Western Ci, Anyone?
It happened many
times that I felt tempted to write using the rhythmic pattern of
some tunes I had heard. Sometimes I even gave in to that
temptation and wrote a few such poems (not mentioning anything
about the tunes). The result was gratifying; yet something was
missing. I couldn’t escape the thought that mentioning the
actual tunes could greatly add to the reader’s enjoyment. But
before I embarked on such an endeavour I had to know: was there
such a poetic form?
The Psalms and Classical Chinese Ci
Indeed, the idea
seems to be anything but new: Opening the Hebrew and Christian
Bible, we find some very interesting things in the Book of
Psalms. Many of those Psalms (which actually made up the Hymnal
of the Jerusalem Temple) start by indications given to the
“choirmaster”. These are just that: technical indications
addressed to the Temple’s leading musicians on how to play and
sing the psalm in question. These indications make up verse 1 of
each psalm foreseen with them and are usually omitted when the
psalm is recited chorally or just read publicly (one starts with
verse 2) (Not all psalms have such indications).
these first verses we find not only indications like:
choirmaster. On a string instrument. On the octave. (Psalm
authored) by David (psalm 6)
choirmaster. To the sound of flute. (Psalm authored) by David
but also very
interesting ones, like (list not exhaustive):
choirmaster: According to the tune of the “Gittim” (Psalm
choirmaster: On (the tune of) “The Death of the Son” (Psalm
choirmaster: On the tune of “The Doe of the Dawn” (Psalm
choirmaster: On the tune of “The Lilies” (Psalm authored) by the
sons of Kore. An epithalamum (Psalm 45/44).
choirmaster: (Psalm authored) by the sons of Kore On (the tune
of) “The Virgins” (Psalm 46/45).
choirmaster: According to (the tune of) “The Lilies of Witness”
(...) As a lesson (Psalm 60/59).
And so on.
We don’t know
those tunes, of course. No one preserved them for us. Modern
exegetes would have it that those were very popular songs (very
high in the charts as it were) or even more likely, what we now
call “oldies but goldies”, enduring songs, popular from
generation to generation. Songs which everybody was likely to
know by heart. At least some of them seem to have been pretty
secular in character, too What seems to have taken place is:
the text of the psalm (which, according to its literary genre,
is a poem) was purposefully set to a pre-existing popular tune,
undoubtedly also in order to facilitate memorization. By the
way, if we allow our imagination just a little breathing space,
couldn’t we say that in the last of the above examples (Ps.
60/59), the “lesson” referred to the fact that the tune of “The
Lilies of Witness” was very adapted for beginners to learn to
play those string instruments so much favoured in the Temple?
Much in the way that somebody learning classical guitar today
would necessarily learn Terraga’s “Adelita”, record themselves
playing it, post the video on youtube and ask for criticism?
But was there
ever an “institutionalised” poetry form which would use pre
–existing popular songs to fit original poetry into their
rhythmic pattern? I asked some seasoned poets this question and
(via Karina & John) our distinguished Outlaw poet Jeffrey
Woodward responded, pointing to the classical Chinese “Tz’u”
poetry. I duly thank him now.
I have done some
research of my own on this form.
First of all,
Wikipedia, Sinorama, China Radio International and a Sinologist
friend I consulted, all agree that the modern, accepted
transcription of the name for this form should be “Ci” so this
is the form I, too, will use. In any case, the word is
pronounced approximately “Tsih” or “Tsee”. The above are also
the sources for this part of my article.
originated during the Liang dynasty with lyrics
which developed from anonymous popular songs (some of Central
Asian origin) into a sophisticated literary genre. The form was
further developed in the Tang Dynasty, reaching the climax of
popularity during the Song dynasty. How did it work?
Both the number of characters and the arrangement of tones in a
“ci” poem were set according to one of some 800 pre-existing
patterns, provided by some well-known tunes. The title of the
pattern song and NOT another was used as title of the “ci” poem
(even though it may have had nothing to do with the poem’s
actual text). This “pattern title” was called the “cipai”
(pronounced approx. tsee-pie). It was not uncommon for several
poets to have written poems on the same “cipai”. Let’s put it in
modern (and Western) terms. Can you imagine such a C & C?:
“The “ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ written by Jack does not match that
written by Peter; but Jack’s “Yesterday” is better than Peter’s.
