Speculative Web Space

Literature and writing workshops provided by Hunter Writers Centre



Art of Writing Around the Globe

Provided by Hunter Writers Centre. Presented by Bill Pascoe

What limits are there to what we can write? What we read influences what we think writing can be. Reading stories as strange, profound, funny and diverse as the billions of people who live and have lived on Earth can open our eyes to new possibilities in writing. Discuss texts from across history and around the world and their literary traditions:

Sometimes people say translation, especially of poetry, is impossible and that we can never be sure each others understanding is the same. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It only means translation and understanding is only ever partial and a matter of more or less – not that it is impossible.

If we understood each other completely, there would be no need for language.

If it were impossible to understand each other there would be no need for language.

There is language because we don’t understand each other but it is possible to understand each other better.

Understanding is not absolute. The problems we encounter with translation highlight something which is true of all language but which we don’t notice when speaking with someone familiar to us – someone in the same language, from a similar culture, a close friend – we understand each other well, and our language flows without question, it is only rarely we misunderstand and require further explanation.

With similar experiences, meaning is clearer, more is mutually understood already, so less explanation required. (#Motoori Norinaga)

This becomes an important point for poetics though – because many theories of literature note that the technique is to use unusual, difficult, or non-normal, not automatic, not every day language, in order to focus people’s minds on the event that’s being described and on the aesthetics of language itself.

A deep aware cannot be satisfied by ordinary language... A deep feeling that cannot be fully expressed by ordinary language, no matter how detailed the description might be, is fully exposed in its depth by the words and the voice's patterns when poetic language is employed and a poem is sung...

Moreover, I must also say that, when it becomes difficult to fully articulate aware once one is overwhelmed by it, as I mentioned above, and to express one's feelings, one talks about them by entrusting them to the sound of the wind and the cry of insects caressing the ear; or, one singls his feelings in a song by comparing them to the fragrance of the cherry blossoms and the color of the snow pleasing the eye. This is what the line in the preface to the Kokinshu, "People express what they think in their hearts by entrusting their feelings to what they see and what they hear," means. Mono no aware, which is difficult to show and cannot be fully articulated in words by saying things just as they are, is easily revealed, even when it concerns the deepest feelings, once it is expressed with the help of metaphors taken from the realm of things seen and heard. - Motori Norinaga, On Mono No Aware (1730-1801)

“The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way;” - Wordsworth, Preface To Lyrical Ballads (1800)

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it [4] -hence we cannot say anything, significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways. Here I want to illustrate a way used repeatedly by Leo Tolstoy, that writer who, for Merezhkovsky at least, seems to present things as if he himself saw them, saw them in their entirety, and did not alter them…

Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects. For example, in "Shame" Tolstoy "defamiliarizes" the idea of flogging in this way: "to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and "to rap on their bottoms with switches," and, after a few lines, "to lash about on the naked buttocks."

The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature. Tolstoy uses this technique of "defamiliarization" ['ostranenie'], constantly.

- Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ (1917)

Translation then can be seen as a supreme act of reading/writing.

Among the main problems of translation are the many different connotations that even a single word may have. Eg: ‘heimat’, ‘sympatico’. Or on the other hand which of all the available words should we use to translate ‘snow’ into Inuit? There is no one to one correspondance. Devices depending on sound can be difficult such as puns and lyricism.

Also, meaning depends on context and our cultural differences produce different meanings. Eg: the east African expression ‘Nobody loves you more than Aunty.’ sounds strange to Westerners where the convention or trope is that nobody loves you more than your mother.

The more you understand, the more it makes sense. Heidegger describes acquisition of new meeaning as a 'hermeneutic circle' not as a logical causation and inferences but as set of relationships and associations which determine meaning. We relate strange new things to our already existing circle of understanding, which consequently expands as new things are added. The more associations made the more 'sense' or 'meaning' those things gain. In my experience the growth of meaning across culture seems exponential as you are able to relate more and more things to each other.

The more we understand of the context the better our ability to translate and understand becomes. So then we will look a bit at history and literary tradition of these works.

In this regard also, it’s worth noting that the context we read something in is always different – when you read it, when I read it, and when I read it at a different time.

Just as an example, here's an illustration of the many ways a single poem can be translated and the different nuances that come through

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei






empty mountain, no-one seen

echoing of some voice

reflecting in the deep wood

sunshine on dappled moss


All alone on an empty mountain.

A stranger's voice echoing far away.

A ray of light in the deep wood.

Shifting shadows on the sunlit moss.


