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Sarah Howe

‘The primitive sap’: on Peter Larkin’s What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei



A new home not dying

like willows but like

older trees at a future.


Will my sadness never be sent

range, or put down a colour?


This rippling lifts blue

out of green, some things

do not reflect the woodman.


Hills echo and empty,

lightly come back into deep

wood. Brilliant greens follow

with no autumn resting place.




In the form in which Ezra Pound shaped it for publication in 1918, Ernest Fenollosa’s essay, ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry’, offers an account of Classical Chinese poetic language, but with a view to the lessons it could offer those writing modern poetry in English. Explaining how compound Chinese characters set ideograms side by side to convey abstract concepts – ‘“Boat” plus “water” = boat-water, a ripple’ or ‘the sign meaning “to be lost in the forest” relates to a state of non-existence’ – Fenollosa began by introducing Western readers to the iconic elements of the Chinese script. Behind individual words, the ‘original metaphors stand as a kind of luminous background, giving color and vitality, forcing them closer to the concreteness of natural processes’.[1] It is a telling aspect of Fenollosa’s project, involved as it was in holding one culture up to the mirror of another, that he reached throughout ‘The Chinese Written Character’ for analogies drawn from the natural world, but where the human instrumentalization of nature nevertheless lurks on the horizon:


Chinese written language has not only absorbed the poetic substance of nature and built with it a second world of metaphor, but has, through its very pictorial visibility, been able to retain its original creative poetry with far more vigor and vividness than any phonetic tongue. […] It retains the primitive sap, it is not cut and dried like a walking stick.[2]


The essay returns again and again to the metaphor of Chinese writing system as tree. For Fenollosa, the living histories of Chinese words are akin to a plant’s interconnected vital processes, from vein to stem to root: such characters are ‘full of the sap of nature’, because of the way their original metaphors remain visible in their ideographic elements. ‘The very soil of Chinese life seems entangled in the roots of its speech’, by contrast with the ‘forgotten fragments’ that make up the etymologies of Western languages, ‘embalmed in the dictionary’.[3] One recent commentator has perceptively observed that ‘Fenollosa’s priority in the essay is not Sinology, but a poetics of natural law.’[4]

More so even than Peter Larkin’s other poetic re-workings of prior texts, the poems of What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei (2004) retain a distinct character. And so it makes sense to think about them against a tradition of poetic experiment, after Pound, with ‘Chinoiserie’ translation into English. In the Gig pamphlet’s flyleaf, Larkin credits G.W. Robinson’s 1973 translation of Wang Wei’s Poems as the ‘source of this sequence’.[5] To produce Cathay (1915), Pound famously worked his way through Fenollosa’s notebooks, touching the Tang poets only via his English cribs, as filtered through the helpful Japanese scholar who had assisted Fenollosa’s efforts. Larkin likewise remains at arm’s length from Wang’s Chinese originals: Robinson’s Penguin paperback is his Fenollosa. This one stage of removal feels important: the poems are content – though content is not quite the word, as there is an almost ethical consideration at work – to skim across the ‘Surfaces’ (recall Larkin’s title) of Wang Wei’s poems. What if we continue to view Larkin’s manipulation of his source materials as a species of translation (from the Latin, translatus, ‘carried across’)? After all, his generative acts of selection and rearrangement only really come into relief when the poems are set alongside their ‘originals’. But if we are not dealing here with the turning of one language into another, what exactly is being carried across?

In an interview of 2006, Larkin spoke about the intertextual processes of ‘gathering’ and ‘tasking’ pre-existing materials that lie behind works including What the Surfaces Enclave: ‘Some of my texts were never conscious designs as such, but simply coalesced out of disparate or vagrant notes arising from reading something (and seeing new combinatorial patterns for the words on the page but which stayed within the horizon of the book)’.[6] Larkin’s ‘vagrant notes’ blur the distinction between reading and writing, figuring his poems’ engagement with their source in spatial terms, as a wandering or roving through a landscape. That redolent phrase, ‘vagrant notes’, carries with it the sense of a subject without fixed home or visible means of support (a note of Empsonian class consciousness within the pastoral?). It speaks to the weighing of rootedness against restlessness the comes through in the extract from What the Surfaces Enclave reproduced above, which begins with ‘A new home…’ and ends at ‘…no autumn resting place’. That last line, ‘with no autumn resting place’, marks the end of the poem’s second section, tilting it towards paradox – denying a space for rest, even as the poem’s travels draw to a temporary rest at the section break.

