Powerful Poetry

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The short preface at the beginning of "Airs of Zheng, 75-95" in The Book Of Songs brings up an interesting point with regard to this set of poems' "licentiousness." It states that commentators beginning with Confucius have "long disparaged this large set of poems," and it attributes that displeasure over this set of poems to the "strong voice it gives to female desire."

This is a wonderful illustration of the close relationship between the artist, the art itself, and the audience - which, in my opinion, is central to the value of any piece of art, be it poetry, drama, music, anything really.

Firstly, it begs the question of what the purpose of the artist was in writing these songs. Was it possibly something empowering to be able to not-so-subtly express female desire, in a society where this could've been largely a taboo topic? Was there something cathartic about it? Was it a purely personal expression of emotion, or was it intended to say something for the women of the time at large?

The reaction is even more interesting - the fact that these songs were disparaged, considered of less worth than other songs within the book, seems to indicate that the commentators did not really want people taking notice of the ideas presented in these songs. This seems to be an admittance to the power of art to move people - to make them question society's taboos and assumptions. It makes you realise that songs were really placed on high ground in terms of shaping a society, showing how an artist's work could really affect the audience interpreting that art.. Commentators could have simply ignored a song they didn't agree with by virtue of the fact that it wasn't a 'good song' to them, but the fact that they made it a point to indicate that these songs were actually less worthy than other songs seems to show that they wanted to discourage people from following the ideas presented there.

Feels almost like an early form of censorship!

The elements within Chinese and English poetry

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Reading Stephen Owen’s “Readings in Chinese Literary Thought”, I was intrigued by the parallels between the different poetic devices found within English poetry as well as Chinese poetry. Specifically, in examining the six principles mentioned: “yi”, “feng”, “fu”, “bi”, “hsing”, “ya” and “sung”, it seemed extremely similar to the varying forms of poetic devices that English poets utilize. For instance, the principle of “bi” is very similar to the use of similes in that there is a comparison to a certain existing component of nature that allows readers to better relate and identify with a concept/idea. In the poem “In the Wilds Is a Dead Doe” (Poem 23), this use of “bi” to compare the lady described in the poem with that of a dead doe is clearly explained. In the context in which the poem was written, there was an existing practice for people to cover a dead doe with rushes as an act of piety. By utilizing the dead doe and making a comparison to the lady, the use of “bi” parallels the lady to someone being “killed” (through seduction) and yet the perpetrator fails to exemplify the same piety as he does not end up marrying the lady.

The Chinese principle of “hsing” is also similar to how metaphors are used in English poems as well. Interestingly enough, “hsing” is described as “the stirring of a particular affection or mood,” which provides a number of English poetic devices that can be classified under this broad category. Devices like the use of pathetic fallacy, personification and even metaphors can be used to evoke certain emotions or create certain moods for the reader. There seems to be a certain universality regarding the nature of poetry that transcends differences in cultures and time periods such that these common identifiers (poetic devices) can be found within poems from varying contexts. Even within the Ramayana and The Odyssey, we find this being a common thread that runs through the poetic texts across cultures.

Music/Poetry with Two faces

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In an attempt to break the ice when encountering new people, we often start with sharing our taste in music.  Whether we have same preference or not, because it is not an issue of  right or wrong in this matter but of having emotional responses to music, music brings people together in harmony in a way. By sharing our experience in listening to music, we feel very much alike just by the fact that music has certain impact on our lives.

Listening to the same music, with the same lyrics and melody lines, people have different reactions and opinions for it. Singing the same music, again, with the same lyrics and melody lines, the singers come up with various interpretations when performing. In line with our discussion on what a good text is, a good music is open to everyone and evokes countless different emotions depending on who’s listening, or singing, the same piece. Music can literally change people in various ways.

