Arthur Sze

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 7,145 words

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About this Person
Born: December 01, 1950 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Sze, Arthur C.

Arthur Sze has cultivated a poetics out of the convergence of multiple cultures and poetic traditions. He is also recognized as one of the finest translators of Chinese poetry, whose aesthetics and its underlying Taoist philosophy of the relationship between nature and human beings have left an enduring influence on his poetry. Charles Simic stated in a jacket blurb for Sze's seventh book, The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (2001), that "Arthur Sze is not only one of our best poets, he's now also one of our great translators." Sze's poetic career began with his translation of classical Chinese poetry, which has been a continuing source of inspiration for his poetry since his undergraduate years at Berkeley. Author of seven books of original poetry, Sze has received many honors, which include a Western States Book Award for Translation (2002), a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writer's Award (1998-2000), a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1997), an American Book Award (1996), and a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (1995). His poems have been translated into Chinese, Italian, and Turkish. He lives in Pojoaque, New Mexico, with his wife, Carol Moldaw, and teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he is professor of creative writing and the director of the creative-writing program since 1989.

Born on 1 December 1950 in New York City to Chinese parents who immigrated to the United States from China during the Japanese occupation in the late 1930s, Sze grew up in New York City and Garden City on Long Island. Hearing his parents switching back and forth between English and Mandarin in their daily lives, Sze became sensitive to the contrast of cadences, textures, and rhythms between these two languages. He did not, however, learn to read or write Chinese; his parents expected him to pursue a career in science and technology to follow the footsteps of his father, who was a chemical engineer. After graduating from the Lawrenceville School in 1968, Sze was accepted the same year into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), his father's alma mater. Even though he was good at math and science, Sze was bored in the classroom at MIT and found himself writing all the time. To him, working with language seemed to be more exciting and challenging than studying math or physics. Soon he discovered his passion for poetry and realized that writing was what he wanted to do with his life. From 1969 to 1970 Sze enrolled in a poetry workshop with Denise Levertov at MIT. Levertov's poetic conviction in finding mystery in the familiar and wonder in the mundane through a remarkable way of using language must have helped kindle Sze's sustained interest in classical Chinese poetry. Sze, however, was unable to read the copy of 300 Poems of the Tang Dynasty in his father's study. Nevertheless, the indecipherable characters fired his desire to know the language and to perceive what the poems held. He sought out some translations but was dissatisfied with them. He felt, according to Tony Barnstone, that the opaqueness of the translations "obscured or hindered" his "sense of what might be happening in the original." Seeking to master the Chinese language and to devote himself to poetry, Sze left MIT for the University of California at Berkeley in 1970.

At Berkeley, Sze majored in philosophy, studied poetry writing with Josephine Miles , and took intensive courses in the Chinese language. There he also began studying and translating classical Chinese poetry. Miles's witty, concise, and observant poetry seems to have had a significant influence on Sze during his formative years and beyond, but Chinese language and poetry were, and continue to be, the most dynamic, generative sources of inspiration for Sze's development of his own poetic voice and style. The way classical Chinese poems rely on images in nature to create and sustain emotional weight provides Sze with a model for articulating feelings and thoughts indirectly, yet concisely and effectively, not so much through observation as through being with nature. These characteristics of ancient Chinese lyric enrich Sze's learning of the art of poetry and his development of philosophical views on the relationships between humans and nature. Moreover, classical Chinese poetry for Sze is not only a source of inspiration but also a heritage that he seeks to reclaim through translation, emulation, and reinvention of the classical models.

Sze's first book, The Willow Wind (1972), provides a salient example of his creative engagement with Chinese poetry. Of the fifty-three poems in his first collection, twenty-four are translations of Chinese poems, most of which are from the Tang Dynasty. Drawing on the classical Chinese tradition, Sze juxtaposes each of a few drawings with a poem, allowing the words and images to correspond to one another. The influence of Chinese lyrics is also discernible in the subject matter and aesthetics of Sze's own poems. "Li Po," for instance, enacts imaginatively the Tang poet Li Po's legendary habit of composing poems while drinking to the moon on a boat and then folding his poems into paper boats that he let flow down the river or on the lake. As is characteristic of the classical Chinese lyric, "Li Po" in The Willow Wind captures a remarkably harmonious relationship between the poet and nature, one that underlies Sze's description of "fish beneath the moon" cradling Li Po's pen "filled with wine" and a goddess rocking Li Po's boat and letting "the silent fish know" a dreamer is at work. Rather than mere vehicles for the poet's thoughts or emotions, animate and inanimate things in nature coexist with human beings as part of the universe.

