Poetic Angst over Time and Tense

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Over at the Poetry Foundation's blog, poet D. A. Powell comments about time in Mandarin:

DA Powell:  Every sentence written in English contains some anxiety about time. I’d love to write a poem that was Time-Free. Is that possible?

ME [Rachel Zucker]: Why? Is this particular to English?

DA: I don’t think English is necessarily the only language in which time is embedded in the verbs. But I know that in Mandarin it’s easy to make a sentence that doesn’t tell you at what time things happened. And I wish that were possible in English. A sentence in English begins and ends; it has direction; it carries you, relentlessly, toward a period, a place of death. It’s why I avoided sentences for so long in my poems–because I didn’t want to feel like I was living out a sentence.

Almost boastingly, Chinese language teachers used to tell us hapless learners of Mandarin that "Chinese has no tense."  Similarly, our professors of Chinese culture used to proudly inform us that "China has no religion, only philosophy."  Thankfully, nowadays no teacher worth their salt would make such outlandish claims.

If a Chinese speaker wants to be clear about when something happened, happens, or will happen, there are plenty of resources in the language for doing so.  If, on the other hand, he wishes to be vague about time and tense, that is possible as well.  As to whether it is easier for a Chinese poet to be vague about time and tense than it is for a poet writing in English, I leave that to Language Log readers to wrangle over.

First, however, here is one of my favorite Chinese poems (by Ma Zhiyuan [1250?-1323?]):

"Tiān jìng shā · qiūsī” Mǎ Zhìyuǎn

天淨沙·秋思》馬致遠

Kū téng lǎo shù hūn yā
枯藤老樹昏鴉

Xiǎo qiáo liúshuǐ rénjiā
小橋流水人家

Gǔdào xīfēng shòu mǎ
古道西風瘦馬

Xīyáng xī xià
夕陽西下

Duàncháng rén zài tiānyá
斷腸人在天涯.

And this is my English translation:

Tune:  "Heaven-Cleansed Sands"
Autumn Thoughts

Withered wisteria, old tree, darkling crows –
Little bridge over flowing water by someone's house –
Emaciated horse on an ancient road in the western wind –
Evening sun setting in the west –
Broken-hearted man on the horizon.

Does the English translation fail to convey the timelessness of the Chinese original?  When I read this poem — whether in Chinese or in English — I often think of the images as existing in an eternal present.

[A tip of the hat to Joanna Reisberg]

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33 Comments »

  1. army1987 said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    That English translation contains no finite verb, so if by sentence Powell means ‘a main clause (or coordination of main clauses) along with all its (their) subordinates’ (and, given that he says “I avoided sentences for so long in my poems”, I don't think he means ‘a piece of text starting with a capital letter and ending with a full stop/question mark/exclamation mark’), his point still holds.

  2. DaveK said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    Yes, it does convey the timelessness (nice translation, by the way) but only by use of the same technique that Powell says he uses–avoiding verbs and writing in sentence fragments. I can't think of any way to compose a complete sentence in English without the verb revealing something about time, but, hey, it's still early.

  3. Luis said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    In contraposition to Tiān jìng shā · qiūsī, we have Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías ("Crying for I.S.M.", Federico García Lorca, 1935), where the phrase a las cinco de la tarde ("at 5pm") is repeated 30 times. You can hardly get more obsessive than this about anchoring the poem at a specific temporal point, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the most dramatic pieces of poetry ever written in Spanish.

  4. Craig Russell said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    What about these sentences:

    Every sentence written in English contains some anxiety about time. I’d love to write a poem that was Time-Free. Is that possible?

    Other than the fact that it is the topic which they discuss, these sentences don't seem to me to be "anxious" about time (a strange expression which, from the context, seems to mean "forced to be specific about time.") The first and the third sentence are in the so-called "simple present" tense, and express general facts or truths without reference to any specific past, present, or future time. The second sentence's "I'd love" is equally complex: it both suggests that this desire is something the speaker feels at the moment he is speaking, characterizes this as a general, habitual desire of his, and posits a hypothetical future in which he is able to write a different kind of sentence.

    Powell's movement from saying, "The English tense system forces the speaker to be specific about time" to "writing a sentence forces you to delineate your thoughts in such a way that they have a beginning and ending" seems like a non sequitur to me. I assume that Chinese structures thoughts into sentences with concrete grammatical structures much as English does? I know next to nothing about Chinese, so maybe I'm wrong on this point. But it doesn't seem to flow obviously from a discussion of tense.

