In Praise of Song Poet Su Shi

The Song dynasty was renowned for a less rigid style of poetry than Tang poems, called "prose-poetry" (詞).

For a literary comparison of Tang poems and Song prose-poems, here is an excerpt from an essay by Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書), written primarily as a foreword to C. D. Le Gros Clark’s translation work "Su Tung-po’s Prose-Poems":-

"Chinese poetry, hitherto ethereal and delicate, seems in the Sung dynasty to take on flesh and becomes a solid, full-blooded thing. It is more weighted with the burden of thought. Of course, it still looks light and slight enough by the side of Western poetry. But the lightness of the Sung poetry is that of an aeroplane describing graceful curves, and no longer that of a moth fluttering in the mellow twilight. In the Sung poetry one finds very little of that suggestiveness, that charm of a beautiful thing imperfectly beheld, which Westerners think characteristic of Chinese poetry in general. Instead, one meets with a great deal of naked thinking and outright speaking. It may be called ‘sentimental’ in contradistinction to the Tang poetry, which is on the whole ‘naïve’, to adopt Schiller’s useful antithesis. The Sung poets, however, make up for their loss in lisping naivete and lyric glow by a finesse in feeling and observation. In their descriptive poetry, they have a knack of taking the thing to be described sur le vif: witness Lo Yu (陸游) and Yang Wan-li (楊萬里). They have also a better perception of the nuances of emotion than the Tang poets, as can be seen particularly in their T’su (詞), a species of song for which the Sung dynasty is justly famous."

Indeed, one of Su Shi’s prose-poems that I particularly like, 定風波 , is one that describes superbly the nuances of his feelings when his life was at a low point: at once vulnerable and courageous, both resigned and resilient, sad but forgiving. The prose-poem was written shortly after Su got out of jail, where he spent over a hundred days for having allegedly written poems that were disrespectful of the emperor (an accusation that his peers had made up in collusion against him by deliberately presenting his writings out of context). The incident was the famous Crow Terrace Poetry Case (烏臺詩案) and it happened when Su was forty-three years old.

While in jail, Su got very nervous about his fate, fearing he might get a death sentence any time, as expressed in several poems that he wrote to his brother Su Che (蘇徹) and his wife. Somehow those deeply emotional poems reached the emperor’s hands, and the latter was so touched that he ordered a pardon for Su Shi. His days of nightmarish imprisonment profoundly changed his attitude towards life in general, in particular towards his career as a court official.

Had he not been a big-hearted soul, he would have carried a big chip on his shoulder and become a bitter person and would have sought revenge. But, as evident from 定風波, he took his ill fate in stride and determined not to let bitterness ruin his outlook on life. Though he was demoted to a low rank in a poor and remote district after he was released from jail, he chose not to wallow in self-pity or nag about the hardship but instead actively sought peace of mind and acceptance of life just as it was presented, without fear or presumption.

It is the poet’s philosophical aplomb and panache that I admire most in his prose-poem.

Here is the prose-poem 定風波:-

莫聽穿林打葉聲, 何妨吟嘯且徐行o

竹杖芒鞋輕勝馬, 誰怕? 一蓑煙雨任平生o

料峭春風吹酒醒, 微冷, 山頭斜照卻相迎o

回首向來蕭瑟處,歸去, 也無風雨也無晴o

My translation:-

Stop listening to the rain hitting on leaves,

Why not take a leisure stroll, and sing your heart aloud?

Giving up the horse for sandals and a cane – who cares?

A straw raincoat may just be all I need in misty rain.

The spring breeze wakes me up from drunkenness – a bit chilly.

Blessed is the setting sun that beams me its embracing rays.

Turning back, I can still see that blustery rainy place.

Now that I have arrived – home at last,

There’s no sunshine, no wind and no rain.