Drawing on the first of Wang Wei’s works in the Robinson edition, ‘The Wang River Sequence’, Larkin’s stanzas unsettle the distinctions between home and elsewhere, rest and departure. ‘The Wang River Sequence’ tracks the Chinese poet’s peregrinations through the ‘pleasant walks’ fringing his country retreat in the valley of the Wang River. They take the form of a series of quatrains each composed for a specific locale (‘Huatzu Hill’, ‘Bamboo Hill’, ‘Deer Park’), their titles marking the spots where the poet has paused to observe and write. The following is the first in the sequence, ‘Meng Wall Hollow’, which happens to be the source for the first of Larkin’s four stanzas:



New home near this Meng Wall

Old trees – some dying willows still –

And who will live here in the future

To grieve vainly for him that was here before?[7]



For Robinson’s received phrase ‘in the future’, Larkin offers us the more difficult ‘at a future’, discomforting, with the shift of preposition, our relationship to that projected time – namely, our spatialized notion of time as something we are immersed in. Similarly, that simple switch from definite to indefinite article – ‘the’ to ‘a’ – opens up the forking paths of infinite possible futures.

The notes in his edition might have encouraged Larkin to linger over those willows. From Robinson’s note to a later poem in the same sequence, we learn that in ancient China ‘It was customary to break off a piece of willow to give to a departing traveller.’[8] Because of the similarity of pronunciation between ‘willow’ (liǔ 柳) and ‘to leave’ ( 离), willow branches were traditionally symbolic of the sorrow of parting. Reading the ‘willows’ of Pound’s version of Li Bai’s poem, ‘The Beautiful Toilet’, J.H. Prynne has noted how ‘the subdued implication of distress in the western associations of the weeping willow’ is inevitably imported, along with the tree itself, into the poem in English.[9] Despite their air of solid familiarity, could those dying willows – like false friends – actually draw attention to our unconscious cultural mistranslations? As we encounter them in Larkin’s Wang Wei sequence, to what extent are these homely willows othered?

Running across the ‘not… / but’ syntax of Larkin’s first stanza are the two mirrored instances of ‘like’, standing sentry either side of its central line: ‘like willows but like’. If we allow ourselves to wander within the self-enclosed compass of that second line, there is a hint of two similes pointing inwards, towards one another – facing mirrors proliferating infinite reflections. This play of mirroring prepares for the third stanza, in which the water’s reflective surface comes to stand for the limen of intertextuality, the embrace of source and generated text:



This rippling lifts blue

out of green, some things

do not reflect the woodman.



If we compare Robinson’s original, ‘Tall bamboos reflected in the meandering water / So the rippling river drifts blue and green’, we can start to see how Larkin’s verb, ‘lifts’, likely arose through the rhyme with ‘drifts’ (via the drift of sonic association).[10] In this way, ‘lifts’ echoes a word on the other side, as it were, of the intertextual looking glass. By holding one up against the other, we can begin to see Larkin’s reworking of Wang Wei as a sort of selective mirroring – like the broken reflections that arise when a scene is caught in the rippling surface of water. The poems’ compositional method is not so much one of ‘excision’ or ‘erasure’ – both, of course, well-established avant garde procedures – as what we might call a ‘pleating’ or ‘interfolding’ of surfaces, whereby the ‘lost’ material remains present but enclosed within the rippling folds.

What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei’: how should we read the fact that the sequence’s titular ‘surfaces’ are plural? The difficulty of ‘enclave’ comes, in part, from the way it’s placed here as if to serve as a verb. From the French, enclaver, ‘to enclose, shut in’: the word opens up a pocket (of foreignness?) among and within the ‘surfaces’ it abuts. Let us turn once more to the suggestive terms of Larkin’s 2006 interview, when he described the sequence ‘seeing new combinatorial patterns for the words on the page but which stayed within the horizon of the book’. The Wang Wei poems could be viewed as staging a sophisticated interplay between ‘pattern’ and ‘horizon’ (the latter being a key word in Larkin’s poetic and philosophical vocabulary), a dialogue between surface and depth. We might recall that Wang Wei was equally celebrated in the Chinese tradition as both a poet and a painter – that many of his poems would originally have been situated within painted landscape compositions, which only survive in copies of copies. We might set the flatness of traditional Chinese painting, with its emphasis on pattern and passages of empty space, against the Western device of perspectival depth, an alien import first brought by Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century China. In Larkin’s second stanza, ‘put down a colour’ suggests a brush laying down a wash, turning ‘sadness’ by implication into a painter. That phrase, ‘put down’, is especially noteworthy because it has no precedent in the Wang Wei source poem, but is Larkin’s introduction: under the pressure of its more usual associations, we might even hear the ghost of ‘put down roots’ in our mind’s ear.

