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Richard Berengarten Feature

Chee-Lay Tan

Cross-cultural Numerology and Translingual Poetics

Chinese Influences on the Poetry of Richard Berengarten

To view the Chinese characters in this article, Jacket readers may need to install a Chinese language pack in their computer.


The Chinese language has a highly visual term to express the idea of ‘maxim’: Zuo you ming [座右铭]. This literally means the inscriptions ‘on the right of the seat’; that is, written maxims which, positioned where an ancient Chinese scholar would sit, were meant both to remind him constantly of correct principles and to guide him accordingly. The first pages of the sequence entitled ‘Following’ in Richard Berengarten’s book with no back cover (hereafter bwnbc) show calligraphed Chinese characters standing out prominently in the top right corner (bwnbc, 13–51), just as if inscriptions of traditional Chinese maxims were being brought to bear on the text of a modern English book of poems. Not only do these Chinese characters remind readersof the influenceof Chinese culture on Berengarten’s poetry, they actually serve as a thematic guide to understanding his poetic texts themselves.


That these Chinese characters are actually the names of hexagrams from the Book of Changes [Yi Jing 易经], one of the oldest and most influential Chinese philosophical texts, reveals the philosophical outlook and inclination of Berengarten’s poetic impulse. In the Book of Changes, the hexagram denotes the underlying structure of each of the sixty-four pictograms that constitute the book, and each hexagram is made up of two sets of three broken or continuous lines (trigrams). The many variations and permutations of these figures (384 in all, i.e., 64 × 6) are used to represent patterns that can emerge, shift and develop in a person’s life, that is, in the world of events. More than being a source of inspiration, the Book of Changes has been ‘followed’ by Berengarten, as attested in the titles of this sequence itself. I believe ‘following’ here refers to his pupilage to the book in terms of its philosophical and structural patterning, and even its oracular teaching. Berengarten confirms such pupilage in his response to my enquiry: ‘I Ching [Yi Jing] is one of the VERY GREAT BOOKS of the world [… ]. I have been a student of this book for the last 44 years.’ [1]


In this essay, I shall attempt to examine the cross-cultural poetics and philosophies apparent in the sequence ‘Following’ (bwnbc 12–53), in so far as these are evoked by his ‘following’ of ‘maxims’ from the Book of Changes. Furthermore, I will also look at Berengarten’s poetic language and forms from the perspective of translation, since the process of translating some of these poems into Chinese has been an extremely challenging and rewarding one for me — as both translator and poet. Within my focus on translingual poetics and cross-cultural philosophical influences, Berengarten’s many references to the numerological patterns and formal structures so crucial to the Book of Changes stand out as major and critical aspects — and in what follows I shall be emphasising them too. In addition to the Book of Changes in Chinese, the version consulted and quoted here will be the translation by Richard Wilhelm (1873–1930) (Wilhelm 1951), [2] which is also the version Berengarten prefers to use. [3]


In the Foreword to Richard Wilhelm’s book, the renowned psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) performed a highly intriguing experiment by asking the Book of Changes to deliver an oracular judgement on its own situation in being presented to Western readers in the form of Wilhelm’s translation, accompanied by Jung’s own introduction (Wilhelm 1951: i-xx). I do not intend to discuss the details or the validity of Jung’s experiment here, but among the concepts he highlights, some appear to be highly reflective of how an educated Western reader is likely to perceive and utilise this Chinese classic — and hence, Jung’s theory may be highly illuminating when we try to decipher how the Book of Changes, in turn, influences Berengarten. [4]


One of the main concepts which Jung ascribes to the Book of Changes is ‘synchronicity’, which, as he defines it, takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers (ibid. iv). Although there is an unmistakably psychoanalytical overtone in Jung’s definition, the concepts of interdependence, synchronicity, and even the tendency to harmonisation that he implies, actually run deep in Chinese tradition and cultural consciousness, and nowhere more so than in traditional Chinese poetics. The renowned Chinese scholar Pauline Yu has proclaimed that implicit throughout the Great Commentary, as in the Great Preface to the Classic of Poetry, is the assumption of a seamless connection’(Yu 1987, 38–40).Such an interdependent and closely-linked relationship amongmany different aspects and elements of poetry, including images, subjects and objects, and even events, bears close resemblance to the ‘synchronicity’ which Jung brilliantly pinpointed.