This coexistence of humans and nature in proximity with one another results in the distinctive aesthetics and poetics of Sze's nature poems. A prominent characteristic of Sze's poetry is plurality of simultaneity--multiple actions, motions, or events are taking place simultaneously in one poem, offering varied perspectives and experiences. A short poem such as "Gila Monster" (also in The Willow Wind) is filled with motion and movement that bring alive the rich texture of sound, color, and light while rendering human presence and experience as one of the multiple participators in the world. While all the images in the poem are interwoven and juxtaposed, each maintains its individual distinction: "Pachysandras tremble with the / rustle of feet in grass--/ Ssss, Ssss"; "A gila monster with one red eye / pouts its tongue / and fastens its lip on the juicy spider neck. . . ." Those colors, movements, actions, and sounds in nature are interwoven and juxtaposed with those in the second passage of the poem: "The child on the walk stops, / turns: / The moon is / held behind the fringe of palling leaves"; "the lizard is moon-shiny, / silver strong and doubly tough." The stop and turn the child makes cause the reader to pause and see nature simultaneously through the eyes of the child and those of the poet. At the same time, the passages of time, not the poet's, but the child's and the Gila monster's, are embedded in their images and set in motion by their implied movements and the passing of time indicated by the moonlight. Although both the lizard and the child are part of the world depicted, they remain separate; neither is subsumed into the other. Their proximity results in a multiplicity of time and space, which is more than merely aesthetic; it includes philosophical and ethical implications that suggest a plurality of the world that refuses to become subordinate to the poet's consciousness. Thus, nature in this poem and Sze's others, as in classical Chinese poetry, resists being reduced to objects of knowledge.

Sometimes, however, nature in Sze's poems mediates the speaker's perception of the world and inspires insights, but it always remains transcendent over human consciousness or knowledge. Morever, the experience of gaining insights while being in proximity to nature in Sze's poems is sudden, as is the unexpected flash of great realization in the Taoist-Buddhist tradition of Chinese Zen (Ch'an). In "Miracles," for instance, in The Willow Wind, Sze "discovers a new perspective, / a range he never considered," "as he leans up" and sees the "shaggy edged" leaves twirling "the light in their hands." Rather than defining what that new perspective is, or being content with it, he realizes that "he must / pay his respects" to the leaves "deftly," and "he must acquaint them" with the "peripheral vision" that "the woman walking down the steps / is no longer his wife." Embedded in this approach to nature is more than an awareness of the impossibility to possess or know nature completely. The repeated imperative in the syntax--"he must"--suggests an insistence on an ethical and aesthetic relationship with nature, one in which nature maintains its distance, mystery, and infinity.

In his second book, Two Ravens (1976), Sze explores new ways of writing about nature and its relation to humans while continuing to draw on Chinese classical poetry and its underlying philosophical views of nature. Several poems in this collection show a more innovative way of interweaving nature with humans' everyday experiences. At the same time, these poems reveal Sze's attempt to overcome the limits of the classical Chinese lyric models. While Sze's syntactical structure and arrangement of words on the page seem to emulate the rhythm produced by the monosyllabic Chinese language, the shifts from image to image are not restricted to a single temporal-spatial relation from the perspective of the "lyric I/eye"--for example, the poem "march" begins with one word as a single line: "lilacs / are dreaming. a robin is perched, silent, / on a branch / near the window." As in his earlier poems, such as "Li Po" and "Gila Monster," Sze interweaves and juxtaposes phenomena in nature with human activities in this poem, but with significant development in his treatment of the relationship among these phenomena and activities. While the dreaming that lilacs and the silent robin on a branch near the window seem to occupy the same time-space as "we" who "wake to the latest assassination in argentina," the following lines disrupt linear time and unsettle homogeneous notions of space: "a red lotus / blossoms in our hands. / the apples are ripening in slow sun." In contrast to the time of spring as indicated in the title of the poem "march," lotuses blossom in the summer, so do apples ripen in the summer, or autumn, not in the spring. However, Sze enhances multiple temporalities that undermine the linear notion of time by emphasizing that "it is spring / in late autumn, in late summer / it is march." The implied philosophical view of multiplicity in oneness becomes a major organizing principle underlying the plural simultaneity and collage style of composition in Sze's later poems. These characteristics of Sze's poems resist a binary view of the world and enable Sze to further break away from the Western lyric tradition in which images in nature are observed and organized by the "lyric I/eye."