Another deliberate mishearing sits at the heart of Larkin’s final stanza. ‘Hills echo and empty, / lightly come back into deep / wood’ compresses three lines from one of Wang Wei’s best-known poems, titled ‘Deer Park’ in Robinson’s translation:



Hills empty, no one to be seen

We only hear voices echoed –

With light coming back into the deep wood

The top of the green moss is lit again.[11]



The noun ‘light’, returning to Wang’s dark woods, is transformed in Larkin’s poem into the adverb ‘lightly’, as though scrambled down the Chinese-whispers line. With this wry but delicate gesture, Larkin could well be toying with the sorts of basic misconstruals of his Chinese originals that Sinologists have sometimes accused Pound of committing in Cathay. On the other hand, a competing tribe of experts has demonstrated that Pound, despite knowing no Chinese at the time, intuitively corrected several errors in the Fenollosa manuscript.[12] Larkin’s poem leaves us with the intriguing impression that ‘light’, in the sense of ‘illumination’, might take an adverbial form.

Larkin’s project in the Wang Wei sequence is not concerned with translation per se, but the fact remains that many of his poems, with their resistant and discontinuous surfaces, are arguably closer to the spirit of Wang Wei than Robinson’s versions. In the absence of human subjects, agency is conferred in Larkin’s version upon the landscape itself: the ‘Hills’ and the ‘Brilliant greens’ serve as the stanza’s grammatical subjects. Thanks to this omission of personal pronouns, Larkin’s poem actually approximates much more closely the effect of the original Chinese, whose lack of a first person subject (along with other characteristics of Classical Chinese such as the tenseless nature of its verbs) has presented a particular challenge to Western translators. ‘By eliminating the controlling individual mind of the poet,’ Eliot Weinberger remarks of Wang Wei’s poem, ‘the experience becomes both universal and immediate to the reader’ – an account that is equally applicable to Larkin’s version and its effects.[13]



[1] Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, ed. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling and Lucas Klein (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 46; p. 49; pp. 54-55.

[2] Fenollosa, Chinese Written Character, p. 51.

[3] Ibid., p. 51; pp. 54-55.

[4] Joshua Kotin, ‘Blood-Stained Battle-Flags: Ezra Pound, J.H. Prynne, and Classical Chinese Poetry,’ News from Afar: Ezra Pound and Contemporary British Poetry, ed. Richard Parker (Bristol: Shearsman, 2014), pp. 133-141.

[5] Peter Larkin, What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei (Willowdale, ON: The Gig, 2004).

[6] Edmund Hardy, ‘Less than, more at: an interview with Peter Larkin’, Intercapillary Space (2006),

[7] Wang Wei: Poems, trans. by G.W. Robinson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 27.

[8] Ibid., p. 32.

[9] J.H. Prynne, ‘China Figures’ (Review of New Songs from a Jade Terrace: An Anthology of Early Chinese Love Poetry, trans. Anne Birrell [George Allen & Unwin: London, 1982]), Modern Asian Studies, 17 (1983), 671-688 (p. 676). Cf. Joshua Kotin commenting on the same Pound translation in Cathday: ‘For readers in the West, the dead metaphor of “weeping willow” is an inevitable, if unintended, part of the poem’s meaning. “Willow” recalls “weeping” and by means of pathetic fallacy characterizes the mistress’ lament. The process is metonymic and anachronistic. The effect is unavailable in the original Chinese and likely anathema to Pound. Yet it impacts our reading – as a node of significance or an object of suppression or both’ (‘Blood-Stained Battle-Flags’, p. 139).

[10] Wang Wei: Poems, p. 28.

[11] Ibid., p. 28.

[12] See Eliot Weinberger, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (London: Asphodel Press, 1987), p. 9.

[13] Ibid., p. 7. Weinberger goes on to discuss Robinson’s translation of the same poem in scathing terms: ‘In this poem Robinson not only creates a narrator, he makes it a group, as though it were a family outing’ (Ibid., p. 29).