Some of the more notable manifestations of the concept of ‘synchronicity’ in Berengarten’s book with no back cover occur in a poem entitled ‘The Nonplussed Pleasures of Love’:


[… ]
And then to the sheer

Facts of my breath, of you
And me improbably being
Both here, together, alive. Is

Death the condition without
Which such a life would be
Unacceptable? (bwnbc 16) [5]


Grouped under the ninth Hexagram, Xiao Chu 小畜 (represented as berengarten-tan00.jpg, ‘The Taming Power of the Small’, and interpreted by Berengarten in his book under the heading ‘An Acceptable Condition’), this poem delicately offers at least three readings that may be considered concurrent, alternative, or even intertwined. The first of these suggests, quite simply, that the protagonist (I) is dedicating the poem to his living companion or partner (you), who lives (is alive) with and alongside him, in that they share their lives together (Both here, together, alive). Such a reading, then, would suggest that the poem has to do with contemporaneity and communality, and that it expresses gratitude for life, love and companionship, which it proudly, even defiantly, celebrates in the face of death. Yet, simultaneously (of course, we can also think of it as ‘synchronically’), the poem may equally well be interpreted in two further ways. In one of these, the voice of the living poet (I) addresses the living reader (you); and, even though the poet himself may be dead by the time the poem reaches the reader, both are inevitably here, together, alive within, around and through the poetic text — by very virtue of the reader reading it. In this light, the poetic text has become the world of co-existence, concurrently, for both the poet and the reader. Thirdly, the poem may be read as portraying the subtle feelings of an implausible love between a living protagonist (I) and a dead person (you).


Interestingly, each one of these interpretations manifests a variant form of love and faith that possesses great taming power over the protagonist, the poet, or even death. And herein resides Berengarten’s polysemous, multi-layered interpretation of the hexagram, ‘The Taming Power of the Small’, which fundamentally acknowledges the force of the shadowy — that restrains, tames, impedes, as explicated by Wilhelm (1951: 41).


Besides following the overarching philosophical significance ascribed to ‘Xiao Chu’, this poem also portrays Berengarten’s take on the temporal and spatial concept of ‘synchronicity’ as he imagines the interdependence of I/you, life/death, and human/creature, and does so in such a way that the movement of time is not viewed as a one-way flow from the past to the future. For in this poem, such conventional perspectives on linear time are ‘interlaced’ by a form of communication (that of the poem itself) that cuts through and across them in (at least) three ‘lanes’ (or ‘lines’). And insofar as it cuts through and across linear time, it also cuts through (and across) life and death. Thus, in Berengarten’s poetics, it might be argued that the function of poetry, at least in part, is not only to query and challenge received ideas about the flow of time (as ‘linear’, ‘historical’, ‘chronological’ etc.) and mortality (that life and death must be mutually exclusive, etc.), but also to offer alternative perspectives through which events in the past, present and future may co-exist ‘synchronically’. In fact, the symmetrical visual patterning and tight dialectical structure of book with no back cover represent a defiance (and a criticism) of the Aristotelian notion (in his Poetics) that a book should have a beginning, a middle and an end. A ‘book with no back cover’, by definition, can have no end. In such a book, linear time is countermanded and complemented in an invitation to play with ‘other’ modes of thinking and of connecting phenomena. Implicit in this defiance and criticism of linear time are, of course, the ideas of recursiveness, circularity and return that characterise the Book of Changes and the theory of synchronicity.


In this poem, it is quite palpable that a reader’s concurrent (co-occurring) readings may point to a kind of ‘synchronisation’, that can indeed be derived from Berengarten’s lines: for example, my memories of you are dependent on your absence or death, just as yours are on mine; so that any ‘acceptable’ life or mode of living must eventually come to be seen as dependent on the condition of death. When the dichotomies of I/you and life/death are not only juxtaposed, but emphasised in terms of mutual interdependence instead of difference, their coexistence becomes obligatory instead of coincidental.