In this sense, poetry is very equivalent to music. Having the musical elements within the texts, poetry sends out messages and imposes influences on the readers in its peculiar manner. Often our emotions are hard to be put in words or in proper grammar. They are too complex to be portrayed completely. Thus, I believe that the most descriptive writing can get is by being poetic. In poetry, every element in writing is somehow intentionally utilized in order to express the author’s emotions and thoughts. The structure, repetition in words or phrases, rhythmical selection of words, length of a poem, and even grammar are few of so many tools that can be used, but there are so less restrictions in poetry.  Without revising too much, we can “show not tell” how we feel through poetry, spontaneously expressing us as an individual.

This familiarity and quite universal influence of music, therefore, can readily be utilized as “a force of control and an instrument of instruction” by anyone who is in power. Some of the religious schools in Korea that are academically superior have certain amount of students who are not religious but have come to take advantage of the academic prestige and the abundant resources of this school. Technically speaking, of course it is illegal to enforce a particular religion on someone, so the school relives the student saying that they won’t have classes covering religion because it is obvious that the lecture would be skewed in some way. However, all students are required to stand up and just listen to hymns every morning. They are not obliged to pay attention or memorize the lyrics; they just have to stand up and listen for a while.  Some might overlook the impact of this daily routine activity. Surprisingly, however, in turned out that just by this brief exposure to some religious songs, many unreligious people have expressed interest in religion.

In short, the common trait that poetry and music share is that both of them inconspicuously seep into our lives and influence our perception/thoughts, and this feature of them can either act as an outlet of emotion or a source of power exerted upon us.

As Shaun T Would Say, Dig Deeper!

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It iss interesting that we are covering The Book of Songs in class. Some years back, while on holiday in China, I met a man named Arthur Waley who invited me to follow him on an expedition. During this expedition, we chanced upon a massive stack of papyrus in an underground cavern with poetry written on them. I am intrigued by what the poems reflect about the culture that created them.

Arthur points out a poem to me, and tells me it's called Cocklebur. In it, the author uses parallelism to convey a scenario in which a man and woman are climbing a hill separately, while yearning for each other. There are a lot of repeated words and sentence structures, but somehow they manage to convey a stark image of two people experiencing the pain of losing their loved ones. I am blown away by the simplicity of the poem, but disturbed by the fact that people back then seemed to be prone to emotional instability. I shrug this feeling off; how can I understand a culture based off one poem?

Arthur then shows me another poem called Along The Highroad. It appears to be the lament of a person who has just been jilted by his or her lover. Once again, simple words and sentence structures are used and repeated, but they manage to convey an extremely strong emotional current. I start weeping. Obviously, the people who wrote these poems were the highly skilled minimalist poets of their time, based on how they used simple words and structures to convey extremely strong surface meanings. But why was there so much focus on emotion and sentimentality back then? I still have no answer for it now. Maybe I should give Arthur a call.

Manual of Morals

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“Many readers accepted the “Great Preface” as the work of Confucius’ disciple Tzu-hsia and thus saw it an unbroken tradition of teaching about the Book of Songs that could be tracked back to Confucius himself.” (Stephen Owen) This introduces the idea that perhaps the Book of Songs was not so much a collection of poems of people’s everyday lives but more of a manual of how the people should live their lives. We all know how much Confucius likes to stick his nose into other people’s businesses.

This idea is shown in the first poem of the Book of Songs, where the virtues of the Queen Consort and King Wen are shown through the process of courtship. The lady is described to be “lovely”, “noble” and “shy”, allowing the man to “seek” and “sought” her. This emphasizes the idea that women should be ladylike and not scandalous by seeking the attention of men themselves. The man is also described to “grieve” when he is unable to get her – this shows how courtship should be a investment on the man’s part as well. These poems “influences” and “stirs” readers, “by teaching it transforms them” (Stephen Owen). The readers learn of these proper values and actions through the Book of Songs. “A program of moral education [is] implicit in the structure” (Stephen Owen).

