Poetry across space and time: I (Zhuang Zhi)

Certain things remain same across eras and civilizations. Beauty, pain, loss and happiness have the same colours all over the world. Poetry too, for that matter.

Different poets have written in different times, in different geographical locations using varied poetic forms and genres. However in spite of the seeming differences and variety, on delving a little deeper, we discover that some central ideas and primitive/ ancient human concepts have had a considerable impact on poetry - across centuries and geographies.

1. Day's Night, Night's Day

     In ancient China, a clever
man, a Buddhivanta, dreamt each night
     he was an orange

     half fluttering, half flying.
His night slid into day,
     from waking to dreaming
his day into flying night.

     Is he night’s butterfly
dreaming he is a man
     or is he day’s man dreaming
he is night’s butterfly?

he lost his mind.

The final sentence of this poem is Ramanujan's own addition to a story he has taken from classic Daoism (which later became Zen Buddhism). In the story a man dreams he is a butterfly and on waking wonders if he is a man or a butterfly dreaming about being a man.

Source: 'Poems and a Novella' by A.K.Ramanujan, Oxford University Press (ISBN: 019567498-7)
2. Monk Sogi
( This is a Japanese Renga poem based on the thoughts of Zhuang Zhi which is also the basis of the above poem. )

Hito wo yume to ya
sumi suteshi,
sono wa kochou no
yadori nite

Translation of Steven D. Carter:

That man's life is but a dream -
is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
   to butterflies.

omoishiru is a compound verb from omou and shiru, "think-and-know". The ramu suffix, added to the shuushikei stem, expresses conjecture: probably we know well that man's life is but a dream...

hito wo yume to: "thinking of man/person/self as a dream" - is a reference to the Chinese philospher Zhuang Zhi, who had a dream of being a butterfly; then woke up and was not sure if he is a man who dreamt to be a butterly, or he is a butterfly and now dreaming to be a man.
sumi means "dwelling", suteshi is "abandoned". The modern verb suteru, "to throw away", comes from this old adjective. The shi ending indicates renyoukei, which is often used to express continuation: "(the house) is abandoned, and..."

sono is an old word for "garden", nite expresses similarity, just like in modern Japanese.


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