Furthermore, such a philosophical connotation of the interdependence of life and death in Berengarten’s poetry is reminiscent of the Buddhist perception that life and death constitute but one continuous cycle (and hence the two conditions are not mutually exclusive but interdependent). And this mutual I/you reliance is also parallel to the Taoist understanding of Yin and Yang — in every Yin (black), Yang (white) exists, and vice versa, as illustrated by the white/black dot in the larger portion of black/white respectively in the Taoist Taiji tu (literally, ‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’): [6]




Another overarching concept inherent in the Book of Changes is transition — referring to the continuous changes or flow of Qi (literally ‘air’, but connoting ‘energy’) for the compositions of living and non-living things, and the interactions between them. In the Book of Changes, it is held that such constant transformations or adjustments help to maintain the fine balance and harmony in the world. In Berengarten’s book, his portrayals of transition take the forms of changes both as described by the text, and as changes in it. For instance, in the opening poem, ‘Following’ 随 [px/berengarten-tan02.jpg], the I speaks to the poems and hopes that they will last and endure after Death:


[… ]
Throw away your
Craft, your tricks,

Your techniques, all
You have learned. I’m
Following your directions,

So when Death blows or calls
Me or anyone out, you
Will pass, last, endure. (bwnbc 13)


Here again, multiple interpretations co-occur, combining and recombining. Firstly, the I may be read as the ‘voice of the poet’ as he directly addresses his poems — this poem’s addressees being his poems themselves (you in the plural), to whom the poet issues commands. It might be argued that the very fact that the poet speaks to his poems in this way implies that they are being treated as if they were sentient beings. Secondly, the I may be taken to be the voice of the poem (this poem) itself. Thus it may be construed that, here, this poem is speaking to other poems, as if in communication, through and ‘by means of’ poets and readers. [7] Thirdly, we may even think that the singular voice of I is speaking from the point of view of one poem, and that it is ‘addressing’ the poetics of its creator, the poet. Hence you becomes the encompassing pronoun for all the craft, tricks and techniques that form the poetics of the poet. Ergo the poet hopes that his poetics in all its aspects (philosophical, linguistic and imaginative) will last and endure, even if any one of his poems is somehow overlooked or lost in time (as if undergoing a metaphorical death).


Furthermore, the complex pattern of transformations or changes as articulated by these addressed poems involves the throwing away of craft, tricks and techniques, which, as already suggested above, can also be regarded as a transformation in the poet’s perceptions of, and desires for, his own works. That the poet ‘follows the poem’s directions’, instead of the poem following its creator’s discretion, is yet another transformation in the writer/writing relationship. Finally, the passing, lasting and enduring of the poem (normally perceived to be completed and unchanged after it has been written) together signal that the poem is consistently evolving, in order to survive and be passed down from generation to generation. This idea of constant adjustment to suit all times has often been deployed to describe Confucius, who is called sheng zhi shi zhe [圣之时者] — meaning that he is the holy person of all eras, because his teachings and words have withstood the test of time and have been able to adjust to change, to speak to and for people in different eras and, in so doing, to evolve.


It is clear too that most, if not all, of Berengarten’s poems written under the influence of these Chinese hexagrams also follow the interpretations of the hexagrams themselves, as phrases set down in the Book of Changes. One of the most prominent examples in book with no back cover is inspired by the fifty-eighth hexagram in the Book of Changes, Dui 兑 (px/berengarten-tan03.jpg, ‘The Joyous, Lake’, or as Berengarten has interpreted it, ‘Two Lakes’):


Two lakes, joined
One above the other
Along the same river:

Upstream, The Hayden
And, below,
The Ladybower.

When two lakes join
Together they
Do not dry up.

[… ]
Two lakes, joined,
One above the other. (bwnbc 38)


The Dui hexagram, as elucidated in the Book of Changes, symbolises one smiling lake resting on another, which is why the hexagram’s attribute is joyousness. Berengarten’s depiction of two scenic lakes (or, strictly speaking, reservoirs) in the Peak District of Derbyshire, England — the Hayden (Howden) and the Ladybower — appears to constitute a true physical manifestation, indeed, a fully realised embodiment, of the imaginary textual descriptions of our ancient Chinese classic, as the River Derwent joins the one lake in the north with the other in the south Two lakes, joined, / One above the other / Along the same river).


