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The Tao of Poetry

Starting on Monday, 4 May, Liane Strauss will be running ‘The Tao of Poetry: An Introduction to the Great Poets of the T’ang and Sung Dynasties’, providing an in-depth study of the great flowering of Classical Chinese poetry and all that contributes to making it feel so contemporary.  Here, Liane put together a few words to introduce the course …

‘The Tao of Poetry’ by Liane Strauss

I’m very excited to be teaching the Tao of Poetry this summer at the Poetry School. Not only will we be reading these stunning and startling poems together, and responding to them in our own writing, we’ll be learning about a very significant element in our own process, and practice, as poets. Let me explain.

I think of this course not only as an opportunity but as an experiment.

First of all, the course is an opportunity

• to become more familiar with poems that somehow, although they were written so long ago and so far away, strike so many chords with us today, perhaps in part because they point toward something we yearn for, something that we don’t find, in our busy daily modern lives;

• to learn about the cosmology that informs those poems, a view of the world that was very likely developed alongside the language in which they were written, through a deeper understanding of which we can perhaps see our own world anew;

• to allow the minimalism, openness and ambiguity of this poetry to filter into and find expression in our work.

This is where the experiment comes in.

Reading these poems in the context of a workshop, we will begin to discover how influences effect our process and practice and how we can allow influences to improve our poems and our control as writers. Throughout the term we’ll be on the lookout for signs of influence in our own work and beyond, asking:

• In what ways does influence make itself felt?

• How does influence play out?

• How does our thinking in and through our poetry affect our lives?

What I hope and expect we will all see and share in this workshop is the experience of watching our own and our fellow-poets’ work undergo subtle and profound changes as a result of reading and studying the work of the great poets of the T’ang and Sung Dynasties…

Li Ching Chao’s ‘A Song of Departure’:

LI Ch'ing Chao

A Song of Departure
by Li Ch’ing Chao

Warm rain and soft breeze by turns
Have just broken
And driven away the chill.
Moist as the pussy willows,
Light as the plum blossoms,
Already I feel the heart of Spring vibrating.
But now who will share with me
The joys of wine and poetry?
Tears streak my rouge.
My hairpins are too heavy.
I put on my new quilted robe
Sewn with gold thread
And throw myself against a pile of pillows,
Crushing my phoenix hairpins.
Alone, all I can embrace is my endless sorrow.
I know a good dream will never come.
So I stay up till past midnight
Trimming the lamp flower’s smoking wick.

My poem ‘Alone in the Night’, influenced by Li Ch’ing Chao’s poem:

Alone in the Night
after Li Ch’ing Chao

tang dynasty

Emergency rescue has just freed
the woman trapped for twelve hours
underneath the ice. As I drink
my peach schnapps, my hypothermia rises
in a fine vapour from my heart, streams
round the lonely peach stone of my cheek.
The room is unsteady, as if it were drunk.
I try to write a poem in which
two ice floes drift and dissolve like willows.
My cold cream has gone off.
My hairclip’s yanked too tight.
I throw myself into my black bathrobe,
collapse back onto the gold couch and crush
the phoenixes in your Peterson’s Guide.
A lone, deep ice cube chinks
like the last nickel lost in Atlantic City.
In the bitter loneliness of the window
I search for just one small watery
streak of day. Without even an old movie,
I lie changing channels in a blue light.

On the course, we will study the masterpieces of Classical Chinese Poetry – like the poems of Li Ch’ing Chao – and use this as a jumping off point for learning the Tao (the way) into our own poems, helping us to generate new poems (like mine above) and to revitalise our own poetic practice.

How will the course be run?

Each week I will set some poems for you to read and provide you with a number of exercises or prompts.

In the first half of the session we will read and discuss the poems set, looking especially at how they express the worldview behind them and how they manage the elements of craft.

In the second hour we will workshop your poems. You can bring in work based on the prompts and exercises or simply whatever you’re working on and want feedback to help you move forward.

Whatever work you bring to the workshop, we will consider how the direction of your reworking and redrafting reflects the influence of the work we’re reading and immersing ourselves in from the Classical Chinese tradition.

Some themes we will explore, along with ways of incorporating them in our work, include:

• The desire to withdraw from the world, or its worldliness

• The play of absence and presence in natural processes, such as the seasonal cycle

• The concept of the Ten Thousand Things (yu)

• The generative void and source of all things living and nonliving (wu)

• The mysterious generative force of the earth (tzu-jan)

• The possibility of Ch’an, “no-mind”or “empty mind”, in which “Self and its constructions of the world dissolve away”

• What it means for consciousness, cosmos and language to form a unity


All our reading will come from David Hinton’s “magisterial”anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (available from Amazon). I will set the initial readings in advance of the first meeting of the workshop and strongly suggest that you all buy a copy as soon as you are sure you’ll be taking the course, although it’s a great and beautiful book to add to your library in any event!

Want to discover the great flowering of Chinese Poetry with Liane Strauss this term? Full details of the course and booking information are on our website, or you can call our offices on 0207 582 1679.

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