In addition, landscapes of the American Southwest and the presence of Native Americans and their cultures begin to appear in Sze's second book. By the time Two Ravens was published in 1976, Sze had lived in New Mexico for about four years. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1972 from Berkeley with majors in poetry, philosophy, and Chinese, Sze traveled in Mexico and planned on returning to California via New Mexico, as Miles had advised him to do. In September 1972 Sze hitchhiked to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and decided not to return to California when a friend in Santa Fe told him that poetry programs in the schools there were starting, and he had a good chance of working as a poet if he stayed. Since then, Sze has been actively involved in the poetry workshops in New Mexico, where he has been living since 1972. Between 1978 and 1995 Sze was married to a Hopi weaver, Ramona Sakiestewa, and their son, Micah, is a graduate of Princeton University. Like his life, Sze's work intertwines with Native Americans and their cultures. Since 1984 Sze has been teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which is a federally funded two-year college to which Native American students come from more than seventy tribes across the United States. Sze's close ties to Native Americans and the landscape of New Mexico are reflected in his poems. In many poems, such as "deer & hawk," "Sky Hopi," and "Do not Speak Keresan to Mescalero Apache," collected in Two Ravens, Sze pays tribute to Native American cultures and their relationship with nature.

In his books that have followed, Sze has interwoven Native American cultures and their relationship with nature into his depiction of a wider range of cultures, experiences, and phenomena in nature. This combination resists binary, hierarchical categorizations and reflects an increasingly prominent aspect of Sze's poetry--an inclusiveness of heterogeneous diversity in the world. Poems in Sze's third book, Dazzled (1982), demonstrate his exploration of the possibilities of collage for presenting multiplicity and heterogeneity of the world as a way of escaping the limits of classical Chinese poetry without abandoning its aesthetic and philosophical principles. As the speaker says in the poem "Viewing Photographs from China," collected in Dazzled: "And instead of insisting that / the world have an essence, we / juxtapose, as in a collage, / facts, ideas, images. . . ." A collage of "facts, ideas, images" evokes a structural principle of Chinese characters that informs Sze's method of juxtaposition. In a conversation with Barnstone, Sze noted that collage juxtaposition in the West emerged with the Dadaists and Surrealists, whereas juxtaposition resides in the Chinese characters: "in Chinese you can say it's the very essence of how some of the complex characters are being put together, the different elements. So you could argue that in writing out certain Chinese characters, inside each of the characters there's a certain juxtaposition that's going on, a certain tension inside of the word itself that is driving the poem." Sze has employed collage juxtapositions in The Willow Wind and Two Ravens, but these juxtapositions are usually restricted to one particular time-space, and the images and activities juxtaposed are often connected by the same time-place references as in "Gila Monster" and "march." On the other hand, in Dazzled, Sze's collage juxtapositions are capable of a much larger frame of reference, as shown by the opening poem, in which historical events and images of the Chinese Cultural Revolution are juxtaposed with references to wars in Africa, to the Russian Revolution, and to the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid. At the same time, disparate lives in nature are catalogued with thoughts and historical events of different time periods: "the arctic / tern, the pearl farm, considerations / of the two World Wars, Peruvian / horses, executions, concentration / camps. . . ." Out of a heterogeneous multiplicity, the speaker suggests, "a clear" view of the world emerges.

What also emerges in Sze's collage poems is an interconnectedness of facts, ideas, and images--an interconnection that shows a particular fact, idea, or image in a new light by situating it in a vast network beyond its immediate time-space. The speaker of "The Network" suggests that a fiction such as the story of George Hew's sail in a rowboat from "the Pearl river, China, across / the Pacific ocean to San Francisco" becomes a "fact in a world / of facts, another truth in a vast network / of truths" when a photograph of Hew is collected in a museum, and when he stays alive in the mind. Thus, the speaker declares, "We live / in such a network: the world is opaque, / translucent, or, suddenly, lucid, / vibrant." The complex, intricate connections of such a network render the world multifaceted and generate constant shifts, changes, and transformations in the material and the spiritual, in nature and human beings alike. "Fern, Coal, Diamond," collected in Dazzled, offers an example of these intricate and transformative connections among diverse elements in nature and human beings: "The intense pressure of the earth / makes coal out of ferns, diamonds out of coal." The same pressure of the earth "is within us," states the speaker, "and makes coal / and diamond desires." Embedded in these statements is a Daoist view that an ever-circulating cosmic energy inhabits nature and humans, animating the universe, interconnecting and transforming all elements. Sze combines this view with Native Americans' perspectives and his knowledge of physics, as he continues to develop his poetics through creative reinvention of collage juxtaposition.