Furthermore, from the ‘Judgement’ and the explanation of the image (or hexagram) provided in the Book of Changes, the hexagram is interpreted as ‘true joy’ which rests on firmness and strength within, manifesting itself outwardly as yielding and gentle. The text continues: Lakes resting one on the other: The image of THE JOYOUS [… ] the superior man joins with his friends (Wilhelm 1951: 238–39). Berengarten’s interpretation, which suggests that ‘unity means strength’ (together they / Do not dry up), is certainly a reflection both of the ‘image of THE JOYOUS’ and of ‘strength’. Additionally, his image of the river flowing between the two lakes projects a situation and a context in which transitions take place all the time, enabling an ideal state of constant harmony to be maintained.


Two of the most striking Chinese-influenced aspects of Berengarten’s poetry are numbers and highly patterned forms, which in fact are so closely related that they can be considered under the single broader category of numerological patterning. Berengarten is well aware that numbers and their manifestations are abundant in the Book of Changes, such as: the Bagua 八卦 (eight trigrams, normally drawn around the Taiji tu mentioned above); the sixty-four hexagrams; the numbers represented by the trigrams; and the six solid or broken lines of the individual hexagram. It is therefore hardly surprising that he utilises these numerical elements and their combinations effectively in these poems.


Firstly, all his Chinese-inspired poems gathered under the heading of ‘Following’ have six short stanzas, so that they correspond to the six-line structure of each of the sixty-four hexagrams in the Book of Changes. That is, every poem has six stanzas, each ‘representing’ and ‘embodying’ one line of the hexagram mimetically. Furthermore, each stanza contains three lines, so that it corresponds to the Book of Changes’ smaller unit of signification, the three-lined trigram: in this way, each stanza manifests the motif of a ‘core’ trigram. [8] Besides these deliberate efforts to emulate the Book of Changes in terms of form, almost all the poetic lines are trimmed short (often by enjambments) and are rather uniform in length, very much like the individual solid or broken lines in a hexagram. Their brevity also hints at another Eastern source the patterning of Japanese haiku, which Berengarten describes as a separate though connected influence. [9] Some poetic lines have a comma or a full-stop to break the line somewhere in the middle, and these punctuation marks make such lines further resemble the broken (yin) lines of a hexagram, not only in terms of visual appearance, but also as temporal and syntactic breaks. Below is a good example which shows the structure and short lines inspired by the image of the hexagram itself. It is the last poem in the sequence, which operates as a kind of Envoi, or concluding stanza: [10]


May this work
Move on
Its winding way

And these words
Hold well together
and, in their time

Wherever they
Carry, hold

At all points
On this narrow strip
Between blindness

And sight, pain
And joy, water
And water, stardust

And earthdust
Void and air
Fire and fire (bwnbc 51)


Da Chu’ 大畜 (px/berengarten-tan04.jpg‘The Taming Power of the Great’, or as Berengarten’s interpretation, ‘Still and On’)


The layout and structure of this poem are highly reflective of the numerological patterning of a hexagram, with six stanzas, each composed of three very short and uniform lines. In fact, the maximum number of words per line in ‘Still and On’ is only four, while the minimum is actually one.


Moreover, the utilisation of the technique of enjambment is not only immediately apparent (for example May this work / Move on / Its winding way), but also highly effective in achieving three objectives: firstly, to keep the sentence uniformly short so as to correspond to the visual image of the lines of a hexagram; secondly, to inject an element of surprise (for instance by the juxtaposition of antitheses, such as Between blindness // And sight, pain / And joy); and finally, to modify clichés or patternings that have been become too predictable, rigidified or conventionalised. For instance, Berengarten breaks the conjunction into water / And water in different lines, but later connects the images of fire as Fire and fire in the same final line. His semantic connection and syntactic enjambment of stardust and earthdust (stardust // And earthdust) projects a refreshing element of surprise, without appearing awkward or forced.


Furthermore, it might be suggested that in interpreting this twenty-sixth Hexagram Da Chu as ‘Still and On’, Berengarten is adopting precisely the kind of structural parallelism that underpins the dialectical world-view that has gone into the evolution of the Book of Changes by means of accretion and refinement over the centuries. Here are the six pairings of images present in the last lines of the poem, set out symmetrically:


blindness      and      sight
pain               and       joy
water             and      water
stardust        and       earthdust
void               and       air
fire                 and       fire


Here, each paired unit contains either an opposition or an equalisation. Not only do such structural parallelisms constitute a form of numerological patterning in their own right, but they may also help in deciphering the poem’s underlying signification. Indeed, they might be said to portray a kind of ‘aesthetics of symmetry’ and, in so doing, to project a ‘recurring rhythm’ into words/images, concepts/ideas and events/phenomena.