  5. Xmun said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    "Water boils at 100° Celsius." That's a timeless sentence. The names of our English tenses (present, past) are very misleading.

  6. Josh Bowles said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    It would be interesting to see what kinds of angst english speaking poets might find in languages whose evidentiality systems are tightly integrated with aspect. Before I left academia and started working as a software developer my main interest was in arguing that evidentiality was in fact a universal feature integrated with Tense or Aspect or Modality or through a number of combinations. This should give poets more "angst" over reaching a timelessness because evidentiality superimposes some kind of Point of View, which inherits naturally from Time/Tense ("I see Jon wash his car", vs. "I see that Jon washes his car" requires a first-hand visual account in the first case, whereas the second case can be inferred from visual confirmation of simply seeing a clean car).
    The notion of English forcing a "beginning" and "ending" of sentence seems to me more than just an English Tense requirement, but instead a possible requirement for the universality of Evidentiality requirements on statements or propositions. That is, a universal requirement that propositions (at least) be contextualized.

    Context is a human-specific sense, and one we can't seem to escape, even E.E. Cummings can't seem to escape context (nor do religious texts seem to be able to escape it). Language, arguably, is embedded in human experience, which itself cannot escape context.

    There is no Sapir-Whorfian justification here (that different language allow you to experience time differently), but instead, the variable ways different languages organize context yields a multitude of temporal nuances… given what appear to be some basic parameters in the design/emergence of human language in general.

    Lastly, not using verbs still won't get you there. Complicated nominal classification systems sometimes imply or inherit from temporal classifications, say, for example, honorific systems at least imply temporal reference for point of view between two speakers. I'm not familiar enough with Mandarin noun-classification or evidentiality, but I would guess that you could find a sino-tibetan linguist who would argue that although Tense may not always be explicit, it can be implicit through complicated interplay between various linguistic structures.

  7. Jens Fiederer said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    @army1987 – I also thought the poem acted almost as a proof of the contested statement.

    Xmun has a point, but that sort of sentence is not very flexible….once you add any detail to it ("Water boils at 100° Celsius in my battered tin kettle.") the present is drawn in.

  8. John Roth said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    I had to look up an example of his poetry (callas lover) to see what he was talking about. I suspect that, like a lot of writers, he's a bit vague on the details of formal grammar.

    Yes, it's quite possible to write sentences without reference to time using the simple present, and most especially with copular verbs. I suspect that if I had to do it for 100 sentences in a row, and communicate something interesting that would engage the reader, I'd be tempted to throw my laptop through the wall.

  9. chin yi young said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    這個討論, 很有意思, 謝謝分享。

  10. Chandra said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    Oh, to find a way to free our language from tenses; if only it were possible!

  11. Benjamin Slade said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    It seems to be a question of morphology — there is a formal morphological requirement in English that finite verbs have to bear tense. But that doesn't mean that "timeless" propositions can't be expressed: e.g. "Cork floats", "Curiosity killed the cat", "Boys will be boys" (formally present, past, future).

    There are languages which do allow for a morphological encoding of "timelessness", e.g. Homeric Greek and Vedic Sanskrit have "augmentless aorists" which often (though not always) are used in "gnomic" ("timeless") contexts.

  12. C Thornett said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Your translation of that lovely poem conveys an timeless present to me also. There may be poets who can convey their sense of language accurately in terms of formal grammar or linguistic analysis, but it is not something that we should perhaps expect. I always feel surprised and grateful when an artist is also able to discuss or explain his/her work in a clear and articulate manner. This is a bonus.

  13. Janice Byer said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    After the chrysanthemums

    Beside the daikon

    There is nothing.

    Translated from Japanese, the above is by Matsuo Basho (c.e. 1644-94). Our topic brought haiku to mind, because of its tradition of obligating the first line to limit the time frame – by convention to a season – ideally through oblique reference.

  14. Tyrone Slothrop said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    Not that it matters (since Sapir and Whorf are better as strawmen it appears), but, here is what Sapir was talking about:

    "No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached

    The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of a community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by their overtones…"

    The example he gives, as many have noted (see Paul Friedrich and now John Leavitt) for the social quality of languages is poetry. Most poets that I have talked to would agree with Sapir's uncontroversial claim.