But the best “ci” poem written that year is, by far, Mary’s
“Sound of Silence”.
for us today, but it was not uncommon to hear similar things in
Song dinasty literary circles.
eventually led to some confusion; which is why one started to
refer to a certain “ci” poem by cipai+first line. This is
standard practice for Chinese scholars today.
The “ci” poems are
classified in 2 categories: If they were short (up to 58
characters) and the pattern song’s tempo was a fast one, they
were called xiaoling. Longer poems using a slower paced
song as a pattern, were referred to as manci.
Here’s an example
from a great “ci” master, Su Shi (11th century):
To the Tune of
Riverside City - For ten years here I wander and there you lie
For ten years here I wander and there you lie./ I don't think
about you often,/ yet how can I forget you!/ With your grave a
thousand miles away,/ where can I confide my loneliness?/ Even
if we met, could you recognize me,/ with dust all over my face/
and hair like frost?/ Last night I had a dream in which I
returned home./ By the window,/ you were combing your hair./ We
Looked at each other silently,/ with tears streaming down our
cheeks./ There's a place which every year will be my misery--/
the moonlit night,/ the hill of short pines.
the title of this ci, "the Tune of Riverside City" is the
cipai, followed by the first sentence of the poem.
with most Eastern poems, the circumstances of its writing are
Shi got married when he was 19, his wife 16. His wife died when
she was only 27. Because of his government duties, Su Shi had
moved to many different places in China, all far away from his
hometown. One night in early 1075, about 10 years after her
death, Su Shi dreamed of his wife, then composed this famous
Admittedly, it’s a very beautiful and moving poem in its own
right. However, much is lost, I think, by the fact that we
ignore the mysterious “Riverside City” song.
Here’s another example, by an
earlier master, Li Yu.
It was written
during the time when the "cipai" was used on its own. You can notice the discrepancy between the
title and contents of the poem.
Sand in the Stream
sun has already risen
Golden tripods, one after the other, are filled
With incense animals.
The red brocade carpet
Rufles with every step.
one dances tip-toe
Her golden hairpin slippen out;
Nauseated by wine, she often plucks
Flower buds to smell,
While from the other palace is heard dimly
The music of fifes and drums.
translation by Lu Wuqi
Taken from the
include Ouyang Xiu, Jiang Kui, Xin Qiji, Nalan Xingde.
Mao Zedong was a
huge fan of “ci” poetry and even wrote some. His “ci” “Chang sha”,
written in 1925, is considered to have such a high literary
value, that even thoroughly anti-Communist diaspora Chinese
scholars mention it among the outstanding “ci” of modern times
The Western Ci
I would now like
to present the Western ci form and the rules I thought out for
it. I chose not to use simply “ci” because a breakup with the
Chinese model is unavoidable: most of our languages are not
tonal and even China has lost most of the original 800 or so
pattern songs, keeping just the scheme for them. Also the term
“modern ci” or “contemporary ci” would be misleading, as Chinese
creations using their own traditional cipai have a
rightful claim to that categorisation. I therefore chose the
term “Western ci” as both the patterns and formal specifications
The rules are
The poems will
follow the rhytmical and length patterns of a popular Western
tune (which can be taken either from Classical music or from
pop/country/ethnic music, on the condition that the tune in
question be reasonably widely known).
The poems will
have both a title (related to the actual contents of the poem)
and a cipai/acknowledgment, stating the title of the song
used as a pattern.
The poems will
follow the structure of the pattern song, following the verses’
and the chorus’ patterns (if appropriate) in the succesion in
which they appear in the song.
The length of the
pattern song is not binding for the poem. However, the poem
should not be disproportionately long (let’s say maximally twice
as long as the pattern song).
The poets to whom
the short&fast/long&slow-paced distinction feels important, may
qualify their poems as xiaoling or manci, but this
is no absolute requirement.
Read three examples of
written by Cristian Mocanu.