Besides consulting the Book of Changes on a ‘personal’ level — that is, with regard to daily actions and events — Berengarten has also found himself consulting the book when actually composing poems, with regard to the theme, the poem itself, and the puzzles or uncertainties of composition. In Berengarten’s words:


I Ching [Yi Jing] has often helped me to articulate poems in a way that I think is correct and appropriate [… ] my own belief is that this also means that these poems enter a ‘mode of being’ and a ‘form’ that are not merely rooted in my own subjectivity and opinions, but in a ‘wider’ / ‘deeper’ / ‘higher’ (‘trans-subjective’, ‘intersubjective’) field. [11]


Possibly because the poems’ mode of being and form are rooted in a more profound and multi-subjectival field, Berengarten’s poems are not easy to translate. At the outset, however, they can appear to be deceptively easy, thanks to Berengarten’s unadorned language and his consciously articulated intention to achieve clarity of thought and image by simple diction uncluttered by conventional tropes or devices (‘Statement for Love and Justice’ 2007). [12] But once a translator delves further into the wider, deeper and higher field which encompasses the poem, it is easy to get lost.


Let me illustrate from my experience of translating Berengarten’s poems (some of which have been published online and in the printed anthology of (PS), and Singapore Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao). Berengarten is expert at word games, as we shall shortly see; and the new syntax that emerges from his linguistic experiments, combined with the reinvigorating of clichés to inject the element of surprise, [13] can make the translation process difficult and laborious. As a result, it is not always possible to convey the puns, ambiguities, multifaceted meanings and other linguistic strophes of the source language. In particular, many of Berengarten’s line endings deliberately avoid natural breath pauses or syntactic pauses, hence forcing two or more lines to be joined in the process of reading and comprehension. Conversely, Berengarten also introduces full-stops or commas into a single line in order purposely to break the line, and so force a pause in reading and decipherment. Such forced alterations to rhythms and syntax make it difficult for the translator to follow the positioning of equivalent phrases, let alone render them. The above-quoted poem, Da Chu, serves as a case in point to demonstrate Berengarten’s use of enjambment both to break and to join up his poetic lines.


I shall further refer to my attempt at translating Berengarten’s ‘Untouchable miraculous air’: [14]


Air keeps spilling
Out of this world
Onto death, almost

As if it were water
From a leaking tap and
Time were the wooden

Floor it dripped and spilled
Onto and soaked through
And trickled between planks

To puddle and pool in down
In cellars and stream through
Soil onto impermeable

Rock. Since this un-
Touchable miraculous
Air that slips through my

Lungs will suddenly be
Taken from me, I drink it
All the more joyfully.(bwnbc 18)


Firstly, we notice that the common expression in line two (Out of this world) carries polysemous significations which are, at best, cumbersome to translate, and, at worst, impossible to convey in their entirety in translation. This phrase’s richness in meaning ensures that it can refer to one or all of the following connotations: ‘uncommon’, ‘wonderful’, and ‘divine’. Furthermore, linked with the metaphorical ‘spilling of air’, this common expression makes the overall hermeneutics even richer and, hence, more profoundly complicated. As such, it becomes almost impossible to translate its full breadth of meanings and connotations into Chinese. In order to achieve a smoother flow in the movement of the poem, in my translation I decided on the phrase cong zhe shijie yichu [从这世界溢] which manages to convey no more than the literal meaning of ‘spilling out of the world’, with a tint of joyous or positive signification inherent in the word yi 溢 [‘overflow’]. This somewhat imperfect translational experiment reflects that Berengarten’s syntactic patternings are indeed a constant challenge for any translator, and in fact, for any serious reader of poetry.


