Poetry News

Anthony Madrid Reads the Shijing

By Harriet Staff

At the Paris Review, Anthony Madrid reflects on the similarities between the poems in the oldest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Shijing, and folk songs. "The poems date back to the Zhou dynasty, which fell apart in the year 256 B.C.E. They are not the oldest poems in the world, but they are old, old. Most of them—and definitely the ones that everybody loves and quotes—sound like the lyrics to folk songs." Let's pick up with Madrid from there: 

My paddle keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing

Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

That is not a poem from the Shijing. That is a chant the kids did, in canoes, during camping, when my friend Michael Robbins was a ten-year-old nature boy in Colorado (during the Zhou dynasty). I cite it because it is exactly, and I mean exactly, like the poems in the Shijing. Here’s one. Judge for yourself:

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t hack it—
Lord Shao camped there.

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t harm it—
Lord Shao stopped there.

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t fell it—
Lord Shao rested there.

You’ve probably actually heard of the Shijing, just not under that name. In English, it is usually called The Book of Odes or The Book of Songs or The Confucian Odes or that sort of thing. I’m not fond of any of those Englishings; I think it should be translated literally: The Poetry Classic

Read more at the Paris Review.

Originally Published: October 12th, 2017