Wandering mountain paths

along forgotten conversations

deeper among the wooded shades

where sunlight touches moss in darkness.


empty mountain, unseen

echoing voices

deep wood, sunshine

shading moss

Or many versions of the following poem by Du Fu here:


Du Fu











chūn wàng


guó pò shān hé zài

chéng chūn cǎo mù shēn

gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi

hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn

fēng huǒ lián sān yuè

jiā shū dǐ wàn jīn

bái tóu sāo gèng duǎn

hún yù bù shēng zān


Empire falls, mountain and river remains

Spring grass grows thick in city streets

The times bloom tears

Sorry, startled birds fly

The warning fires have burned three months running

A family letter is worth a full inheritance

Not much white hair left

Can't even support a hairpin.

Russian Folk Tales

Bilibin's illustration of Russian folk taleVasilisa The Beautiful. Note Baba Yaga's hut stands on chicken legs

In Relation to Russian Lit:

Folk Tales

Pushkin, 1799-1837

Turgenev (mentions nihilism), 1818-1883

Dostoevsky, 1821-1881

Tolstoy, 1828-1910

Bulgakov 1891-1940

Nabakov 1899-1977

Gogol's (1819–1898) Situation in Russian History:

Peter the Great founded empire introduced Western customs, taxed beards, reduced feudal lords, beat Ottoman Empire, Poles and the Swedes. Won Azov, founded St Petersburg (access to the sea north and south).

Catherine the Great, a German princess, furthering enlightenment and imperial expansion.

At the time of 'The Nose':

Nicholas I (1825–1855), Decembrist Revolt (December 1825) liberal ideas from Napoleanic wars vs. reactionary autocratic nationalism. Gogol satirises both. Military focus, parades, etc. Really a corrupt sham.

1840s and early 1850s Tsar Nicholas I oppressed writers, including arrests and imprisonment. Thousands of Russian intellectuals emigrated to Europe.

In 1849, seminal anarchist Bakunin participated in the May Uprising. Was imprisoned in Siberia but escaped and Marx expelled him and other anarchists from the First International in 1872.

In the 1860s 'nihilism' grew in popularity among students. The term was first used by Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons, 1862. Nihilists held that there is no ultimate meaning in life, especially the meanings and values upheld by church and state. The only meaning is what can be found in living in the present. It was associated with anarchism. In tandem with increasing government oppression of radical ideas it lead to terrorist actions against state institutions, such as assassinating Alexander II, intended both to directly attack and disrupt state institutions, and to disrupt peoples' dependence on the state, so they too would live more in the moment and master their own destinies.

Despite Gogol being admired by political radicals he professed being a 'Slavophile'. This was a pro-government nationalistic movement against radical new ideas.

The famous Letter to Gogol, 1847 became a secret text among nihilists and anarchists. Eg: members of the Petrashevsky Circle were denounced to Liprandi. Dostoevsky, with friends in the circle, was accused of reading works by Belinsky, including the banned Letter to Gogol.

A Few Notes

Gogol plays with 'poshlost' moral and spiritual "triviality, banality, inferiority", moral and spiritual, widespread in some group or society

Reaction against German and other non Russian influences, such as Romanticism. His humour flies in the face of contemporary serious German movements.

How well does Russian translate:

“H'm! What a strange name. And this Mr Nose has stolen from you a considerable sum?”

"Hmm! what a strange name! And did this Mr Nosov rob you of a big sum?"

In Gogol's essay 'A Few Words About Pushkin' he mentions "extracting the extraordinary from the ordinary" Narrator addressing the reader directly - the 4th wall. Strong character development Contrast in relation to police between the barber and the Kovaloff Development of comic situation Nose and pride - the nose becomes ranked higher than the man himself, he barely dare speak to it. Complete impossibility of imagination - hard to even draw or imagine a nose dressed and walking. Breaking literary convention, and imagining complete impossibility, especially mockingly is political. A tension between this, social critique as in The Overcoat, and a loving attention to Russian characters, eg in Dead Souls. Ultimately no rational explanation.

In Russian: http://public-library.ru/Gogol.Nikolai/nos.html

Influence on Absurdism

Happy Days:

Beckett, Not I:

Bulgakov, Heart Of A Dog

Kafka, Metamorphosis:

Duchamp (DADA), detail from The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors

Hausmann, ABCD


Song Dynasty China, 1132: Li Qingzhao, Preface to Records of Metal and Stone


During the Song dynasty, Li Qingzhao, was born into a wealthy and highly literate family with their own library. In present Shandong province in the north east. Her mother was a poet. At 17 she married Zhao Mingcheng a student and also a lover of literature. As can be seen from the text, this was a happy and loving marriage. Her poems often mention being drunk, in love while having a delicate, nuanced and sensitive touch, sometimes on melancholy themes – in a Western context it might be seen as a gentile bohemian lifestyle. Li Qingzhao is a celebrated poet in the Chinese tradition, a master of cí style which became popular in the Song dynasty. This style of poetry moves away from traditional syllabic form and is written specifically for particular conventional songs – its form matches the requirements of the song. What this music sounded like is no longer known and we only have the written lyrics.