As another example to illustrate this point, we can return to the earlier poem ‘Still and On’. Besides the denotation of ‘continuing activity’, the word still in the title could also be interpreted as ‘motionless’, which is an absolute contradiction of the first meaning. If still is indeed taken as ‘motionless’, then it actually becomes the direct opposite of the subsequent word ‘on’ in the title. Correspondingly, the six pairs of images (which were listed above), through structural parallelism, may also correspond to ‘motionlessness’ and ‘continuity’ respectively. In other words, still or ‘motionless’ corresponds to the first images of the pairs (i.e., blindness, pain, still water, stardust, void and still fire), whereas on or ‘continuous flowing’ (also linked to the concept of ‘transition’) corresponds to the second images of the pairs (i.e., sight, joy, flowing water, earthdust, air and spreading fire). The translation of this title, because of such polysemous, even contradictory, significations, becomes a most testing task. I have chosen to use Duan·Xu 断·续 (‘Still/ Discontinue-On/ Continue’) as its Chinese title, because this phrase, in my perception, encompasses the meanings of both ‘motionlessness’ and ‘continuity’ that are present in the English word ‘still’. Duanxu [断续] is a Chinese phrase which refers to the intermitting of, or the alternation between, progression and stoppage. Consequently, not only can the phrase duanxu signify ‘progression’ (albeit in a somewhat intermittent manner), but the deliberately inserted dot — a specifically Chinese punctuation mark to signal a break or represent division — between the two characters duan [断] and xu [续], further emphasises the individual meaning of each of them. That is, the translated title succeeds in highlighting both still and on separately.


Interestingly, Chinese is an extremely condensed language with multiple meanings generated by the most economical of words. This is especially apparent in classical Chinese (which is the written language used in the Book of Changes and other Taoist classics), where a single character or word can sometimes have more than five different (though sometimes related) denotations — so that the number of connotations and implications may thus be expected to be far greater. That said, it is still impossible to find any corresponding phrase in Chinese for a polysemous English phrase such as out of this world. We could, however, deduce that Berengarten’s inclination towards, or penchant for, utilising highly-condensed and polysemous phrases may itself have been influenced, even if indirectly, unconsciously and subtly, by his reading of the Book of Changes and other Chinese classics, albeit in translation. Additionally, Berengarten has attested that he has been influenced by Ezra Pound — whose own poems were heavily influenced by the Chinese imagery system and the Chinese ideogram, especially through Arthur Waley’s works, both as translator and as theorist of Chinese classical poetry. Berengarten also claims that his readings of Pound and Waley further led to his interest in the ‘Chinese written character’ or ideogram, which, in actual fact, is in itself a rich source of polysemous significations. [15]


Returning to the poem, ‘Untouchable miraculous air’, we further see a number of prepositions being enjambed to new lines to project a sense of separateness, dislocation, disjunction — even alienation. Such a technique is often found in other poems by Berengarten: not only does it create surprise (for example, the joy-implicating phrase out of this world seems to be transformed and negated by the phrase onto death), but information can be added that qualifies or changes the meaning of the previous line (for instance, the enjambed preposition Onto actually turns out to move the meaning of the previous two lines in a totally new direction: [… ] Time were the wooden // Floor it dripped and spilled). The final line, All the more joyfully, also provides a surprising or optimistic twist to the gloomy portrayal of the spilling air (which was earlier related to death, leakage, spillage, puddle and cellars, etc.).


Although the use of such prepositional enjambment enriches the overall poem, it is almost impossible to translate it well. My translational strategy has been, firstly, to keep the meaning of the sentence intact; and, secondly, to break the translated lines as closely to their originals as possible, without attempting to maintain rigid loyalty to the use of a preposition every time — simply because Chinese does not lend itself to the use of prepositions to anything like the extent to which they are deployed in English. Furthermore, this enjambment in Berengarten’s poems also reminds us that, in each hexagram of the Book of Changes, individual lines are closely linked to other lines, and mutually influential. Their positioning and patterning (solid — yang, or broken — yin) affect the signification of the core trigram, as well as the overall meaning of the hexagram in very much the same way as enjambed lines affect the overall meaning of a stanza and of an entire poem by Berengarten. In this sense, it might therefore be said that the principle of change (transformation) that is both subject and substance of the Book of Changes is itself reflected in Berengarten’s poetic technique and applied even to its most minute details.


