A maid comes running into the house
talking about things beyond belief,

about the sky all turned to blue glass,
the moon to a crystal of black quartz.

It rose a full ten parts round tonight,
but now it’s just a bare sliver of light.

My wife hurries off to fry roundcakes,
and my son starts banging on mirrors:

it’s awfully shallow thinking, I know,
but that urge to restore is beautiful.

The night deepens. The moon emerges,
then goes on shepherding stars west.

—Mei Yaochen, translated by David Hinton

Classical Chinese Poetry - book cover - small - 83 x 125Although it should probably be obvious to any visitor to this website that I have a passion for English literature, as a student of the Chinese language I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese literature as well. For my life-changing experiences with Chinese, I owe a great deal to Dr. Stephen Field, head of the Trinity University Chinese department, whose enthusiasm was contagious and whose challenging Classical Chinese courses gave me the tools to begin exploring my interest in Chinese literature. Over the years I’ve been too caught up in life’s other demands to pursue it the way I would have liked (sorry, Dr. Field!), but a few months ago a project for my company gave me an opportunity to reconnect with the vast, rich world of Chinese literature and philosophy. While browsing through David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, I discovered a poet who, though he lived a thousand years ago in a place and culture far removed from our own, sounds as fresh, vital, and relevant as the best writers of today—and for me personally seems a kindred spirit: Mei Yaochen* (梅堯臣). As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently in “The American Scholar,”

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said.

To adapt a popular expression, Chinese literature has such a long and fertile history that it has probably forgotten more of its own genres, styles, and movements than most literary traditions have ever produced, so it should come as no surprise, really, that some of its ancient poets had sensibilities similar to our own. But even for someone who knows that, it’s thrilling to discover a writer as seemingly modern and “close to my own soul” as Mei Yaochen. So I’d like to discuss a few characteristics of his poetry that I find so remarkable, in the hope that someone else out there may also find his poetry (and Hinton’s work) to be an exciting discovery.

Adventurousness: The wide range of the tone and subject matter of his poetry means that every poem contains surprises. From intense tragedy to humor, and from the personal to the philosophical, he covers a vast territory of emotions and ideas. For him, no topic is too painful, unusual, or ordinary to explore, and he always finds something striking to say. Here are a few examples:

  • On the death of his wife: “I hide my tears, not wanting them to see,/push the lamp away and lie facing the wall,/a hundred sorrows clotting heart and lung”
  • On a rat infestation of his home: “Suddenly my silly boy/starts meowing like a cat! Goofy plan, eh?”
  • On going blind: “No telling what’s what in this confusion,/I’m suddenly free of likes and dislikes.”
  • On the sounds of autumn: “the ear hears, but mind is itself silent./Who’s left now all thought’s forgotten?”

Unconventionality: In reading his poems, I’m often reminded of the Taoist texts that I devoured while double-majoring in Mandarin and philosophy. In particular, his readiness to discuss “inappropriate” topics and turn society’s conventional wisdom on its head is immediately reminiscent of Zhuangzi** (莊子), my favorite Chinese philosopher, who reveled in paradox and absurdity. Against the backdrop of a poetic tradition largely concerned with the beautiful and sublime, Mei wrote a poem about lice, of all things, in which he actually describes them in humorously pleasant terms: “who can find them, so nicely hidden,/dining on blood all cozy and snug?” In criticizing the attitude of the elite of his society, who ate a diet far richer than that of the common people, he challenges us with the paradoxical assertion that “Dining on juicy lamb and red-tailed fish, fine/fragrant meats—that, that’s what poverty is.” In my so far still limited experience of his poetry, it seems that he had no “sacred cows”; no entrenched tradition, unexamined attitude, or powerful entity was safe from his pointed and sometimes irreverent commentary.

Compassion: Perhaps in part because of his own painful experiences, Mei writes with great sensitivity about the suffering of the common people and of animals alike:

  • On peasants forced by desperation to gather weeds in the snow: “Hands so raw they can’t feed themselves, they/live in hunger, and you’re ashamed to eat it?”
  • On an injured goose he observes: “what will it do when evening rains come/and the cold wind starts ripping through?”

Political commentary: Although my aesthetic taste is generally directed toward the universal rather than the highly specific, many of my favorite writers and musicians (like Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper) feel a responsibility to speak out about what they see as society’s ills. Mei Yaochen was obviously moved to do so as well, and his political commentary touches on themes that continue to be relevant:

  • In “A Little Village,” he attacks the practice of taxing people who live in terrible poverty: “O, this is how they live. It’s fantasy/listing them in tax books alongside some emperor’s people.”
  • In “The Boat-Pullers,” he compares the stoic misery of injured geese to the suffering of commoners conscripted into the army: “That’s their life exactly. Guess it’s better/than lugging weapons around some war.”

