The Rhyme and Meter of Tang Poetry

Turner's Blog PageAnyone who enjoys Chinese poetry might enjoy Frederick Turner’s new translation of the Tang Dynasty Poets. The translation is unique in that he attempts to reproduce some of the Chinese formalism. He’s offering it for free (in digital form).

Although the formal genius of Tang poets is frequently described, translators rarely try to capture that facet. It’s a puzzling omission; but rhyme and meter have been denigrated by generations of free verse writers, sometimes vehemently. Content is the alter at which free verse worships. Rhyme and meter are seen as needlessly ornamental. But when written with genius, the formal aspects of a poem, it’s aural effects, are part of its content. My own opinion is that if a translator ignores a poem’s technical content, then it’s not a true translation – this includes the many free verse translations of Rumi, Homer and Virgil.

However, for those interested in what constitutes meter in Chinese, Turner’s introductory discussion of Chinese poetry’s formalism is bizarrely amateurish and uninformative – a peculiar oversight since the uniqueness of the translation is premised on its formalism. Turner states that “to my ear” he can hear “a regular stress pattern of alternating strong and weaker stresses”.  This would give one the impression that  Chinese is an accentual language (like English) which it isn’t – not remotely. He goes on:

The normal Tang poem has eight or four lines. To my ear—this feature is not often discussed by scholars—the lines are  stressed TUMta TUMta TUM for the five 20 syllable line, TUMta TUMta, TUMta TUM) poetry dictionaryfor the seven syllable line. p. 20-21

To the uninitiated, he might as well be describing trochaic trimeter or tetrameter. When I asked him how he was qualified to judge the meter of a Chinese poem, he veered off into the twilight zone by responding that he was good at recognizing meter in German and Hungarian – both of which are accentual languages (English is a Germanic Language) but have nothing whatsoever to do with Chinese.

Thank god for poetry dictionaries. Here is how John Drury, author of the Poetry Dictionary, sums up meter in Chinese poetry.

Chinese Forms

Whether or not Turner is right in hearing what he thinks he does,  my advice is to consult other resources. What constitutes meter in Chinese, at the very least, is not what Turner is describing.  That said, the only meter available to English is an accentual one. A translator can’t reproduce Chinese meter, but he or she can attempt  to reproduce a  commensurate formalism. This is what Turner has done. Here is one of Du Fu’s Poems (spelled Tu Fu by other translators):

Spring Night with Happy Rain
Du Fu (712-770)

A good rain knows the season when it’s right,
In spring, on time, it makes things sprout and grow.
Follow the wind, sneak out into the night:
All moist things whisper silently and slow.

Above the wild path, black clouds fill the air,
The boatlamp on the flood the only glow;
At dawn you see wet mounds of crimson where
The heavy flowers of Chengdu hang down low.

P. 79

Du Fu, according to the Chinese, was the unrivaled formalist.  (I’ve always wondered what it must be like to read the original.) Though Turner’s translation is probably only an approximation, it’s a refreshing attempt and reproduces what all free verse translations gloss over. It also makes the poem feel less like the product of the 20th or 21st century (an aesthetic with which Tang poetry has almost nothing  in common). As far as the poems themselves go, I hope more translators follow Turner’s lead. (Scribd’s interface leaves something to be desired. I downloaded the book in Adobe Acrobat. It’s also available as a .doc or .txt file.)

Rhyme & Meter Online: Sunday March 1, 2009

  • As with last week, many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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Mike Snyder’s Formal Blog

…given that a good long narrative is hard enough on its own, given the additional difficulty of making effective use of rhyme and meter (or at least line breaks), and given the common reader’s reaction when he or she sees poetry (you know it’s not “Oh, Goody!”), why the hell does anyone want to write a verse novel?… Why do I want to?

In free verse, the line break is either a purely visual artifact to organize a silent reading (viewing?), or else it’s a rhythmic marker to organize a performance. In either case, it forces the reader to experience language differently than in prose: the rhythm of the sentence is broken; the forward thrust of argument and narrative are diminished…

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Accomodatingly

And the forms which are all over the place right now are forms which emphasize craft, but which don’t require deep acquaintance with pre-modern poetry– they are forms whose difficult requirements don’t include scansion or rhyme. That’s why young poets are (mostly) writing sestinas, pantouns, lipograms, anagrams, alphabetical acrostics, rather than Spenserian stanzas, ottava rima, or rime royal…. Such forms not only allow us to avoid measuring ourselves against Victorians who really knew how to do stuff we haven’t learned…

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Poetry Foundation

Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down. Whatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this one, is often more of an event than it ought to be. But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms…

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PoemShape

…the Romantic Era had begun. This was the beginning of the age that emphasized the pastoral over and above the urban – an intuitive grasp of the world began to supercede the classical emphasis on reason. The world’s natural state was a central metaphor for the Romantics with its the inevitable cycle of creation and loss.

While pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.

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Sonnets

The sonnet is an old and challenging way to write a poem due to the rules of meter, lines, and rhyme scheme. Probably the most notable sonnet writer in the world is William Shakespeare. But sonnets are still being written today! My aim, dear reader, is for these sample sonnets to inspire you to search for more contemporary sonnets.

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Frederick Turner’s Blog

New research has shown that the prosodic character of spoken language is essential to its meaning.  This is obvious in a tonal language like Chinese, where the very meaning of a word depends on its tone. But English is no less tonal, except that we use tone and pitch not to establish our lexicon but to establish our syntax and logic.  In English we cannot speak a sentence without instinctively giving it a melody—all songwriters understand this.  It is a natural genius that we all possess, and that poets refine and amplify by the arts of meter and rhyme…

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Welcome to Dr. Roger K.A. Allen’s Blog

With regards poetry, this is ephemeral a bit like origami, fresh bread or the morning newspaper. Poetry is meant to be read fresh. Fashions and written expression change. Today’s formless and often artless style would not even be recognised as “poetry” by Shakespeare or Milton. There are no rules now. The bar has been lowered as with our education. Only editors have the divining rods to detect good poetry. Rhyme and meter are gone. It is now McDonald’s poetry a bit like most modern art and modern education. What matters now are content, mood, fuzzy feelings and most of all, what’s in fashion.

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February 26, 2009

Calling on North Shore poets to create


Anyone who feels like saying “Give peace a chance” in meter, rhyme or free verse may submit one poem of 50 lines or fewer to the 10th annual Peace Poetry Contest. The deadline is Friday, April 10.

The contest is sponsored by the Samantha Smith North Shore Chapter of Veterans For Peace. Submissions should focus on the nature and value of peace, and call for an end to war and to violence and hatred in our communities.

Children in grades kindergarten to 12, as well as adults, may participate. A public reading will be held Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m. at Salem State College.

Only original, previously unpublished compositions will be accepted. Writers, children and adults, should send poems, with contact information, to peacepoetry@massvfp.org, or to: Peace Poetry, Veterans For Peace, P.O. Box 177, Ipswich, MA 01938.

Students should include names of their parents and schools, and a parent or teacher’s phone number and e-mail address for notification.

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Gently Read Literature

One of the remarkable discoveries in Things, for those of us who know only his translations, is that Cole’s own poetry is driven by a pulsing formalism—not only in the taut meters and insistent rhymes, but also in the tendency toward received forms: the villanelle, ghazal, sonnets, sestinas. Though he occasionally lapses into abstractions—as Fried noted, “his embrace of abstraction…can make the eyes cross, at least out of context”—his willingness to “stumble” both into philosophically “abstract” and politically incendiary terrain make him an unusual and courageous contemporary poet…