Her husband was an avid collector of poetry and texts, often taking rubbings. Making rubbings of texts inscribed in metal and stone, such as at temples, was a popular hobby among Song dynasty literati. They were made by using fine paper and pressing it gently into the hollow spaces, then carefully inking the whole sheet, resulting in white lettering on a dark background.

In 1126 and 1127 Jin Tartars (a confederation of tribes based in the region now known as Manchuria) captured the capital Kaifeng and killed the emperor. In the Jin-Song wars the fighting came to the province of Shandong and her and her husband became refugees in Nanjing for a year. Her husband was called to official duty and died while away. She settled in the new southern capital of the Song, Hangzhou. At some point she remarried unhappily. Her husband’s collection of rubbings was published after his death but is now lost. Only Li Qingzhao’s preface remains.

Translations of Li Qingzhao's poetry are easy to find on the internet. Here is a complete works.

A Brief History of Chinese Literary Periods

Chinese literature is dominated by poetry, but there are also 4 cannonical classics of prose.

None of Wang Wei's ink work survives but his style was widely emulated, eg: Dong Qichang. 1621-24:

Wang Shimin, Qing dynasty:

Anon, attributed to Wang Wei, but painted 16th C:

It's worth bearing in mind that this is a cursory summary of thousands of years, and each epoche includes many many poets each with their own unique style agreeing with or reacting against the dominate forms of the time, notwithstanding a general tendency to adhere conventional than Western traditions that valorise innovation and individual genius.

Here's just a few well known idiosyncratic figures in Chinese literature:

Tao Chien (356-427AD)

Bucolic poet, Tao Chien grew up in a small village and when he passed his exams went to the nearest town to work in a minor official position. He didn't last a year in his job before returning home, preferring the poor country life. He didn't go anywhere.

Reading the Classic of Hills and Seas

In the summer: grass and trees have grown.

Over my roof the branches meet.

Birds settle in the leaves.

I enjoy this humble place.

Ploughing’s done, the ground is sown,

Time to sit and read a book.

The narrow deeply-rutted lane

Means my friends forget to call.

Content, I pour the new Spring wine,

Go out and gather food I’ve grown.

A light rain from the East,

Blows in on a pleasant breeze.

I read the story of King Mu,

See pictures of the Hills and Seas.

One glance finds all of heaven and earth.

What pleasures can compare with these?

Meng Chiao (751–814AD) was part of the late Tang 'old style' movement which added innovations to poetic forms preceding the 'new style' exemplified by Li Po and Du Fu. The 'new style' had more rigorous formal structures, so the old style allowed for this greater experimentation in length, style and subject matter. Meng Ciao developed a style that would be called 'Gothic' in Western terms but it's a very particular style of Gothic, that is cold and brittle. As is often the case with European Gothic, this style was regarded as 'over the top' in it's excessive and exagerrated emotion.

Sadness of the Gorges - Meng Chiao

Above the gorges, one thread of sky:

Cascades in the gorges twine a thousand cords.

High up, the slant of splintered sunlight, moonlight:

Beneath, curbs to the wild heave of the waves.

The shock of a gleam, and then another,

In depths of shadow frozen for centuries:

The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon;

Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.

Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins

And the twisted skeletons hang titled upright:

Branches weep as the frost perches

Mournful cadences, remote and clear.

A spurned exile's shrivelled guts

Scald and seethe in the water and fire he walks through.

A lifetime's like a fine-spun thread,

The road goes up by the rope at the edge.

When he pours his libation of tears to the ghosts in the stream

The ghosts gather, a shimmer on the waves.

- Meng Chiao, in Poems Of The Late Tang (trans: A.C. Graham)

Han Shan (c.800AD)

Han Shan (Cold Mountain_) is an ironic misanthropic Buddhist monk. He lived on a mountain writing graffiti on trees and temples. A travelling official recognised his genius and collected as much of his work as he could. He's well known in the west, through beat poet Gary Snyder's translation.

Here we waste away, poor scholars,

Beaten by cold and hunger,

Out of work, our only pleasure poetry,

Scratch, scratch, we wear out our minds.

Who'd read stuff from people like us?