Sense of wonder: Perhaps most importantly, Mei’s poetry reflects a deliberate appreciation of the beauty inherent in everyday things and experiences. It’s not original to observe that modern life makes us jaded, but it’s an observation worth repeating and then repeating again. Our constant access to entertainments and pleasures that would have been utterly extraordinary to people of any previous generation causes us to take them for granted. It dulls our senses and imagination and makes us insensitive to the billion wonders of the ordinary world around us; with our every whim so easy to gratify, why bother with anything that doesn’t immediately please or fascinate us? Though it sometimes takes effort and patience, I’ve always tried to cultivate a sensitivity to the charms of commonplace things, an openness to finding beauty in unexpected places, so I have a special appreciation for artists of any sort who take that same approach to life. When he describes the inviting, tranquil beauty of the East River, I feel like I’m right there with him:

Wild ducks, thoughts idle, sleep along the bank,
and in ancient trees, every limb is blossoming.

Pebble shorelines perfectly smooth, sieve-pure,
reed thickets bloom short and scissor-smooth.

So much to feel, but I can’t stay.

As for Hinton’s book itself, not only do I highly recommend it; I urge you to get it now in case it goes out of print. (New copies of the out-of-print hardcover edition are already going for at least $75 and as much as $157 on Amazon.) Though the subject matter, ideas, and attitudes of the poems in the book, as well as many of their stylistic characteristics, are the work of the original poets, there’s no doubt that their clarity, power, beauty, and freshness in English owe a great deal to Hinton’s translations. Acclaimed Chinese writer Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai) has given Hinton’s translations just about the highest praise possible: “Given the magnitude of his ability and his overall project, Hinton is creating nothing less than a new literary tradition in English, an event of truly major importance not only to English literature but also to the literature of my own language. I cannot recommend the value of his work too highly.” In addition, Hinton provides incisive historical and critical context for each included poet and literary era, and this information makes the significance of the poems even clearer for the layperson.

I hope you enjoy Mei Yaochen’s poems and Hinton’s translations as much as I have enjoyed them. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Future Camilla: Check your vault for something special related to this post.

* Though Hinton uses the Wade-Giles Romanization “Mei Yao-ch’en,” I prefer to use the pinyin standard, which is in much wider use today.
** Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tsu, etc.

After months and months of wanting to start adding more to this website and failing miserably to find time, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that brute force is the only solution—to set aside some time on a regular basis, no matter what. Starting today, I’ll be making some revisions to the site, adding new content on a regular basis, and writing regular posts for this blog on a range of topics, including the meaning of the lyrics to some of my favorite songs.

For my first regular post, I’m going to talk a little bit about the song “Indifference” by the American rock band Pearl Jam, my favorite band for many years. The performance of the song below is an especially powerful one: an acoustic duet by Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper, two of my personal heroes.

Here are the lyrics:

I will light the match this morning, so I won’t be alone
Watch as she lies silent, for soon light will be gone
Oh I will stand arms outstretched, pretend I’m free to roam
Oh I will make my way through one more day in hell

How much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?

I will hold the candle, till it burns up my arm
I’ll keep takin’ punches, until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind
Hey I won’t change direction, and I won’t change my mind

How much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?
How much difference…

I’ll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room

How much difference…
How much difference…
How much difference does it make?
How much difference does it make?

One of the main characteristics of the song is the irony of the title, which works on two levels, and the related tension between the speaker’s determination to persevere in the face of obstacles (reminiscent of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus“) and his uncertainty that his efforts actually make any positive difference. The word “indifference” can be interpreted by its conventional meaning (“lack of interest or concern”), in which case it is directly contradicted by the speaker’s passionate determination, or it can be interpreted as meaning “no difference,” an answer to the question posed by the refrain that the lyrics of the verses seem to be defying.

Another aspect of the song that stands out to me is that some of the speaker’s acts of defiance don’t seem to have any constructive purpose other than as symbols of his determination, e.g. “I will stare the sun down, until my eyes go blind.” The irrationality of that imagery seems to me a brilliant way to capture the primal character of perseverence in spite of doubts about the meaningfulness of one’s struggle—as in Camus’ existentialist interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus, the effort made by the speaker transcends reason to become an end in itself. The act is meaningful regardless of its practical efficacy. The song ends with the question “How much difference does it make?” still unanswered and lingering, but the speaker gives the impression that though he lives with that doubt, he will continue struggling in spite of it, even to the point of absurdity.

Although the lyrics can certainly be discussed on their own merits, it does provide some emotional context to note that Eddie, who wrote the lyrics, is well known to have always been generous with his time, energy, and money in an effort to help people. “Indifference” was written at a time when he was struggling with the consequences of fame and doubting his ability to cope with the pressures that had been thrust upon him, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the song is a direct reflection of his personal feelings during that period—an expression of his intent to defy the sense of futility that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. In both his public and personal lives, Eddie has never stopped trying to make a difference.

