From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (22)—Untangling My Mind

[a] Leaving RF

This is one of the most miserable songs I have heard in the last twenty years. Please don't get the wrong impression. As readers of these Sunday Hurtin' posts surely know by now, it is high praise. I have already mentioned several times in this series that Clint Black has a peculiar knack for portraying loss, vacancy, and cognitive dissonance. For this song, he teamed up with Merle Haggard—whose own lyrics include "Mama Tried" and "Nobody Knows I'm Hurtin'"—to bring even more breadth and depth to the lyrical pain each is able to inflict on his own. Call it tag-team heartache, but it works.

The very title of the song points to the intersection of psychological despair and social cleavage. There is a bit of "story" in these lines, but the journey takes us more deeply into the narrator's mind than down the path and away from home. There are, indeed, so many great lines that I hesitate to pick just one or two. This is great songwriting at its peak, and I find even the sentence ending prepositions absolutely exquisite. Listen for yourself, and soak in the lyrics. Let me add, as I occasionally do in these posts, that the video is quite good, and well worth a view. First, however, make sure that you watch the lyrics. These posts are about the relationship between imagination and representation, and while the latter surely includes video images, I hope that you concentrate first on the way human anguish is carried in words.

      Untangling My Mind
          Artist: Clint Black
          Songwriters: Clint Black and Merle Haggard
          Well I guess you're glad to see I'm finally leaving
          I know things for you will change now for the good
          But it's all that I can do to pack my suitcase
          And walk away from you the way I should

          And I can't seem to find the voice of reason

          Everything seems upside down and right side wrong
          While part of me is here and won't like leaving
          The rest of me, the best of me is gone

          And I'm sure no one will wonder where I've gone to
          But if anyone should ask from time to time
          Tell 'em that you finally drove me crazy
          And I'm somewhere untangling my mind
          Well tell 'em I won't be riding I'll be walking
          'Cause I don't think a crazy man should drive
          Anyway the car belongs to you now
          Along with any part of me that's still alive

          But there's really not much left you could hold on to

          And if you did it wouldn't last here anyway
          It'd head to where the rest of me rolled on to
           So even if I wanted to I couldn't stay

          Repeat Chorus

          I'm somewhere untanglin' my mind

[b] Lush longing RF

It certainly is not difficult to find parallels to these sentiments in East Asian poetry. No, they are not usually about the exact set of alluded-to circumstances in the song (although some are close). I have chosen today, however, to write of exilic anguish. Regular readers of Round and Square will likely have noticed that more and more posts have a kind of thematic cross-referencing these days. Life is like that—complicated and interconnected.

Such a realization led me to one of the best "teamings" in all of Chinese poetry. Exiled to Hainan Island in the late-eleventh century, Su Shi (1038-1101) reflected upon the exilic lyrics of an earlier poet, the venerable Tao Yuanming (365-427). He set out to write matching lyrics to very single one of Tao's works (numbering well over a hundred). In Su Shi's own eleventh century, matching poems were part of the give and take of intellectual life. No one had thought, however, to span the centuries and match the poems of an earlier writer, and it was Su's genius to realize the possibilities.

Below, we have one example, taken from Ronald Egan's magnificent study of the great Northern Song dynasty poet. Although the following poems are not meant to be "matches," they both reflect the contrapuntal engagement between Tao Qian's six century-old lyrics and the Su Shi's contemplation of island exile. In both, we see themes of longing, vacancy, despair...and a little bit of hope.

      Tao Qian (Early-Fifth Century CE)
          Sharp and chill the year draws to a close;
          On the porch I clutch my coat and sun myself.
          The southern garden holds no sprig of green
          Withered branches fill the northern orchard.
          I tilt the bottle and no drop comes out
          I glance at the stove but see no smoke.
          The classic books lie piled beside my seat
          The sun declines, and leaves no time for study.
          Without a job is not a "crisis in Chen,"
          But with me too are those who show resentment.
          What consolation is there left for me?
          All those gentlemen since ancient times.[1]

       Su Shi (Late-Eleventh Century CE)
          The desperate gibbon has hid in the forest,
          The weary horse has been relieved of its halter.
          My mind vacant, I am sated on new acquisitions;
          The land familiar, I give my thoughts to dreams.
          River gulls flock tamely beside me,
          Dan boatmen sail back and forth.
          Green coins grow on the southern pond,
          Purple bamboo shoots are tall on the north peak.
          How could the raise-a-gourd know how to drink?
          Yet his welcome call eases my heart.
          The river in spring inspires fine poetic lines
          As I drink, I slip into the vast emptiness.[2]
[c] Re-presented RF
[1] Ronald Egan, Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 235.
[2] Egan, Su Shi, 234.

Egan, Ronald. Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Sunday, October 9th
Here in the Real World
Next week, Alan Jackson tells us about the real tears that in the real world.

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