Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I hope my readers are not too disappointed to learn
that I am not rushing to put into print some commentary
about the current controversy over filibustering in the U.S.
senate or the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial in Florida.
Both of these circumstances have been magnified in the
media far beyond their true significance, and I feel no
need to contribute to their misappropriation of public

I do write often about power and politics, not because they
are the most important matters in the world, which they
are not, but because they are rich displays of how our nation
and other nations in the world manage themselves between
the punctuation marks of the earth’s season, the caprices of
the weather, and the natural convulsions of earthquakes,
typhoons, floods, tornados, tsunamis, hurricanes, sinkholes,
droughts, and whatever else Nature so inscrutably gives to
us and our fellow creatures who dwell on this little planet.

Just as a strand of silk can be intrinsically stronger than
steel, I suggest our little practice of making poems with
our languages, and music with our voices and instruments is
often more powerful, more enduring, and yes, more fascinating
and unpredictable than politics and power.

Recently, a friend gave me a DVD set of the Showtime series
“The Tudors,” a four year panorama of the reign of Henry VIII
in England. About the same time, I had a conversation with
another friend about two old interests of mine, one, a group of
third century, A.D. Chinese poets known as The Seven Sages
of The Bamboo Grove, and two, the first novel probably ever
written (over a thousand years ago), “The Tale of Genji” by a
Japanese noblewoman Lady Murasaki.

At some point, it occurred to me, the three, however many
centuries apart, were connected in my thinking about them,
and I am now, perhaps somewhat capriciously, going to
discuss them instead of Florida prosecutors, Harry Reid,
and the other sad shallowness of so much in our public media.

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were each important
Taoist scholars, musicians and poets (as well as officials) in
the capital when the Confucian Jin Dynasty came to power in
260 A.D.. Criticizing the corruption and life at court, they soon
retreated to the estate of one of them, near a large bamboo
grove, on the Yangtze River where they lived a life of drinking,
playing music and writing poetry for a number of years. Only
a few of their poems survive, but they became a legendary
part of Chinese culture and an influence for centuries
afterwards. Perhaps the most accomplished among them,
Juan Chi (or Ruan Ji) had the most of his work survive,
including a book called “Poems From the Heart.” Here is
one of my favorites, which I recently translated (based on
more literal translations):

by Juan Chi [Ruan Ji] (210-263 A.D.)

(translated by Barry Casselman)

Sleepless, late at night, in my room,
I rise to play the zither.
The moon shines through the thin curtain,
a cool breeze ripples into my gown.
A lone swan moans in the wilderness.
Flying birds chatter in the bamboo groves.
Pacing up and down, unsure what is next,
mournful thoughts arise and besiege my heart.

Like all masterpieces of literature, however short, there is
something timeless about this poem. Juan Chi’s circumstances,
and those of his colleagues, were not unlike, in fundamental
ways, circumstances today in which the ineffectiveness of
governments in the world’s capitals, the widespread corruptions,
and the detachment of political life from ordinary persons’ lives,
echoes through almost two millennia.

Lady Murasaki (or Murasaki Shikibu) born in Kyoto in 973 A.D.
was part of a noble family in the late Heian period, and became
a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shoshi in the Japanese imperial
court circa 1000 A.D. She was also a writer, and her extraordinary
“Tale of Genji” is generally considered the first true novel in any
language. Writing poetry was a common practice among the
women of the aristocracy of that time when Chinese was the
official language of the court and spoken almost exclusively by
men. Murasaki had taught herself Chinese secretly while her
brother was being taught, but her writing was in Japanese, only
then emerging as a written language. It is thought that her talent
as a writer was why she was brought to court. She also secretly
taught the young empress Chinese. Her novel, begun at a lovely
rural retreat from court, is more than a book of manners and
history of the period. Muraski’s sensitivity, intelligence and
psychological probity make the book timeless and universal in
its insights.

The Showtime series “The Tudors” may not be a masterpiece, but
its richly-costumed and elaborately-set story of Henry VIII, his
wives and his royal court 1300 years after the Seven Sages of the
Bamboo Grove, and 500 years after Lady Murasaki, re-enacts
life at the “highest” level in ancient times with its emperors,
kings and queens, nobles and knights, and the manners and
mannerisms of the old aristocracies. Henry VIII is a particularly
fascinating character in the long line of English monarchs, with
his many wives, his battles with the Catholic Church in Rome,
and eventually his creation of the new Anglican Church which
survives to this day.

His descendent, the soon-to-be-born child of William and
Catherine (and great grandchild of Queen Elizabeth II) will 
someday presumably occupy the British throne. (Elizabeth I
was one of Henry VIII’s daughters.) The absolute power of the
English king in the 1500‘s has given way to a ceremonial and
mostly powerless monarchy today, but it still commands
media attention.

In China, the age of emperors ended in 1911, and the great culture
of that nation was replaced ruthlessly by a series of communist
chairmen, the first of whom, Mao Tze Tung, ordered and
supervised the Great Famine of the 1950s in China during which
tens of millions of Chinese peasants died of starvation. More
recent leaders of China have adopted some Western economic
methods, and the newest China, with its huge population, tries
to take its place among the leading nations of the 21st century.

In the early 1930s, a militarist regime took over imperial Japan,
and its aggressive leaders began to seize neighboring
countries, and made an alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist
Italy that formed the Axis powers which attempted to destroy
the other civilizations of the West and the East. After the end
of World War II, Japan adopted a democratic government, and
has taken a major role among the industrial nations.

The world has changed since the times of the Chinese dynasties,
the Japanese emperors and the English kings, but these nations
are still here, still making news on the world stage, still filling
their capitals with “commoner” courtiers and secret plots and
cybernetic machinations.

In Washington, DC, and in our nationally-televised show trials,
the U.S. has its own comedy of manners, its own political
courtiers, and its own colorful episodes, now called partisan
soap operas.

But where are the great poems, and where are the epic novels,
of today?

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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