River River (1987), Sze's fourth book, marks a breakthrough in his poetry, one that might be considered characteristic of ecopoetics. The sequence, form, and thematic concerns of the opening poem, "The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion," reflect this significant development in Sze's work. While the form of sequence poem offers Sze an expansive structure for articulating the "network" in which humans live, an ecological view of the world emerges in this volume to add a new dimension to his collage representation of the complex, intricate connections and relations of this network. In section 2 of this poem, Sze connects the human world, including scientific discovery and development of technology, to nature:

A Galapagos turtle has nothing to do
with the world of the neutrino.
The ecology of the Galapagos Islands
has nothing to do with a pair of scissors.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No. The invention of the scissors
has everything to do with the invention of the telescope.
A map of the world has everything to do
with the cactus by the window.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sze's argument for an ecological view of the world breaks away from the rhetorical tradition of logical argument, depending instead on juxtaposing images rather than reasoning through images to make his point.

In rejecting a dichotomous relationship between culture and nature, Sze's nature poems differ from traditional pastoral poetry, in which an idealized nature is opposed to a potentially destructive modern society. Sze explores alternative modes for understanding the world and the self, in which human beings and nature are part of a "network." As the speaker in "The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion" says, "The world is more than you surmise." For the speaker, as for Sze, "No single method can describe the world; / therein is the pleasure / of chaos, of leap of the mind." Although "The pattern of interference in a hologram" can replicate images of natural objects, it "misses the sense of chaos, distorts / in its singular view." In resisting a single view of the world, Sze not only develops a complex collage juxtaposition of motion and movement, images and ideas, he also incorporates vocabulary and concepts of science into his poetry. These lines from "Every Where and Every When," collected in River River demonstrate this mixture: "Is it true an anti-matter particle / never travels as slow as the speed of light, / and, colliding with matter, explodes? / The mind shifts as the world shifts. / I look out the window, watch Antares glow. / The world shifts as the mind shifts." Sze's mixing of scientific vocabulary with everyday language enables him to depart further from the dichotomized paradigm for representing the relations between culture and nature, between the city and the country, and between the corrupted urban society and the simple rural land in pastoral poetry.

While exploring alternative modes for representing the interconnectedness of all things, Sze develops what might be called an ecological aesthetics that challenges the privileging of vision over other sensual experiences, while revealing a mutually constituent relationship between human beings and their environment. In Sze's poems, sound and smell are as important as sight; both the visual and the sensual perceptions of the speaker alter with the motions in the environment. These perceptions and motions are in constant process, changing with different time-spaces. Sze incorporates insights drawn from philosophy, chemistry, physics, and different cultures into his development of an ecological aesthetics in which Taoist, Buddhist, and Native American perspectives on nature and Western philosophical views are interwoven and juxtaposed, without one being reduced to the other. The multiplicity in Sze's poetry entails heterogeneity of both nature and culture as well as their mutually constituent and transformative relations.

All these aspects of Sze's poetry converge and are further developed in his fifth book, Archipelago (1995), which interweaves East Asian and American Pueblo cultures into the fabric of its text saturated with nature. Moreover, these cultures are mobilized into actual experiences and events that are merged and set in motion with the natural world. In this book Sze articulates an ecological view of the world most cogently through his organization of the sequences, which resembles the configuration of an archipelago that consists of a cluster of apparently separate islands that are actually parts of the same submarine landmass and of the earth's crust. According to Sze, the book and its title are inspired by the Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden in Kyoto, well known for its fifteen stones set in a sea of raked gravel. When he visited the garden in 1990, Sze was struck by the fact that as he walked back and forth along the walkway, he could not see all fifteen stones at the same time. The stones are positioned in such a way that the totality can never be seen at once from any particular angle. Sze realized that he could develop a book or a series of poems, each resembling a rock in the garden. Each poem or cluster of poems would have its own configuration, but each would fit into a larger whole, like an island of an archipelago that is at once "the one and the many." This concept underlies the content and structure of Archipelago, which the title poem best illustrates.

"Archipelago" is a long sequence poem consisting of nine sections, each of which can be read as a separate poem. Yet, all the sections are linked by two simultaneous but independent temporalities--the poet's persona walking in the Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple and Pueblo women dancing in New Mexico. Just as these two activities are represented as concurrent, so are the speaker's memories, reflections, and a range of phenomena from different countries and in separate time and space. Sze has developed a collage method that is similar to the cinematic technique of montage, in which varied, fragmentary images are shown in such a way that they all seem to be caught in their separate but simultaneous moments of time, thus enhancing the sense of invisible connections among multiple, different simultaneities. At the same time, Sze's collage juxtaposition and arrangement of multiple single lines in the poem have the effect of giving equal importance to each phenomenon. Hence, human beings and their activities are shown to be only part of all things in motion in the universe.