  15. Ø said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    I believe Powell is punning on two senses of "tense" (as well as punning on two senses of "sentence").

  16. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Tribute to Po Chu-i (772 – 846)

    Banished from the imperial gardens of Chang'an
    Governor of the mountain province writing poetry
    Peasants carry firewood and rice into his yard
    The bridge across the yawning chasm offers a walk
    A torrent rages underneath hurtling toward the valley
    The friends from long past years and places faraway
    (with apologies, and too many verbs)

  17. Martin J Ball said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 4:45 pm


    difficult to see how he's punning on the word 'tense' as he doesn't even use it either in the quote above or the slightly fuller version on the Poetry foundation blog… !

  18. Leonardo Boiko said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

    In genre theory that “timeless present” is considered a main mark of the lyrical mode. And lyric poetry has long existed in lots of languages in which verbs conjugate for time.

  19. Ø said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    @Martin: Good point.

  20. Matt said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    I'll play Devil's Advocate here a bit. Dr Mair's translation is full of bits and pieces that place various parts of the poem at different points on the timeline and don't correspond to any lexical items in the original.

    - 枯藤 = "withered wisteria" — the withering took place in the past relative to the "now" of the poem
    - 流水 = "flowing water" — "-ing", explicit marking for progression of action
    - 夕陽西下, 斷腸人在天涯. = "Evening sun setting in the west – Broken-hearted man on the horizon" — implies that the man's being-on-the-horizon is coordinated with the setting of the sun

    It's possible to rewrite the translation to some extent to avoid this. (Forgive me if my rephrasing strays too far from what the characters allow — I know this sort of Chinese mostly through Japanese, and not directly. Also, obviously, I make no claims that this is a better translation rather than an example contrived for the sake of argument.)

    Dry wisteria, old tree, darkling crows -
    Little bridge, water flows, someone's house -
    Ancient road, western wind, bony horse -
    Evening sun sets in west -
    Woeful man on the horizon.

    I think this comes closer to the sort of ambiguity that Powell might have heard about — it seems to me that the implication that all of these images are existing in "an eternal present" has been replaced with the implication that each image exists in its own "eternal present."

    To remove the Devil's Advocate hat for a minute, the obvious counterargument to this is that even though there are no lexical items explicitly corresponding to Dr Mair's "-ings" or structuring of the second line, those meanings are nevertheless unambiguously there, encoded in sentence structure or understood in some other way. If this is the case, then it is misleading to translate the poem as if they were not — that my kaleidoscopic version disorients the English-speaking reader far more than the original does a Chinese-speaking reader, and Dr Mair's version therefore does a better job of conveying the poetry (if you will) of the original. (I strongly suspect that this is the case, to be honest.)

  21. The Ridger said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    I am reminded of the recent Dinosaur Comics in which T-Rex muses on the fact that "In English, we can't talk about an event without revealing when it took place." He notes that in ASL he could talk about eating chocolates without saying when, and adds that if he were speaking Russian, he'd "have to include both when the eating happened AND if there were any chocolates left afterwards! Russian speakers want to know if there's any chocolates left for them SO badly that they make it obligatory when expressing a thought!" His friend Dromiceiomimus responds with "Russian speakers: MAYBE the best?" (which is why the cartoon's up on the wall at work.)

  22. Ray Girvan said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    Every sentence written in English contains some anxiety about time.

    This thread gives more analysis to this piece of artwang than it deserves.

  23. KevinM said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    Oh, stop complaining. Imagine if he'd said that the Chinese have no word for "time."

  24. chris said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    It's possible to rewrite the translation to some extent to avoid this.

    But not completely: you still have an *old* tree, an *ancient* road and an *evening* sun. And the sun sets and water flows in the present tense.

    The poem isn't timeless in the sense of not referring to time, it's timeless in the sense that the events described are all so common they could reoccur at any time. Well, the horse might be uncommon these days, but the ancient poet could hardly be expected to anticipate that.

    Also, IMO, the verbal juxtaposition of the different elements implies that they compose a scene, even though it isn't stated. The reader would be familiar with the fact that crows roost in trees, bridges are often built along roads, and people may become maudlin at sunset.