“Indifference” is particularly meaningful to me and an appropriate subject for this blog’s first regular post because I’ve been singing it to Camilla as an unconventional lullaby since she was an infant. I sing it with slightly altered lyrics involving her (silly lyrics that only a few people will ever know), and now every time I sing that verse, she interjects, “You’re singing my song!” Since she has never told me to stop singing*, I’m going to assume she likes it. It does usually fail to put her to sleep, though!

For anyone who might happen to come across this blog in its infancy, I’d love to hear what you think of the song and the lyrics. The permalink page has a comment form that you can use to share your thoughts.

Future Camilla: Check your vault for a little something special related to this post.

* Ok, almost never.

For the first official post in what I hope will become a regular blog for this site, I’d like to give some suggestions and writing tips to high school seniors out there who are struggling to find inspiration for their college application essays. I know from years of experience that there are a lot of procrastinators here in California who are still working on essays for their UC applications, which are due by midnight tonight. USC applications for students who want to be considered for scholarships are due tomorrow (postmarked by tomorrow if you’re snail-mailing your application).

Camilla wears a shocked expression
Camilla is shocked that you still haven’t finished your essays.

First, read my handout “Suggestions on How to Write College Application Essays.”

If you’re experiencing word constipation (aka “writer’s block”), here are a few suggestions to help get you unblocked:

  • Start with a “freewriting” approach; don’t jump directly into writing your ideas in essay form. Premature drafting is one of the most common mistakes young writers make. The effort of forcing your ideas into a specific structure makes you second-guess every word. Since your initial goal is to get your thoughts flowing, just let them come out naturally in whatever form they want to take—a disconnected paragraph, unpunctuated and ungrammatical phrases, a description of a scene, a narrative account of an experience, a list of possible topics. Worry about structuring your ideas later.
  • Write in a place that helps you focus and think creatively. For you, maybe that’s a quiet place, maybe it’s a place that is associated with many memories, maybe it’s a place with beautiful scenery.
  • Force yourself to avoid distractions like Facebook and games. For brainstorming, consider getting away from your computer completely and just writing ideas on paper. Hopeless Facebook junkies should have a friend or family member create a new password and keep it secret.
  • Stimulate your memory and creativity with sensory aids: the smell of your favorite food or a significant place, the sound of a song that’s especially meaningful to you. (Emo should probably be avoided, however.)
  • Tap into your passion and then channel it into your writing. Try singing and dancing (preferably not at random in public) or playing an instrument to kickstart your emotions.
  • Take a break and do something physically invigorating. If at some point you hit another wall, go for a walk, shoot some hoops, or fight with a sibling.
  • Talk it out. If you just can’t write anything, try talking through your thoughts and recording them, then listening to your recording and transcribing the good ideas and sentences.

Once the ideas and words start flowing, don’t interrupt them by worrying too much about staying within the length limits. You can always find things to cut out after writing a draft; what’s critical is that you have substantial, memorable material and that you not waste any words. In my thirteen years of experience helping students develop and polish their college application essays, I’ve never had a student who wasn’t better off taking this approach. It’s amazing how much extraneous and redundant material creeps into even a good writer’s first draft, and if you force yourself to trim your writing down, you’ll be left with a dense essay that packs a greater punch. (Also, I recently read a New York Times article suggesting that the Common Application‘s 500-word limit is not strictly enforced. Colleges are not notified if the essay exceeds the limit, though they’ll surely figure it out for themselves if you give them a War and Peace or a Moby Dick—or my favorite back pain-inducing epic, The Baroque Cycle.)

Finally, two points can’t be overemphasized:
1. Include concrete, specific details and examples. Anyone can barf up the platitudes and clichés about going to college that everyone has heard before. Your job is to convince the people reading your essays that your interest in their school, your passion for learning, and your aspirations are sincere. In writing, truth often takes the form of specific details, and BS (ahem, “boring stuff”) is often disguised as vague generalities. General statements are an important element of essay writing, but be sure to back them up with something substantial.
2. Write with feeling. Don’t go to Jersey Shore melodramatic extremes, of course, but make sure you express your passion for life and learning and that any personal stories you use convey real emotion. A tepid, ho-hum essay will be easily forgotten amidst thousands of other essays. Again, focusing on concrete details will help you achieve this goal.

Here’s another resource that might be helpful to those reading this post: A Washington Post article entitled “7 college admissions myths.” Pay particular attention to this part:

6. Essays don’t really matter much in the end because grades and test scores are so dominant in admissions decisions.

Don’t believe it. A poorly written, typo-filled essay can kill any application, and a beautiful piece can lift a student over another who looks similar on paper.

I hope this advice is helpful. As someone who has shared the pain of college applications with many students, I can empathize with your plight.

In the future, I might be available to give feedback on college application essays for people I’m not currently tutoring. Anyone who’s interested can contact me by e-mail here.

Good luck! Now stop wasting time reading blogs, and go get it done.

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