Tang meets WCW
Not quite Lolita in Teheran.

Somehow, exchanging poetry is even more interesting than typing information on cases of gastric cancer into a database.

As with every conversation with this group of Chinese students (all women), we talked this way.

1. I try to say something in Chinese, after looking up all the words I need in the dictionary. (Preparation time: 15 minutes per sentence.)

2. My interlocutors look blankly at me. Then one of two things happen:

a. "Oh!" The shock of realization, and they repeat the phrase with proper intonation. Or:

b. They grab the dictionary so they can figure out themselves what I'm trying to say.

3. Repeat.

This time we were talking about poetry. (The last time we were talking, I tried to use the phrase "vegetarian restaurant," and one of them asked politely why I needed access to a library. Tones matter, ladies and gentlemen. Don't try speaking Chinese without a high tolerance for non sequiturs.)

"What is the difference between 'poetry' and 'poems'?" they inquire.

Um -- poetry is "writing poems," the art of poem-writing, I responded lamely.

They had favored me with handwritten copies of two poems from the Tang Dynasty. (I'm now in love with Tang.) In return, I gave them a scrawled copy of William Carlos Williams' poem about the red wheelbarrow.

While trying to explain the poem, it became obvious how little I understand it. What is the meaning of "so much depends/upon"? Don't the white chickens (why white?) lend a comic air to the whole image? (A student asked if Williams meant to eat the chickens. Shades of the Koch parody.)

I asked them to bring me a modern Chinese poem. They agreed, but one said, "I don't like modern poetry. It's not beautiful. And it doesn't rhyme."

I suppose it's nice to know that some misconceptions are universal.

No comments:

Post a Comment