This interconnectedness of all things, moreover, underlies environmental issues that Sze confronts in his poems. In one of the sequence poems, "Silk Road," collected in Archipelago, Sze indicates that nuclear tests have created new forms of dying and disorientation not unlike that of the diabetic: "A turtle pushes onto the sand of Bikini Island, / and, disoriented by radiation, pushes further and further / inland to die. . . ." The mortal effect of nuclear radiation on life in nature is also affecting human lives in different ways: "This sand was black and silver shining in the megalight. / Now the radiation is in my hands and in your face."

In The Redshifting Web, Poems 1970-1998 (1998), his sixth book, Sze continues to investigate environmental issues and explore new possibilities of collage composition for depicting the interconnectedness of all things. As its title indicates, this volume consists of five new sequence poems and selections from Sze's previously published volumes. The title also suggests new concepts and developments in Sze's poetry. The term redshift describes the astronomical phenomena that occur when stars are moving away from the earth; the light emitted by them shifts toward the red end of the spectrum. Scientists have discovered that most galaxies appear to be "redshifted"--that is, nearly all galaxies are moving away from the earth and from one another. This fact indicates that the universe is not static; it is expanding. Sze employs the term redshift to suggest a sense of constant motion, change, and transformation in the universe, in people's everyday experiences, and in reading his poetry. At the same time, all things in the universe and their constant changes are intricately connected, interacting with one another and mutually influencing one another's transformation as the word web indicates. This concept of the world, based on the principle of quantum mechanics, parallels the basic philosophy of Daoism and Native Americans' view of the universe as a delicately balanced web.

Sze's poetry itself is like a redshifting web, connecting vastly dissimilar things while opening to those beyond the immediate surroundings. The title poem of his sixth volume, "The Redshifting Web," is another salient example of Sze's ecopoetics. Vastly different phenomena are juxtaposed in the same sequence: the historical event of Chairman Mao swimming across the Yangtze River; a voice in a nursing home that announces, "Everyone here has Alzheimer's!"; "shapes of saguaros by starlight"; a peregrine falcon shearing off a wing; a yogi trying on cowboy boots at a flea market; and "the yellow pupils of a saw-whet owl." These apparently unrelated occurrences are part of an ever-expanding web, as these lines suggest: "I find a rufous hummingbird on the floor / of a greenhouse, sense a redshifting / along the radial string of a web. / . . . / staring through a skylight / at a lunar eclipse; / . . . / near and far: / a continuous warp; / . . . / hiding a world in a world: / 1054, a supernova." The worlds in this poem are without boundaries; Sze expands a moment of perception by dislodging it from a single space-time and situating it in juxtaposition to a wide range of phenomena in the universe in which past, present, and future collapse into one simultaneity and multiple ones. As he continues to explore new ways of articulating a keen awareness of invisible connectedness and for living life fully with a profound sense of the beauty and infinite mysteries in the world, Sze's poems, "though rarely overtly political, embody a politics that seeks to transform, liberate, and renew," as he asserts in an interview with Amy Ling.

Sze's seventh book, The Silk Dragon , is devoted wholly to translations of Chinese poems. It consists of sixty translations by eighteen Chinese poets, the earliest being Tao Ch'en (365-427) and the latest, Yen Chen of the twentieth century. In addition to some of the most prominent poets of the Tang Dynasty--such as Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chü-I, Li Ho, and Li Shang-Yin--Sze has translated many poets from different periods who are lesser known to Western readers. While the historical scope of Sze's translations demonstrates the range of richness and diversity in the ways in which Chinese poets respond to nature in their poems, the differences in their portrayals of nature reflect the effects of social, political, and cultural changes on the poets' perceptions and representations of nature. "Dead Water" by Wen I-To and "Red Rain" by Yen Chen epitomize the persistent interlocking of nature, culture, and human beings in Chinese poetry, despite the poets' apparent departure from the classical traditions. These translations also mark an apex of Sze's poetic career, which began with his translation of classical Chinese poems thirty years ago. In the introduction to The Silk Dragon, Sze discusses the catalytic relationship between his poetry and translation. "The translation of Chinese poems into English has always been a source of inspiration for my own evolution as a poet." He adds that "I felt that by struggling with many of the great poems in the Chinese literary tradition, I could best develop my voice as a poet." For Sze, however, "translation is an 'impossible' task" that entails "loss and transformation," "destruction and renewal." Transformation as a process of renewal is a principle underlying Sze's poetics. Sze finds this principle in nature as well as in Chinese culture and poetry. He concludes his introduction to The Silk Dragon with references to the dragon as an embodiment of "magic, transformation, and energy" in Chinese culture, and to Wolfram Eberhard's assertion that in Chinese myths "the dragon is able to shrink to the size of a silkworm; and then it can swell up till it fills the space between heaven and earth." Sze relates these attributes of the dragon to the silkworm in a well-known untitled poem by Li Shang-yin: "A spring silkworm spins silk / up to the instant of death." (The death of the silkworm is actually the beginning of new life- forms--a chrysalis and then a moth.) "That phrase," Sze writes, "can be taken as a metaphor for how a poet works with language. 'The silk dragon,' then, is my metaphor for poetry."

