Sunday, February 05, 2006

'A River Transformed: Wang Wei’s River Wang Poems as Inspiration' by Gary Blankenship

Reviewer: James Midgley

TITLE: A River Transformed: Wang Wei’s River Wang Poems as Inspiration
AUTHOR: Gary Blankenship
PRICE: print: $15.00, ebook:$8.35
GENRE: POETRY
ISBN: 1-4116-6227-X
PUBLISHER: Lulu
POINT OF SALE: http://www.lulu.com/content/178110

Blankenship’s A River Transformed is an engaging, visceral journey through the landscape of his verse and its relationship with the Chinese poetry that served as inspiration. If nothing else, the first twenty poems are an interesting look into intertextuality, with Blankenship’s poems juxtaposed directly with their corresponding progenitors.

The comparisons between each poem are obvious in content as well as stylistically; the poems inherit the disposition toward unadulterated images to communicate, much the disposition Ezra Pound injected into western poetry in the early 20th century. This results in endlessly tangible verse, but often the point of clarity, that climax of comprehension, is grasped at but never quite pinned down.

The workmanship also varies, with brilliantly poignant lines such as ‘in a world without walls, there are no windows / to hold the moon, my songs’ mixed with such over-modified, redundant disasters as ‘I tap dull keys in muted silence’. One wonders, too, how well these poems sustain the Zen orientation of their parents, especially with the introduction of direct narratives. The vers libre is generally well controlled and wholesome, and Blankenship has an understanding of the line that is rare amongst his contemporaries, possibly thanks to his keen interest in ancient Chinese poesy. In attempting stricter forms, however, such as the later pantun, the poet appears obviously stretched.

Blankenship manages to make much of his verse relevant, which is certainly to his credit considering the gap of time, language and context he has to work with. Often, though, this reader is left wondering just what the point is; it seems that much of the time the link is more important than that the poem work under its own steam. For someone interested in examining inspiration, intertextuality or the original poems themselves, this is ideal, but for those simply looking for evocative, intellectually stimulating poetry, on many occasions this collection falls short.

Furthermore, the relationship across time, the connection between the parent works and these contemporary pieces, is never used except as a raison d'être. There seems to be little meaningful interplay or commentary on the act of updating beyond the constant reminder that this is what is being done.

In and of themselves, it is the final poems of the collection that prove more fulfilling. They are often surprising and a genuinely interesting mix of modern life influenced by their ancient sources. Again, though, no reason is placed behind the mix, no salient factor arises that justifies ancient Chinese influence in the contemporary world, and the question itself is barely touched upon; indeed, when it is examined, it is under the guise of linguistics and translation, rather than anything that could be considered a poetic manifesto.

The value of the book, then, resides in what one demands of it. For someone interested in the process of writing poetry, ancient Chinese poesy, intertextuality and the motions of inspiration, it is difficult to imagine a more suitable collection. The gimmickless, visceral style is a breath of fresh air, regardless, and one can almost forgive the book’s flaws for its brave resurrection of the imagist approach.

RATING: 6.5/10

SEE ALSO:
9/10: Lulu

AVERAGE RATING: 7.75

4 comments:

Gary B said...

(sorry this took so long, but I lost connectiviey through our WiFi book)

The Author’s Reply

You wrote: Blankenship manages to make much of his verse relevant, which is certainly to his credit considering the gap of time, language and context he has to work with. Often, though, this reader is left wondering just what the point is; it seems that much of the time the link is more important than that the poem work under its own steam.

And later: Again, though, no reason is placed behind the mix, no salient factor arises that justifies ancient Chinese influence in the contemporary world, and the question itself is barely touched upon; indeed, when it is examined, it is under the guise of linguistics and translation, rather than anything that could be considered a poetic manifesto.

I answer: Perhaps I am unsure of the reasons myself, that is beyond that they appeal to me much as rock appeals to some and country to others as haiku is disliked by many and sonnets by others. I do not speak or read Chinese; everything I know of the High Tang poets and translation is due to such translator/poets as the Barnstones, Arthur Sze, Sam Hamill, and others. A major influence is Eliot Weinberger’s brilliant 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, an examination of over 19 translations of Wang Wei’’s Deer Park.

19 Ways lead me to search for other, more modern versions of Deer Park and for translations of all twenty River Wang poems. (I’ve only found three done since 1980.) In the process, I found a collection titled Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei by a group of three poets from Toronto who call themselves Pain Not Bread. Their decidingly modern tribute to Wang Wei inspired me to write my River Wang.

Because I am US English, born and raised in Northwest country and timber, and living near Puget Sound for most of my adult life. I read a lot of poems in an East Asian style (mostly haiku) and am often disappointed because the poets elect to use Japanese or Chinese motifs for their work, instead of the amazing natural and urban images that surround us in this country. In my River Wang, XI, “Between Ridges, Canyons” – written after a drive on I84 north of Yakima; and X, “Leaving the City” – about riding the ferry leaving Seattle are perhaps the best examples of using what is around us.

In addition, as an English speaker, I believe we should use the strengths of English in our poetry, not matter what inspiration we derive our work from or form it takes. I’ve examined a large amount of “Chinese” poetry written by English authors (though most speak Chinese and have spent time in East Asia). The more I read, the more I’m convinced we need to codify what makes a Chinese short song work, and how its strengths can be merged with the strengths of English.

A justification for the Chinese influence? There may be none, but there is a love of the poems, the form, and a desire to someday capture it as well as any poet as captured any form.

I don’t disagree with your review, especially the comment about weak lines. And I appreciate the comments you made about line use, imagery, and the comparison to Pound, who had poor translations of the Chinese poems, but was a good enough poet to overcome them.

Thank you for the kindnesses.

Gary Blankenship

James said...

Hi Gary.

I really like that this format allows exchange between reviewer and reviewed. I'm a pretty harsh critic, and judged your book as I might any book of professional poetry. In the mass of self-published work, yours does stand out as very good, and I'd certainly rate it higher than many contemporary collections, even those from the big publishing houses like Faber & Faber. Don't be discouraged!

All the best,
James.

Gary B said...

James, any review appreciated. I would be as harsh.

Thank you.

Gary

The Mandarin said...

I'm not sure I would call Weinberger's book "brilliant." I don't think he knows much Chinese, if any, and this poem is more complex than is obvious to someone monolingual who only has earlier translations, or works from a pidgin crib or a modern dictionary. For example, the last word of line four, 上, is a verb here. The Middle Chinese shang-tone rhyme dictates not "on top of" or "on" but "to rise." Etc. Caveat lector.