The poetry in the Song dynasty is divided into two forms: poems and
prose-poems (ci). Ci is prose in rhyme. It originates in the Tang dynasty and
reached its peak in the Song dynasty. A ci usually contains less than a hundred
words. It can have more than one paragraph. A ci must have a complete story, a
clear theme, and the charm of riddles. The feelings of the poet have to be fully
expressed. Therefore, the material has to be carefully chosen and the plot has
to be deliberately designed. It is a great challenge for a poet to write poetry
in ci-form. Chairman Ze-dong Mao wrote many poems in ci-form simply because he
loved the challenge.
The problem with translating a ci to English is that a ci's title often fails to express its central theme. A ci can be sung on the stage. Every ci uses the name of its melody as its title. The name provides nothing but the strict rules specifying how to write this form of ci. The melody name can come from various origins. It may also change from time to time. When a poet wrote a good poem in this melody form, people would often choose the poem's title as the new title of the melody. Therefore, a ci can have many melody titles. If I give one of these melody titles as the ci's title, western readers may wonder how it relates to the ci's theme. Some editors use the ci's first sentence as its second title to distinguish different ci's with the same melody title. I do not approve of their practice because the first sentence can hardly express the ci's theme. Consequently, if the melody title relates to the ci's theme, I keep the original title. Otherwise, I assign a more appropriate title based on the ci's prologue or central theme.
After one reads a few poems of a poet, it is not difficult to discover the poet's style and expertise. Dong-po Su said,
"Xian Zhang's poems are seasoned." In other words, unless one has practiced writing for eighty-eight years, it would be very difficult for him or her to rephrase Zhang's poems. Xiu Ou-yang's description of his feelings is so graceful and delicate that few writers can reach his level of artistry. Each of his poems leaves plenty of room for his readers to ponder its meaning. Ou-yang's father died when he was still a child. He was raised and educated by a single mother. His unique sensitivity and acumen in writing may be closely related to his childhood experience. Dong-po Su is a versatile writer. It is difficult to classify his style or expertise under a single category. He writes well about almost any subject and in nearly any style.
Even if one is creative, one can only write a few famous lines in one's life. A good poet has to read many poems, collect many great lines, and then assimilate them into his own. As in the field of physics or aviation, everyone can only add a small contribution. Einstein read all the most advanced material in physics and in differential geometry available in his time. Thereby, his acquired vision enabled him to identify the major problems. Consequently, his small contribution was important. Similarly, the Wright brothers also studied all the available resources about aviation in their time and then focused on solving the navigational problems. It was their invention of the glider that made human flight possible. By the same token, if you analyze a great poem, you may trace the root of each line to a different poet. However, a poem is great not only because it sums up the beauty of each line but also because it creates its own grace.
Manhattan, Kansas, July 19th, 2007 Li-Chung Wang