This artistic principle also underlies Sze's innovative ways of relating to nature in his poems. Moreover, the configuration of nature and human experiences in Sze's poetry is more than a matter of poetics or aesthetics; it reflects a worldview in which nature and human beings coexist in proximity as part of the expanding world web, mutually constituents of each other but never reducible to one or the other. As the speaker's remarks about nature and human experience in "The Great White Shark" suggest, "Diamond and graphite may be allotropic forms / of carbon, but what are the allotropic forms // of ritual and desire? The moon shining on black water, / yellow forsythia blossoming in the April night, // red maple leaves dropping in silence in October: / the seasons are not yet human forms of desire." Nature in Sze's poems refuses to be contained by human consciousness or desire.

Sze's poetry, particularly his earliest work, has not received substantial critical studies so far. Positive reviews of his books and critical attention to his poetry, however, have been increasing since the publication of Archipelago and The Redshifting Web. Almost all the reviews convey perceptive, insightful praise of Sze's multiplicity, innovativeness, and exquisitely beautiful language. These reviews generally discuss the richness of cross-cultural fertilization in Sze's poetry, which shows its indebtedness to and reinvention of traditions, particularly the traditions of Chinese poetry and philosophy. Even though substantial critical attention to Sze's translations is scant, critics unanimously regard Sze as a "superb," "talented" translator and recognize that the strengths of Sze's translations lie not only in his familiarity with Chinese poetic and intellectual traditions but also with his knowledge of how the sounds and written forms of the Chinese language work in constructing meaning and organizing experience. C. L. Rawlins, himself a poet who knows the Chinese language, observes in "Testing Traditions," a review of Archipelago in The Bloomsbury Review (July/August 1996), that the remarkable achievement of Sze's translations is a result of his knowledge of "the way in which ideograms clash and merge and aggregate to create meaning without the grammatical scaffolding of English." Moreover, Rawlins points out that Sze does not simply borrow from these and Western poetic traditions in his own poetry, but rather he "seems to be constantly testing the fit of the two great linguistic traditions." Like Rawlins, Barnstone asserts that Sze turns to the great masters of "the Chinese source" in search of an alternative to the aesthetics available in the English language. Sze's poetics, Barnstone observes, is Ezra Pound 's kind of "ideogrammatic method instead of Alexander Pope 's rhetoric of argumentation." What Barnstone finds most interesting about Sze's early poems in The Willow Wind and Two Ravens is that Sze blends Chinese and modernist techniques with "the archetypal imagery of Deep Image poetry," and the clear, familiar images in his poems edge into the surreal. Barnstone also relates Sze's early poems to the modernist modes of imagism, vorticism, and objectivism. Such identification of Sze's poetry in terms of European American poetic schools may "domesticate" the strange, as Barnstone notes, and this domestication can "discount the magic" of Sze's idiosyncratic poetry.

Of various comments on Sze's incorporation of his Chinese cultural heritage into his poetry, Jacqueline Osherow's in a review of The Redshifting Web for The Antioch Review (Winter 2000) are perhaps the most acute. While recognizing that Sze's "great strength and power" seem to come from his thorough absorption of "Eastern poetic traditions," Osherow contends that Sze's use of those traditions offers something different from what other American poets present. While the Eastern influence of American poetry is usually shown or understood as "imagism," in Sze's poems this influence is "present not just as a quality of perception, but of thought--made available to us in all its complexity through a precision of language so refined that it feels like marksmanship." In addition, Osherow, like most critics, notes the disparate elements in Sze's poems but goes further to examine the implications of "all kinds of gossamer connections" and the cognitive leaps resulting from experiencing "how the minutest realities hook up to the infinite" through "meticulous and surprising conjunctions and accumulation. . . ." In addition to these intricate connections among multiple and heterogeneous things in the world, what marks Sze's departure from imagist nature poetry is perhaps the refusal to reduce nature to objects of contemplation or representation.

