Lu Ji was a prolific writer in early China (261-303) whose best known work is The Art of Writing (originally Wen Fu, also translated as Essay on Literature), an essay of literary criticism composed of both poetry and prose.
But calling it literary criticism doesn’t do it justice. It’s a collection of eleven poems on what it means to write, to read, and to put your faith in the power of the written word, whether by long-gone ancestors or future generations.
Lu writes in the preface: “Through my own efforts I know how hard it is to write, since I always worry that my ideas fail to express their subject and my words are even further removed from their insufficient ideas. The problem is easy to understand; the solution is more difficult.” I don’t think Lu finds the solution (has anyone?), but he faces the difficulty and seeks out answers in these eleven poems.
In “The Impulse,” reading the classics inspires the poet to write. It begins with a beautiful description of the poet’s position:
A poet stands between heaven and earth
And watches the dark mystery.
And continues with the source of his inspiration:
I roam the classics through a forest of treasures
And love their elegant balance of style and substance.
Inspired, I lay down the book I was reading
And let words pour out from my brush.
A wonderfully metaphysical description of what it’s like to write something that feels as though it’s been waiting for you to find the words:
Sometimes words come hard, they resist me
till I pluck them from deep water like hooked fish;
sometimes they are birds soaring out of a cloud
that fall right into place, shot with arrows,
and I harvest lines neglected for a hundred generations,
rhymes underheard for a thousand years.
I won’t touch a flower already in morning bloom
but quicken the unopened evening buds.
In a blink I see today and the past,
put out my hand and touch all the seas.
On continuing to work at it even when you may not feel like you’re making progress:
Some words belong together
and other don’t join, like jagged teeth,
but when you’re clear and calm
your spirit finds true words.
With heaven and earth contained in your head
Nothing escapes the pen in your hand.
It’s hard to get started at first,
painful like talking with cracked lips,
but words will flow with ink in the end.
The Joy of Words
On the beauty of being able to create something from nothing:
A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.
You can read the whole of “The Joy of Words” on Instagram here.
The poem “Inspiration” is about the “traffic laws on writing’s path,” describing what it is like to be possessed with the urge to write and the knowledge, for once, of what to write about:
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back:
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush,
that colors brim out of your eyes
and music echoes in your ears.
Lu describes that dreaded condition as when “the will travels but the spirit stays put.” His solution?
You must excavate your own soul,
search yourself until your spirit is refreshed.
It’s not so easy, however:
The mind gets darker and darker
and you must pull ideas like silk from their cocoon.
But perhaps the work will pay off:
Sometimes you labor hard and build regrets
then dash off a flawless gem.
That impossible flawless gem! But the appearance of the gem, never mind the defeat of writer’s block, is inexplicable:
Though this thing comes out of me,
I can’t master it with strength.
I often stroke my empty chest and sigh:
what blocks and what opens this road?
The Power of a Poem
In the last poem of the essay, Lu takes the long view, looking behind him at the work of his ancestors and looking ahead to the work of those who were and are still to come, and showing his faith in what literature can accomplish.
The function of literature is
to express the nature of nature.
It can’t be barred as it travels space
and boats across one hundred million years.
Gazing to the fore, I leave models for people to come;
looking aft, I learn from my ancestors.
It can save teetering governments and weak armies;
it gives voice to the dying wind of human virtue.
No matter how far, this road will take you there;
it will express the subtlest point.
It waters the heart like clouds and rain,
and shifts form like a changeable spirit.
Inscribed on metal and stone, it spreads virtue.
Flowing with pipes and strings, each day the poem is new.
The editors of The Anchor Book note how complex the work is to translate and how many multiple meanings are possible in each line, such that the notes on the translation would far exceed the length of the piece itself.
Yet the essence of the work shines through in its multiple translations. Although written some seventeen hundred years ago, The Art of Writing still speaks to us today. The joy and pain, the dullness and ecstasy of writing haven’t changed, not across centuries or cultures.