A Fortnighty Review of
By Richard Berengarten
with a preface by Edward L. Shaughnessy
By PAUL SCOTT DERRICK.
RICHARD BERENGARTEN HAS written a big book. Changing is physically big; at 563 pages, it contains 450 poems, a preface by the sinologist Edward L. Shaughnessy of the University of Chicago, one of the leading authorities on the I Ching outside of China, a postscript by the author and a 31-page section of Berengarten’s notes on the poems. In addition, the book is gracefully illustrated with the calligraphy of Yu Mingquan, Professor of Calligraphy at Shandong University of Art and Design in China.
But Changing is big in many other ways. This book is a poet’s record, in poetry, of a decades-long encounter with the Chinese Book of Changes. Berengarten tells us in his postscript that he first came across the I Ching in 1962, at the age of nineteen, and that the earliest poem in Changing was written on August 30, 1984. That’s a long time to be brooding over, dwelling on and gradually composing a single book of poems. But I think it’s safe to say that all of Berengarten’s books have grown out of a patient, reflective, cognitive and fertile waiting. That first poem was the beginning of an unexpected process of creative self-discovery. The final result has slowly grown, evolving in the poet’s mind for over thirty years.
Any living being is a multitude of things that all work together to make up one much bigger thing. And Changing is too. Maybe the best way to begin to attempt to describe those ‘things’ that work together to make this book is with Berengarten’s statement at the beginning of his postscript. Changing, he says, is based on the Book of Changes and is
intended in part as an act of homage to this ancient text. But while many of its parts are rooted in the I Ching […] and while its overall concept, plan, structure and themes have been configured through the I Ching, Changing is not a translation or a commentary. My hope is that this book will be read first and foremost as a poem, or gathering of poems, in its own right and for its own sake.
As those who have learned to cast its hexagrams know, in the West the I Ching is not usually read from beginning to end, but more commonly consulted as an oracle. In China, however, by 136 BC, the book had assumed the status of a Confucian ‘classic’, containing profound wisdom, which philosophers of every school since then have studied in succeeding generations. Rather than simply ‘use’ the book for divination, scholars have attempted to interpret it as a systematic compendium of all possible situations that one might meet in life. Based on this view of the universal applicability of the Book of Changes, they have repeatedly examined and discussed its overall content, its deeper meanings and its structural permutations. Berengarten’s Changing reflects and embodies both approaches to the I Ching: that of the ‘philosophical enquirer’ and that of the diviner.
FOR THE PURPOSE of divination, interaction with the book consists, first of all, in formulating a serious question as precisely as possible. (The I Ching has no tolerance for nonsense and will respond in kind to frivolities or facetiousness.) Through an aleatory process – manipulating forty-nine yarrow stalks in a complicated set of numerical operations or tossing three coins – you come up with a combination of six yang (––) and/or yin (– –) lines. Vertically arranged from the bottom up, this series of lines corresponds with one of the book’s sixty-four hexagrams. All of the hexagrams are accompanied by images (associated with the ideograms that originally named them), themes and interpretations provided by anonymous commentators that accumulated around them during centuries – and continue to accumulate and grow in modern studies of the book. These images, themes and interpretations make up the oracle’s answer to your question.
More often than not, the I Ching’s answers seem uncannily pertinent to what you’ve asked. The debate as to how, or even whether, divination with the I Ching ‘works’ is still an open one. For example, in a prefatory essay to his own translation, John Blofeld imbues the book with a quasi-human ‘personality’, as if it were a kind of psychopomp, mentor, counsellor, or even therapist.1 And in fact it’s hard, when using the book, not to feel that you’re dealing with some sort of sentient being. Thinking from a different direction, Carl Gustav Jung, in his Foreword to the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, claims that the book’s functioning vindicates his theory of synchronicity: ‘[…] whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with the latter in quality no less than in time. […] the hexagram was understood to be an indicator of the essential situation prevailing in the moment of its origin’.2 Building on both of these approaches, I’d propose that the source of the uncanny feeling the book conveys lies in the observing mind. As Jung goes on to say, ‘the only criterion of the validity of synchronicity is the observer’s opinion that the text of the hexagram amounts to a true rendering of his psychic condition’. And this seems to me to be the key. The book’s ambiguous images and suggestive, open-ended messages leave enough leeway for the user – or diviner – to find an incalculable number of significances. Somewhere in that rich field of cognitive possibilities, there is a meaning that can be relevant to any particular query.
If the Book of Changes is successful as an oracle it’s because, in consulting it, we’re really consulting ourselves. In making sense of its messages as they relate to the specific questions posed, we are delving into our own minds and learning who and what we are. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s description of the delight of making poetry, the Book of Changes helps us remember things we didn’t know we knew. So, instead of an oracle, it may be more accurate to think of it as an ancient self-help tool, or even better, a kindly, patient guide toward self-knowledge. Or wisdom.