This is interesting because instead of an “inner inform[ing] the outer manifestation” – the text is a reflection of the everyday lives and values of the people, it is the “outer [that is] used to shape what lies within” (Stephen Owen). People who read the Book of Songs are meant to naturally internalize correct values highlighted in the text.

This idea becomes even more interesting when we take into consideration that the Book of Songs is meant to be read by people of all social classes. It becomes “moral education” for all. The impact of it is debatable: people can either start to have a uniformed moral code of conduct, or perhaps, people perform accordingly to their social classes since the text includes poems of the ideal values of people of all social classes.

Epics vs Songs

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I feel that the functions of poetry of The Book of Songs differ from that of the other two books we’ve read, in that though both reflect their respective societies, epics such as the Ramayana and The Odyssey were woven to tell a tale that can be deeply ingrained into a culture’s history as a dramatic representative of that civilization, whereas The Book of Songs draws out a culture’s history by expressing it from the varying viewpoints of many walks of life without attempting to be the epic of that particular civilization.

I agree with Yonatan that “the power of epics stems from the idea that they may speak from one voice, but in such a way that it can leave a moral impression on whoever it is being read by.” Both the Ramayana and The Odyssey may be spoken from one voice, but are in a way reflective of the voices of the common people and "all aspects of life outside the heroic ethos", as they take in the most significant aspects of the society they were written in, encompassing the entire society's strongest (religious) beliefs and values, and pass these on through captivating oral poetry to transcend generation after generation, stamped into history. Though the Ramyana and The Odyssey are both great texts as that they are relatable to us modern readers to an extent, they still remain first and foremost the representative work of the great ancient civilization they were created in.

The Book of Songs, on the other hand, depicts every aspect of ancient Chinese society that is spoken from many voices for many voices, to give a more truthful reflection of not only that particular society but the "original core of humanity that we all still have within us." (xv) It being a collection of poetry (mostly) devoid of subject names makes it more relatable to a reader who is societies and decades away from when the poems were written, in contrast to how narrative epics have a hero and other structured characters that remain detached from the audience. This, along with how each poem relates to a specific issue regarding human nature, allows it to be the great text that is immortal and inexhaustible in its interpretations, and is reflective in both a personal and societal sense.

Inclusivity Is Key

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I think the reason The Book of Songs is precisely not categorized as an “epic” is because it deliberately goes against the need for “epic unity”. Instead of conforming to the standards of an epic poem, the anthology achieves the same purpose, by “attempting to embrace every aspect of its world” (foreword, xvi). Furthermore, the definitive aim was to “create relations” between not just different social groups, but also specific relations such as the rulers-commoners, children-parents as well to ultimately “bind them together” (foreword, xvi).

In Cocklebur (pg.7), this clear demarcation between husband and wife is demonstrated by the distinct social roles they fulfill as well as the sheer physical distance between them. The first stanza, the woman is speaking, “sighing for the man [she] loves,” distracted and lonely. In the three remaining stanzas, the man yearns to see his lover; not only is he physically exhausted, but he is mentally pained and in anguish and all he can do is drink from his cup “to still [my] heart’s yearning/pain.” Even though they are miles and miles apart from each other, there is a subtle beauty to the poem, laced with suffering and desire. In a way, the two lovers are united, thinking about one another and this poem is the vessel in which the reader feels the two can be bound together through song.

The Book of Songs does not just touch on the relationship between a man and a woman. There are examples of a king and a commoner, a woman and her parents, a lady and a lord. This text is not at all exclusive and instead embraces all facets of society, creating a myriad of stories embedded in one great text.

The soul that spoke

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“The Great Preface’ brings out a very intriguing idea of the nature of poetry. It is stated that a poem ‘is that to which what is intently on the mind goes. In the mind it is ‘being intent’; coming out in language, is it a poem’ (p.40).  This idea is reflected throughout the varying poems that have been studied in class so far, from the Ramayana to the Odyssey and now the Book of Songs. Poems have the ability to move the readers and this is perhaps evidence that each poem contains its own set of emotions that have been packed into it.