  25. cameron said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    After reading this post and the comments I now have the Captain Beefheart song "The Past Sure Is Tense" running through my head. This is not a song with anything like a catchy melody, so it's a quite unlikely candidate as an earworm.

    I found your print in my mind -
    the past sure is tense
    the pastsureistense
    no you got the wrong idea
    no you got the wrong intent
    the carpenter carpenterized my vent
    the only peephole
    where is my dent
    the past sure is tense
    the past sure is tense
    the past sure is
    now I don't see how
    see those people that used to
    throw those tents
    you can't see them now
    they're in past tense
    the past sure is tense

  26. VMartin said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    I wonder what Powwell means by "time is embedded in the verbs" especially in English.
    Consider sententences:
    "I worked."
    "I have worked."
    "I work".
    "I will work".

    Now the future and the present are distinguished by auxiliary, time is not embedded in the verb itself, which is obviously the same.

    "I worked" is distingished by small suffix -ed. This is smaller change in the structure of the verb than we can see in Slavonic languages or Latin. I would say that in Latin or Slavonic languages the verb undergoes much greater change regarding conjugation.
    "I went – I go – I will go "
    "Išiel som – Idem – Pôjdem" Slovak
    "Ibam – Eo – Ibo" Latin

  27. KWillets said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    Hψ=Eψ

  28. Sage said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels experiment with tense-less writing, painting richly detailed pictures almost as still-lives, and it's largely left to the reader to piece together the plot in time, where one might exist.

  29. bloix said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    "time is embedded in the verbs" means you can't use a verb in a sentence without putting it in a tense. Apparently you can in Chinese, which leads to translations using present participles without auxiliaries.

    I've been working on the railroad – correct.
    I – working on the railroad – incorrect.

  30. Smith said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    An interesting discussion of the timelessness that is surely present in much poetry, not only Chinese, and I look forward to much learned debate on the correct conceptual parsing of "timelessness" itself. My quibble is elsewhere. Like Dr. Mair, I have always loved this poem and I appreciate his translation. I have never read 天涯 as "horizon", however, but rather as something like "the ends of the earth", and the 斷腸人 as the self-referencing poet, in lonely exile on some far frontier.

    Withered vines, crows among old trees at twilight
    And water flowing under the little bridge by that house there.
    The old road is given over to the west wind and skinny horses while
    Westward more, the sun sinks and sets.
    And here am I
    Gutted
    At the ends of the earth.

  31. Dave said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    A great Eng Lit lecturer of mine, who used linguistics-type techniques to illuminate literary texts, talked about the use of finite and non-finite verbs in this context. As an exercise, he once made us rewrite what is possibly the most famous passage in the canon – Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' solilioquy – but using only finite verbs. So 'To be or not to be?' becomes, say, 'Should I exist or shouldn't I exist?', or 'Is existence good or isn't it?'

    It seems to me that this is a neat way of demonstrating one way in which English can express a certain timeless quality…

  32. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    "To be or not to be" isn't timeless. It's distinct from "to have been or not to have been".

  33. Bessel Dekker said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    Arguably, timelessness does not exist, though confusion about time reference does. In Chinese (which I now nothing about) this appears to be the case. Indonesian is another example: the finite verb does not indicate time, and it is left to adjucts or to the context to indicate time. Obviously, these are optional.

    Some ambiguity is possible in English as, well, of course. "I put my hat upon my head". It is past in
    "I put my hat upon my head
    and walked into the Strand
    and there I met another man
    whose hat was in his hand" (Dr Johnson?).
    It refers to general time in
    "I put my hat upon my head whenever I go out in the rain."
    Just as I would regard this latter example as referring to general time, I would argue that "Water boils at 100 degrees" is not timeless. After all, we may ask: "When?" and the answer would be "Always" (which is not quite true, but the point is that it follows from the sentence, which is not quite true either). Since "always" is an adverb of time, time is indicated in the sentence, but it is general time, not specific time.

    Of course, it is easy to write a poem with no finite verbs, though few would equal Williams'
    "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet black bough."

    Likewise, it is not surprising that "To be or not to be" might appear to be timeless, but that would be because it is only a partial quotation of "To be or not to be, that is the question". Which "is", in itself, might also be argued to be ambiguous: is it the question now, for Hamlet, or is it a fundamental human question — is it present time or indefinite time?

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