Don't waste your breath asking.

If we wrote our words on dog biscuits

even strays wouldn't bother biting.

- Hanshan (Cold Mountain), ca.600-800AD

Prose Canon

Calligraphy and Rubbings

What is writing? With Western phonetic alphabets, especially after printing, are understood to represent sounds and writing is meant only as a symbolic representation of the words conveyed. Calligraphy and typology may sometimes signify the author, or elevate the text in someway. In Chinese writing, before print, the expressiveness of calligraphy plays a much more central role. Characters are notionally understood to be in some way a picture of what the word refers to. The act of writing, is meant to embody, not only the author's 'signature' style, but the spirit of what they are talking about, or the 'qi' of that moment, when the writer is mindful of what they are writing about, without internal and external distinction. The mood can be read in the gesture that the brushstroke remains a lasting manifestation of - just as we might read and angry or delicate mood in the brushstrokes of a painting (Note how American abstract expressionists like Pollock and Kline abstract the expressive gesture of calligraphy away from writing). Western arts tend to draw sharp distinctions between categories, but in the Chinese tradition, writing and drawing are often on the same page. Note also that painting sometimes appears on long scrolls that the eye takes wanders through, as if we are reading them. Wang Wei is known for bringing these two arts of the brush together, as Su Shi says: "In every poem a painting. In every painting a poem."

examples of calligraphy

Huaisu (懷素, 737–799)

Zhao Ji - Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, 1082–1135)

Wang Xianzhi (王獻之)

Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361)

Franz Kline, New York:

Pollock, Blue Poles:


Wood block printing became common in the Song dynasty, and movable type was invented - though not as useful with so many character's as it was for small alphabets in Europe. For Song scholars, taking 'rubbing's of inscriptions, almost a kind of 'printing', was a popular hobby. Sometimes inscriptions were carved versions of the finest examples of calligraphy. It is a collection of her husband's rubbings that Li Qingzhao's text is a preface to.

Song Dynasty ink rubbing

A SONG DYNASTY (11TH-13TH CENTURY) INK RUBBING Wang Xizhi's(321-379) Lan Ting Xu Colophons inscribed by:Song Ke(1327-1387),Zeng Xi(1861-1930) dated yimao year(1915), with two seals


Chinese literature is often strongly influenced by philosophy and religion. Philosophical writing is one of the main genre's in Chinese letters. Again there are countless philosophers and philosophies but the main sustained ones are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Coming from India, after a long history and some repression in the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was well established in the Song dynasty, in which Li Qingzhao wrote. Her writing makes many allusions to Buddhism and can be considered an allegory of Buddhist thought. Taoism, indigenous to China, has some similarity to Buddhism such as the Buddhist preoccupation with impermanence and the Taoist theme of change. Other key Buddhist texts are the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching is the most famous Taoist work.

Some excerpts from The Dhammapada, a core text of Buddhism said to the be the direct teaching of Buddha himself, and featuring the most widely known Buddhist principle of 'life is suffering, suffering is desire, desire is illusion':

81. As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, wise people falter not amidst blame and praise.

82. Wise people, after they have listened to the laws, become serene, like a deep, smooth, and still lake.

83. Good people walk on whatever befall, the good do not prattle, longing for pleasure; whether touched by happiness or sorrow wise people never appear elated or depressed.

84. If, whether for his own sake, or for the sake of others, a man wishes neither for a son, nor for wealth, nor for lordship, and if he does not wish for his own success by unfair means, then he is good, wise, and virtuous.

89. Those whose mind is well grounded in the (seven) elements of knowledge, who without clinging to anything, rejoice in freedom from attachment, whose appetites have been conquered, and who are full of light, are free (even) in this world.

186. There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise;

187. Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires.

188. Men, driven by fear, go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to groves and sacred trees.

189. But that is not a safe refuge, that is not the best refuge; a man is not delivered from all pains after having gone to that refuge.

190. He who takes refuge with Buddha, the Law, and the Church; he who, with clear understanding, sees the four holy truths:—

191. Viz. pain, the origin of pain, the destruction of pain, and the eightfold holy way that leads to the quieting of pain;—

192. That is the safe refuge, that is the best refuge; having gone to that refuge, a man is delivered from all pain.

277. `All created things perish,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way to purity.

278. `All created things are grief and pain,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.

279. `All forms are unreal,' he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.

348. Give up what is before, give up what is behind, give up what is in the middle, when thou goest to the other shore of existence; if thy mind is altogether free, thou wilt not again enter into birth and decay.

Dhammapada, Buddha


From Tao Te Ching

So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.



At the British Museum