The introduction Martyn Crucefix provides to his remarkably engaging new version of Laozi’s Daodejing is not only an introduction to the 6th Century mystic but also to the world of poetry. The opening sentence presents us with a story:
‘It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return.’
The dramatic immediacy of this opening draws the reader in: it has the quality of the story-teller of which Brecht (who wrote his own version of the story in 1938 in which the gatekeeper is presented as a Customs Officer) would have thoroughly approved.
‘He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, “Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.” The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.’
I am reminded immediately of that marvellous opening to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era where the American critic has given us a glimpse of a chance meeting in London between Henry James (clad in a red waistcoat) and a ‘quick jaunty’ Ezra Pound:
‘Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.’
The poems Crucefix offers his readers are a gateway into a new experience and moving forward from the third century scholar, Wang Bi, he recreates what he refers to in Laozi as ‘a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic’. He also refers to ‘a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet.
When Beckett was in close conversation with Georges Duhuit he contemplated the limitations of language for the literary artist in a manner that has become memorable. In reply to the artist’s question about what the dramatist would prefer to do as opposed to ‘going a little further along a dreary road’, Beckett replied:
‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’
Martyn Crucefix tells us of Laozi writing ‘a kind of poetry which ‘enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet’. As the commonplaces of human experience become ‘realistic emblems of man’s spiritual nature’ (Andrew Crozier writing about the poetry of John Riley) one is reminded of Bishop Grosseteste in Lincoln whose short treatise De Luce (‘On Light’) merged an Aristotelian terminology with a concern for matter as substance. The light of which Grosseteste wrote was not the ordinary physical light of everyday experience, but was a simple substance, almost spiritual in its properties. For Grosseteste light multiplies itself by its very nature: a pinpoint of beginning radiates outwards an infinite number of times and, rather like Crucefix’s comment about Laozi’s sense of the Dao, ‘the one precedes the many’.
– the art of knowledge consists
in adding day by day to your store
the art of the way consists
in subtraction day after day
subtract then again subtract
till you reach a point of stillness
since it is only through stillness
that all things are activated
in far off days those great ones
who influenced men and women
did not interfere—if they had
who would have followed them
This is an attractively produced book from Enitharmon and Martyn Crucefix has brought a high level of seriousness to bear upon the relationship between these ancient poems and the poetry of the now.
Ian Brinton 4th December 2016