Volume 75, Number 47 | April 12 - 18 2006

Notebook

Spring and the great Chinese poets

By Andrei Codrescu

On spring break I, the teacher, headed for the mountains. Most of my students went straight to the beach. That’s a Chinese poem if you read it again. All semester I thought various poetries but lingered longest on the Chinese. For some 3,000 years the Chinese poets stayed faithful to the seasons, the fragility of life and heartbreak. They saw nature at work in everything, from blossoms to empires, but they carved a thin slice of time between the irruptions of nature and the cruelty of killers to speak for fallible humans.

These are the Chinese poets we know of, the best-known ones, and maybe this is the reason why they are still read. Over the centuries there must have been thousands of other Chinese poets, forgotten now, who wrote pleasing poems to flatter the court, or formal poems to flatter the demands of some forgotten teaching. Those poets made a trade: they gained temporal favor but were gone with the next anthology. The ones we still read wrote only what we still feel: the sorrowful passing of time. Well, some of them wrote on the joys of love too, but there was always wine involved, and then regret. The wine came in the first line, then love, then suddenly winter. Or war. Or old age. One of those.

The Chinese poets we still read wrote about all the seasons, but spring was by far their favorite: they praised it and mourned it simultaneously. The thousands of forgotten Chinese poets only praised it, thinking it wiser not to remind the temporal powers that they were temporary. For that offense, posterity forgot them. And this is why I teach Chinese poetry: if you write only to please you will be forgotten.

Remember that while you are at the beach glorying in the blossoming of your flesh with its attached iPods, spring break is only half the story. The truth of spring is that nothing really gets a break. In the mountains spring is hard work. The dogwoods trumpet it, then yellow and die. Everything else, flower, worm, reptile or bird, pushes at the hard surface with all its strength until its topmost tendril breaks out, brightly colored from the exertion. Flowers are pretty because they work hard to break out of the cold ground. Ask any flower.

Animals have it no easier: their mating season is an incredible command: mate now, in the next six weeks, or else. It’s or else for most creatures. Humans, who mate all year, may fool some poets into thinking that it’s always spring. It ain’t: look at all the forgotten poets.

www.codrescu.com

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