Although some critics regard Sze's Archipelago as a natural extension of his early work and of the books of his middle period, Dazzled and River River, most consider Archipelago the "breakthrough" book of his career. Winner of two prestigious national book prizes, Archipelago has brought Sze broad public recognition and critical attention even though no substantial studies have been done on his poetry so far. Rather than focusing on Sze's innovative incorporation of Chinese traditions, critics have begun to emphasize the experimental aspects of his poetry. Barnstone, for instance, contends that Archipelago represents "a full commitment to an avant-garde intellectual poetics" and shows a movement away from his early imagist poems. Barnstone perceives an affinity between Sze's experimental poetry and the fragmented juxtapositions of contemporary Chinese poets of the "Misty" school. He also discerns connections of Sze's poetry with experimental Taiwanese poet Luo Fu and with the Language poets. In emphasizing the multiple and heterogeneous cultural attributes of Sze's poetry, critics seem to overlook the significance of Sze's treatment of nature. What is perceived as "culture" seems to be separate from nature, and nature appears to be peripheral while culture remains primary in most critical reviews of Sze's poetry.

Although some critics note the startling interlocking of nature and human beings in Sze's poems, they fail to allow nature to be an equal participant with human beings as it is in Sze's poetry. Gene Frumkin, for example, in "Seeing the Invisible," a review of Archipelago in Mânoa (November 1996), quotes from two of Sze's poems, "Rattlesnake Glyph" and "The Flower Path," to support his contention that "the ongoing processes of life engage Sze most seriously and more often in Archipelago," but he disregards the significance of nature in affirming the ongoing process of life, including human life. The intertwining of life force and desires in nature and human beings are embedded in these lines from "Rattlesnake Glyph": "At dawn the slashing sounds of rain turn out // to be wind in the palms. Waves are breaking white / on the reef. Soon turtles will arrive and lay // eggs in the sand. A line of leaf-cutting ants / are passing bits of shiny green leaves across a trail." A similar interlocking coexistence of nature and human beings is also present in "The Flower Path": "at night the belching sounds of frogs; in the morning you look in rice paddies and find only tadpoles; / you are walking down into a gorge along the river, / turn to find stone piled on stone offerings along the path. . . ." But Frumkin is more interested in the juxtaposition of variegated cultures in Sze's poetry. Nature appears in Frumkin's discussion of Sze's poems only peripherally and metaphorically for enhancing Sze's poetics: Sze "has the agility to leap from stone to stone while the river moves around him, and I see him laughing as he trades the phrase 'passion is original memory' for the solid earth he is aiming for, the moon and stars where they should be, the sun coming along--only to begin again the leaping from stone to stone, the river, as always, in motion."

Reviews of The Redshifting Web seem to have finally caught up with Sze's insistence on a participatory relationship between human beings and nature in his poetry. In his review of The Redshifting Web in the Chicago Review (April 2000), Eric P. Elshtain refers to Sze as "an ethnographer and naturalist" who uses random combinations of images to "make some sense of 'the most mysterious of all possible worlds.'" Elshtain offers a most significant observation of Sze's distinct representation of humans' relationship with nature and the world: "The patterns that we force out of phenomena are caught at the moment of raw ordering, and still retain the otherness of existing outside of ourselves. . . ." Elshtain's insight calls critical attention to Sze's foregrounding of the otherness of nature that is irreducible to human consciousness. At the same time, Elshtain contends that Sze's poems are characterized by "intellectual and emotional appeals to phenomena that privilege the observation and attention of a human participation in the world."

Other reviews of The Redshifting Web offer important insights into the interconnection of multitudinous phenomena and events, in which nature, human beings, and science and technology are at once connected and separate. John Bradley's review of Sze's book in Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics (April 1999) notes that "Sze's ability to express the shifting of that 'ever-shifting web' grows in both clarity and complexity" since his second book, River River. Bradley observes that the term redshifting web takes on new meanings with each new section of the title poem, "linking science and nature, objective and subjective, mind and imagination. . . ." The term redshifting, Bradley adds, is itself "evidence of Sze's sense of play and interconnection."

