Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

The Story of How One Thing Leads To Another

August 28, 2016

“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
    The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
    I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
    And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”

A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad.  It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one.  The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care.  The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.

That person never saw the bowl, however.  It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung.  This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China.  That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.

Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued.  Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only.  Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp.  Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out.  So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route.  Then came tea.  China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically.  Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention.  A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark.  Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.

The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares.  Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color.  Changsha’s potters were ignored.  They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’  Location is everything.

Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted.  Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links.  Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.

Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity.  But Arabs loved it.  Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded.  Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.

This story has many spin-offs.  We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.

The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot.  These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China.  One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…

Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.

To be continued…

Readings
Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

Advertisements

The Noble Art of Pottery

July 20, 2014

(I’m trying to take a summer break from this stuff in order to get caught up on other work.  Here’s something to pass the time.)

Poets across time have recognized pottery as a metaphor for the great cycle of life.  It’s easy to see why.  Our pots spring from the same earth that they, and ultimately we, return. 

Unfortunately, the cycle of life can look very different to potters facing upcoming bill cycles, yet another pulled muscle in the lower back, or endlessly cyclical glaze problems.  Metaphors aren’t much help in these cases. 

Still, we can take some pride in what our efforts have inspired in others.  The Persian mathematician Omar Kayyám (1048 – 1123) penned a particularly timeless musing.  His collection of Sufi mystic poetry known as “The Rubaiyat” includes the “Kúza-náma,” or “Book of Pots.”  The Kúza-náma was written – and translated – with agendas far beyond a simple pot shop visit.  And wonderfully so.  But even at face value it’s a nice little mis-en-scene:

Listen again one evening at the close
Of Ramazán ere the better moon arose,
In that old Potters Shop I stood alone
With the clay population round in rows.

And, strange to tell, among that earthen lot
Some could articulate, while others not
And suddenly one more impatient cried –
"Who is the potter, pray, and Who the pot?"

Then said another – "Surely not in vain
My substance from the common earth was ta’en
That he who subtly wrought me into shape
Should stamp me back into common Earth again."

Another said – "Why, ne’er a peevish Boy,
Would break the bowl from which he drank in Joy.
Shall He that made the vessel in pure Love
And fancy, in an after rage destroy?"

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly make
"They sneer at me for learning all awry
What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?"

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
to grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Reading:

The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam.  Edward Fitzgerald.  Dover Thrift Editions/NY.  2011.