Finally, another of Berengarten’s poetic techniques which proves challenging to a translator is his combined usage of hyphenation and line breaks. In the above poem, we see that in the fifth stanza, ambiguity is intentionally created with the breaking up of the word untouchable by a hyphen, so that touchable is enjambed to the second line, thus creating the impression that the air may actually be touchable if we read the line on its own. Such a technique of appending a negative prefix to reverse the meaning is actually particularly suited to Chinese syntax. Without even the need for hyphenation, inversion of meaning in Chinese is often achieved by affixing a bu 不 [‘not’, or ‘un-’] before any verb, or prefixing any adjective with a fei 非 [equivalent to ‘un-’ or ‘dis-’]. Here then, it is fortunate that I have been able to translate un- / touchable into wufa/ chumo [无法/触摸] — a solution that fits both layout and semantics. Although Berengarten may not be proficient enough in Chinese to have been directly influenced by this common pattern of Chinese prefix-negations, the many usages of such compounds in the Wilhelm-Baynes explications of lines in the hexagrams, such as ‘Mis[-]fortune’, ‘No blame’, ‘No praise’, ‘No remorse’, ‘dis[-]quieting’, ‘dis[-]appears’, may have unconsciously inspired Berengarten to explore and subvert such prefixes in English.


As well as responding to the general and overarching influence of Chinese philosophies and culture, Berengarten has written individual poems which have been influenced by, or resemble, poems by Chinese poets. One such prominent example is his poem ‘Bird up there black’, which is likely to have been influenced by the works of Chinese exile-poet, Yang Lian, who is London-based and an acquaintance of Berengarten. Interestingly, Yang is another poet who, like Berengarten, has based his poetry collection, Yi, on the structures and philosophies of the Book of Changes (Tan 2007). Particularly, black bird is a recurring image in Yang’s poetry, often acting as the agent between light and darkness. For instance, Yang’s poem, ‘Crow’s Proposition’ contains the lines: each morning dies once again in crow’s language / Crow uses darkness to display light. (Yang 1995: 25).This may be the impetus or inspiration for Berengarten’s ‘Bird up there black’:


That bird up there
Black black black
Because of the sun

Behind it, is
Flying straight
On arcs of air

Into death. [… ] (bwnbc, 17)


Here the bird which is black / Because of the sun appears to be a modification and adaptation from Yang’s crow which uses darkness to display light. Furthermore, both poems portray death in the face of the sun/morning. [16]


In conclusion, we come to what I would like to call ‘the reverse osmosis’. In just the same way that Chinese philosophies and cultures influence Berengarten’s poetry, we need to realise that Berengarten’s marvellous renditions of these influences in his own poems, in turn, influence and determine their translations, as they travel ‘back’ to their Chinese ‘source’. On the one hand, there can be little doubt that the Chinese influences on Berengarten’s works are profound and far-reaching: they range from the Book of Changes and Taoist and Confucian classics to contemporary Chinese poetry. This observation is particularly apt and relevant in the approach to Berengarten’s works, as his perspectives are known to have consistently drawn on non-English poetic traditions and to combine English, Mediterranean, Jewish, Slavic, American and Oriental influences (bwnbc, inside cover).


On the other hand, if the Chinese influence on Berengarten’s poetry and thought is to be seen as a structural, philosophical and linguistic ‘osmosis’, then I believe that, as the translation of his works into Chinese garners more attention and a wider readership, a ‘reverse osmosis’ of Berengarten’s influence on Chinese poetics may, slowly but surely, be taking place.

Works Cited

Berengarten, Richard. ‘Statement for Love and Justice’. Unpublished typescript.

Burns, Richard. 1981. Ceri Richards and Dylan Thomas: Keys to Transformation. A monograph. London: Enitharmon Press.

–––. 1999. Against Perfection. Norwich: The King of Hearts.

–––. 2003. book with no back cover. London: David Paul.

Aristotle. Poetics. The Internet Classics Archive. (consulted 26 October 2007).

Tan, Chee-Lay. 2007. ‘Constructing a System of Irregularities: The Poetry of Bei Dao, Duoduo and Yang Lian’. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. Cambridge University.

Wilhelm, Richard.1951. The I Ching or Book of Changes. (ed. G. F. Baynes). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Winters, Yvor. 1952. Collected Poems. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Yang Lian. 1995. Where the Sea Stands Still. (tr. B. Holton). London: WellSweep.

–––. 2002. Yi. (tr. by M. Lee). Los Angeles: Green Integer.