Critical reception of The Silk Dragon has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Critics and fellow poets consider the book a testimony to Sze's achievement as not only one of the best contemporary poets but also one of the greatest translators. Lynn Cline in The New Mexican (June 2001) applauds Sze's capacity to "transform the translation process into a kind of alchemy for his own poetry." On a similar note, Richard Simpson in a review for Tar River Poetry (Fall 2002) points out the movement of Sze's poems from "exquisitely brief, imagist evocations of dreamlike scenes to multisectional, pages-long, pictorial, turbulently intelligent meditations stemming partly from his early undergraduate work in physics at MIT. . . ." The multiple, diverse sources of influence on Sze's work render his nature poems difficult to associate with any single culture or poetic tradition. Still, readers and critics are deeply touched by the startling images of nature in Sze's translations. Arlice Davenport, in her perceptive review of The Silk Dragon for The Wichita Eagle (22 July 2001), says that "Rivers and moon, mountains and mist--all [are] natural objects quietly conspiring to fill your mind with beauty." She notes that after reading "a dozen of these poems . . . you'll start to notice a deeper meaning: a delicacy of feeling, an intensity of thought, a lyric strength in each short line. . . . These are riches here, pointing beyond the poems to something greater, to a power that passes through the world, binding the temporal to the eternal, soul to earth." It is precisely this sense of binding between human beings and nature by the cosmic force that characterizes Arthur Sze's poems, as these lines from Archipelago demonstrate: "the passions becoming the chiming sounds of jade-/ blue corn growing in a field of sand-/ the chug, chug, ka ka of a cactus wren-/ a black-and-yellow butterfly closing the opening its wings-/ egrets wading in shallow water at low tide."

WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • The Willow Wind (Berkeley, Cal.: Rainbow Zenith Press, 1972; Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Tooth of Time, 1981).
  • Two Ravens (Guadalupita, N.Mex.: Tooth of Time, 1976; Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Tooth of Time, 1984).
  • Dazzled (Point Reyes Station, Cal.: Floating Island, 1982).
  • River River (Providence, R.I.: Lost Roads, 1987).
  • Archipelago (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1995).
  • The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1998).
  • Quipu (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

OTHER

  • "The Silk Road," in Patterns/Contexts/Time: A Symposium on Contemporary Poetry, edited by Phillip Foss and Charles Berstein (Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Recursos de Santafe, 1990), pp. 224-225.
  • Eileen Tabios, ed., Black Lightning, introduction by Sze (New York: Asian Writers' Workshop, 1998).
  • The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2001).

SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS--UNCOLLECTED

  • "Through the Empty Door: Translating Chinese Poetry," Bloomsbury Review, 4 (September 1984): 15.
  • "The Wang River Sequence, A Prospectus," First Intensity: A Magazine of New Writing, 7 (Summer 1996): 156-161.
  • "The Writer Reads: Arthur Sze on Josephine Miles," Rain Taxi Review of Books, 4 (Spring 1999): 14-15.
  • "Arthur Sze Introduces Sherwin Bitsui," American Poet: Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Fall 1999): 20-21.
  • "Translating a Poem by Li Shang-yin," Minoa, 11 (October 1999): 116-120.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Interviews:

  • Eileen Tabios, "Arthur Sze: Mixing Memory and Desire," with a draft in progress of "Archipelago," in Black Lightning: Poetry-In-Progress (New York: Asian American Writers' Workshop, 1998), pp. 3-21.
  • Barbara Bogave, "Arthur Sze," Fresh Air, National Public Radio, 10 September 1998.
  • Doris Pai, "The Practice of Translating Poetry and Culture," F News Magazine Art Institute of Chicago, (1999): 11.
  • Amy Ling, "Arthur Sze: The Written Word," in Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), pp. 73-76.
  • Tony Barnstone, "Revelation Waiting to Happen: A Conversation with Arthur Sze on Translating Chinese Poetry," Translation Review, 59 (August 2000): 4-19.
  • Rebecca Seiferle, review of "The Silk Dragon" and an interview with Sze (August 2001) <http://www.thedrunkenboat.com> (accessed 24 August 2008).

References:

  • Xiaojing Zhou, "Intercultural Strategies in Asian American Poetry," in Re-placing America: Conversations and Contestations, Literary Studies East and West, volume 16, edited by Ruth Hsu, Cynthia Franklin, and Suzanne Kosanke (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press and the East-West Center, 2000), pp. 92-108.
  • Zhou,"'The Redshifting Web': Arthur's Sze's Ecopoetics," in Ecological Poetry: A Critical Introduction, edited by J. Scott Bryson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001), pp. 179-194.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200013631