We saw in the Ramayana, that it was anger that gave rise to the poem and the new metrical form. In the Odyssey, it was also the emotions and the ability of the poem to bring back memories that made the audience of the poem break down. In the Book of Songs, we can see that there are emotions of common men and royalty laden within each poem. What makes a poem so effective is the ability of each reader to understand and sympathise with the emotions. Reponses to poems are individualistic, however all humans have the innate tendency to feel. Thus through deep analysis of a poem we can dwell into the ‘inner conditions of mind’ of the poet.

Poetry could be defined as a method of providing a pattern to emotions which otherwise could not be expressed because they are fully internal. It is a form of expression that arises from emotions, is filled with emotions, and gives rise to emotions.

New Archaeology Findings!

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Today is potentially the best day!

We were digging under the hot Sun, as usual, when we hit gold! Literally! My group of robotic archaeologists managed to uncover a gold tablet with strange writings on them that after a bit of dusting, turned out to be English. How odd. On first look, the tablet appeared rather old. At least a thousand or two years ago. But English writings? Really? Hm.

Well in any case, it was interesting reading it. The writing appeared to be a poem with the title 'The Cloth-Plant Spreads'. The reason why I concluded that it must have been poetry was because of its structure. The first and second line repeated in the first and second stanza, while the third line described the leaves of the plant. Each stanza had exactly six lines. You can see why I think it's a poem.

The society that wrote the words on the tablet must have been one that placed a lot of emphasis on clothing to have written poetry about it. The fact that they have a developed writing system enough to name birds such as 'oriole', and the technology to create clothing out from plants suggests that the society is rather advance. The image of cloth-plants spreading across the valley with thick and close leaves also imply that it is a civilization with a climate that was able to sustain plant life quite well, perhaps tropical.

There was also the mention of a 'nurse', which we can deduce that the author of the poem might be relatively young and possibly rich enough to afford someone as a nurse. 'Shift' and 'dress' are also mentioned, which cemented the thought that the author was most probably a female. Relating the creation of clothing from the cloth plant combined with what we know of societies in the past, we can infer that females in that society probably does a fair bit of weaving.

All right. All these are purely conjunctures of course. We still have yet to confirmed if the tablets are even from an ancient civilization or merely a prank. Onward and out!

Music: a means of governing

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From Stephen Owen’s version of the Great Preface, we learn that according to Chinese tradition, poetry originates from the inside of individuals; it comes out of individuals naturally and spontaneously. While reading this, our PPT classes on Confucianism came into my mind. Remember that we came across this same idea of naturalness of poetry with Xunzi? Indeed, in his “Discourse on Music” Xunzi claims that music is “an unavoidable human disposition”.

However, Owen brings up the point that poetry not only stems from the inside affection been “moved”, but poetry also moves others as well (p.45). Indeed, music and poetry “move others” in that it has an educational purpose and hence influences people. We can see that The Book of Songs regulates all kind of human relationships, ranging from parent-filial, to husband-wife, and superior-inferior relationships. So, poetry is an instrument of “chia-hua”, that is, a means by which human relations and behavior is influenced.

Likewise, Xunzi claims that poetry has the power to reform people and "bring order". In addition, he believed that music, in the same way as ritual, moderates and restrains people. In other words, music is an effective means of governing.

But Xunzi always referred to music? Does the same apply to poetry? Yes it does. Because in the same way as in the Ramayana and the Odyssey, the poems in the Book of Songs, were sung and had a melody. Interestingly, Owen makes the point that without the music, the “naked texts itself” of the poem doesn’t have the “Edenic power”, which is inherent in poetry (p.45).

 

Finally, I would like to end up with a final thought: to what extent do you think that music (and poetry), government and ritual (all of which we have studied in PPT) are ultimately the same: a means to unify people and "lead them in a single unified way" (Xunzi)?