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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Fall Begins When No One's Listening (Meng Hao Ran)

Fall begins when no one’s listening
Night lengthens imperceptibly

The breeze first freshens but
Persists until it brings a chill

As daytime's warmth fades away
It leaves the grass wan and still

Beneath the steps the crickets trill
Wet with dew and glistening





Rhyme matters so much in classical Chinese poetry – it contributes mightily to a poem’s loveliness and meaning.  Many but not all Tang poems use formal rhyme schemes that are similar to the rhyming couplets we are familiar with in various forms of the western sonnet.  In a Tang poem these formal schemes sound completely natural or unstilted (even to a modern ear) because rhyming choices are so much more abundant in Chinese than they are in English; the relative paucity of rhyme choice in English no doubt explains our contemporary preference for more non-schematic free verse.

A Tang poem that uses a formal rhyme is much closer in its sound value to what we associate with popular music, where we readily accept rhyme as both natural and apt.  Often we anticipate and look for rhyme in a lyric to give a song coherence.  As Bob Dylan once said – all words that rhyme mean the same thing -- a comment that I completely understand without being able to explain fully.  A rhyme conveys a sense of equivalence (in sound if nothing else) even between words and ideas that otherwise strike us as incongruous.

In translating Tang poetry I often steer a middle course, using rhyme liberally but not adhering to any strict scheme.  This, I hope, allows the translation to carry some of the original poem’s song-like quality without ending up sounding overly contrived to our jaundiced modern ears.  At least that’s the idea.



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