Yu, Pauline. 1987. The Reading of Imagery in the Chinese Poetic Tradition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


[1] Richard Berengarten, letter to author, 3 Oct 2007.

[2] In fact, a ‘double translation’ is involved here: Wilhelm translated the Chinese text into German, whose English version was rendered by Cary F. Baynes. This translation is commonly referred to as the Wilhelm-Baynes version.

[3] Richard Berengarten, letter to author, 3 Oct 2007.

[4] Berengarten’s direct interest in other aspects of Jung’s work, apart from the theory of synchronicity, is apparent both from the symbolist dimensions of many of his earlier poems, for example, ‘The Rose of Sharon’ (1973, collected in For the Living [91–96] and from his monograph Keys to Transformation (KT).

[5] All quotations from book with no back cover in this essay are from the section entitled ‘Following’ (bwnbc 12–53).

[6] The Taiji tu is the visual symbol which best represents the twinned principles of yin and yang in Taoist philosophy, with the outer circle symbolising the entirety of perceivable phenomena, while the black and white portions within represent the interactions of the two main principles in the world, yin (black) and yang (white). Furthermore, each contains a smaller circle or element of the other, which shows that neither can exist without the other. In correspondence with me, Berengarten has confirmed that he has read a considerable number of Taoist works over the last forty years, and has been strongly influenced by them.

[7] The idea that ‘poem addresses poem’ across time is of course one way of defining tradition.

[8] My observation was later confirmed by a letter from Berengarten, 3 October 2007.

[9] Ibid.

[10] In fact, this poem can also be regarded as the beginning of Berengarten’s forthcoming project. According to his email to me on 3 Oct 2007, the sequence ‘Following’ will be the taking off point for his future Chinese-influenced book that will contain 384 poems (64 hexagrams times six variant interpretations = 384 readings), and which will be based on his readings of the Book of Changes.

[11] Letter from Berengarten to author, 3 October 3 2007.

[12] Provided to author by Berengarten, 3 October 2007.

[13] Incidentally, in an email to me (19 November 2007), Berengarten comments that this theme of the reinvigorating of clichés has always been one of his preoccupations. He believes it was first expressed in an early poem entitled ‘To Another . . .’ (1973), which serves as a parody and riposte to Yvor Winters’ poem, ‘To a Young Writer’ (1930). Winters’ poem contains this advice: Write little. Do it well and Berengarten response in ‘To Another . . .’ is: Good poets should evade / Cliché, that master taught. / A lie: he was afraid, / And the worm gnawed his thought. // Stone cold, his dream, for what’s / Without flaw or splinters. / Redeem cliché. Write lots. / And to hell with winters. See Berengarten (Learning to Talk 25) and Winters (1952: 73).

[14] My translation is published in the online poetry journal PoetrySky (PS).

[15] Letter from Berengarten to author, 3 October 2007.

[16] In an email to me (18 November 2007), Berengarten confirmed the influence of Yang Lian on this image and added a query of his own: he asked whether this repeated image in Yang Lian’s work might owe something to Ted Hughes’ collection Crow.

Chee-Lay Tan

Chee-Lay Tan

Born in Singapore in 1973, Chee-Lay Tan has also lived in Taiwan and the UK, where he completed his doctorate in the Department of East Asian Studies, Cambridge University (St. John’s College), specialising in Chinese poetry with particular focus on poets of exile. He is currently Assistant Professor in Chinese at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, and Deputy Executive Director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, NTU ( Chee-Lay Tan has published widely in both Chinese and English. His books of poems include: Chi Chu Cheng Xing [Walking Alone], 1997; Chen Zhi Rui Shi Xuan [Tan Chee Lay’s Poetry Collection], 1999; and Zao Jian Di [Where Swords are Forged], 2002. His prose publications include: Si Shu [The Four Books], 1999, co-authored with J.F. Pan, D.C. Zhou and Y.B. Ke; Ge An Guan Wo [Gazing At Myself from the Opposite Shore], critical works and essays, 2000; Lao Shi de Zuo Ye Ben [Sir’s Homework], prose and short stories, 2004; and Huang Se de Yu Yi [The Yellow Raincoat], 2006. His latest book is Chu Ren Yi Liao, Ru Wen Yi Zhong [The Unexpectedness of Literature], Global Publishing, Singapore, 2009.

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