tang Spirit newsletter I want to provide you with a recent example of how this works.  It features a call and response in the peony garden, consisting of a poetic exchange between me and one of my favorite Tang poets, Bai Juyi.   Please note that I’ve presented the call and response in reverse order (with my response appearing first below) because – well just because the sequence of poems makes more sense that way.   
In a way, Nature has provided the first and most powerful call with the appearance of these incredible peony blossoms in the garden; and both Bai Juyi and I are merely responding in turn.  And as the peonies have been unfolding in our backyard over the last two weeks, I am also pleased to include as part of this newsletter a further response from my wife, Marissa Bridge, who joins in the exchange with a sequence of photographs from our garden.

*  *  *  *  *

Waiting for the Peonies

by Joe Lamport

Now it’s almost June
And the peonies can't open
A moment too soon
Those mighty vessels of spring
With their all but bursting buds
Long compacted by the
Parade of ant across the globe
  Ready to explode in color

As the Golden Wheel
Finishes one turn and
Prepares for another
We stand on the threshold
Of this lush green carpet
Sign of our unflagging disposition
Thrilled at summer's imminence
Even as it's already rolled out
Beneath our feet

*  *  *  *  *





*  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *

Fading Treasure of the Peonies

by Bai Juyi

With long pensive steps
I pace before the red peonies
They sag as evening comes
Only two branches left

The morning wind rising
Will deplete whatever remains
So tonight we should
Savor the slow decline
Of this vivid red flame

*  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *
There is nothing more fleeting than the peony blossoms of early summer; their dramatic opening comes with a presentiment of fulfillment and demise – This is a call to which every one of us is able to respond.  

And speaking of call and response, here is another example of how it is deeply embedded in our modern poetics.  In this case the call comes not from a Tang poet of the distant past but from an Anglo-American poet of the mid 20th century - T.S. Eliot and his poem The Hollow Men.  My guess is that Eliot himself based his original poem on a call and response pattern that was familiar to him from Anglican or Catholic liturgy.  In any case, here is my response to Eliot's call.  Where hollowness to Eliot was akin to spiritual death, I have a very different view of the matter.  As the Dao De Jing teaches us, it is precisely from hollowness that the most remarkable things come to life - as a personal gloss on the Dao, this an observation that holds just as true among the souls of men as it does among plants and their stems!

*  *  *  *  *

For the Peony Blossom

Between the intention and the act
Comes this outburst of color
Right here at the plinth of summer

Between the idea
And the bud’s first forming
Between the ants’ travail
And the petals unfolding
Falls the blossom’s brief life span
     In the kingdom of the garden

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
The peony unravels

     Life is very short

Between desire
And satisfaction
Between abundance
And decline
Each peony manages to
Approach the sublime

     Here in the kingdom of the garden

As well (I might add)
This is the way
The world extends itself
From day to day
In brief dramatic display
And with a sufficiency
Of blessings for all

Many thanks to Marissa for sharing her wonderful photographs.  Those of you who are interested can see more of Marissa's paintings and prints on her website here.    And many thanks to Susan Berkowitz, for explaining to me how prosody is not just about meter and rhyme but much more about the musicality of language, including its form and dynamic flow, back and forth and up and down.

Joe Lamport (poet and translator)
June 14, 2016
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