ALL SERIOUS ART, like all serious thought, is a kind of duet, a music of call and response. Changing is the result of an expanding and deepening encounter with a centuries-old consciousness-guide. Berengarten has been talking with the I Ching, studying it, reflecting on its responses, and answering in poems. This way of using the mind is what Martin Heidegger described as ein andenkendes Denken, a thinking that listens, recalls and responds, the purest form of receptive reflection. In this sense Changing is part of a deep conversation. Most of us only ask the I Ching for answers, but Berengarten answers back.
His answer-poems are more than a reflection on the book that inspired them; they also visually reflect it. Every poem, with the exception of two finely-crafted villanelles, consists of eighteen lines, divided into six three-line stanzas. Each poem, therefore, re-enacts the six-line structure of a hexagram. But throughout the I Ching each line has its own interpretations, so Berengarten has written a six-stanza poem for each line in every hexagram, plus another for each hexagram’s title. This is how he describes the book’s structure in the postscript:
At the macro-level, the book consists of sixty-four clusters of poems, each re-presenting a hexagram. Each cluster begins with an italicised ‘head-poem’, which is related thematically to its corresponding hexagram title and statement in the I Ching; and each of these is followed by six further numbered poems corresponding structurally (and often, though not always, thematically) to the hexagram’s six change-lines. In this way, each of the I Ching’s hexagrams yields a cluster of seven poems, arranged hierarchically and in a sequence that follows that of the ‘received’ (standard) version. Together with two additional poems for the I Ching’s extra line-readings in the first two hexagrams, the number of poems in the book is (64 x 7) + 2 = 450.
Structural and formal control have always been essential for Berengarten. This is one of the many qualities that make him such a fascinating contemporary poet. The examples are diverse. He employs the verset, or verse paragraph, in his book-length narrative poem, The Manager (2001). He designs a book that can be read both backwards and forwards (although it’s hard to know which is which) in Book with No Back Cover (2003). He organises The Blue Butterfly (2006), his breathtaking exploration of the Kragujevac massacre during World War II, into seven sections consisting of seven poems each. And all of the 100 poems in Manual (2014) consist of two five-line stanzas, representing two hands and their fingers.
Because of his eclecticism and radical originality, Berengarten has never been easy to classify. He has not limited himself to a single poetic style. He has not limited himself to the English-language tradition in poetry. And he has not limited himself to any movement, group or school. This independence has been at least partially responsible for the less than abundant critical response to his work over the five decades since the publication of his first book, The Easter Rising 1967 (1969). He is, in more ways than one, a poetic ‘Other’. But he takes his existential task as a poet seriously, looking much more toward the future impact of his poems than the present state of his reputation.
From this perspective, Changing can be read as a culmination of Berengarten’s career. His vision of the world is holistic, as is the vision of the world on which the I Ching is founded. Everything meshes seamlessly together – including thought and words – into an organic continuum. As the final poem of the book, ‘Brightness diffusing’, says: ‘Instress, pattern, glory. / It all coheres, no question / as do these notes of mine’.3 Changing will take its place in history as a poetic continuation, or extension, of the Book of Changes, which itself grew around its core images over centuries into its present extended form. In making this book, Berengarten adds one more chapter to the ongoing life of the I Ching.
A MUSIC OF CALL and response. I said at the beginning of this review that Changing is a poet’s conversation with a unique book, but now I’d like to change my terms. It might be more consonant to think of it as a continuing reverberation. Recalling Bashō’s famous haiku, the Book of Changes is like that frog that plops into the quiet pond and opens the poet’s eyes and mind. In this case the I Ching resounds in Berengarten’s mind and sends out poems that will reverberate through time.
And what poems they are. Berengarten has reached the point where his mastery of language seems effortless. These poems bubble up like water from a well and elegantly flow through their six three-line stanzas, expressing a range of subject matter that encompasses almost all of human experience.
Berengarten says that he’d prefer this collection be read as one long poem. And because it reflects on and extends another complexly interwoven book, it can be. But it seems more accurate to me to read it as a series of 64 verse suites. Each gathering of seven poems is an expression of the contents of each hexagram, and each of these suites is related in the general sense that the hexagrams are.
FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE, the Book of Changes becomes a lens through which Berengarten looks at, thinks about and expresses his particular world. The poems range from more or less direct readings of the lines to glimpses of personal experience to philosophical ruminations to historical anecdotes to wry, and often humorous observations on human character types and behaviour to reflections on the writing of the language being written. The key for each poem is given in a ‘base-line’ which, Berengarten says, ‘is both an integral part of the text and serves as a gloss on it. Most (though not all) of the base-lines connect the poem directly to the I Ching’.
By way of example, here is one of the wittier poems of Changing:
5. Letter from Court
Our Empress has taken an even
younger lover. She found her last
locked in a lady-in-waiting’s arms.
Graciously she dismissed both from
court, with settlements typical of her
generosity. Her new beau, a Hussar,
is possessed of excellent saddle-
skills and evidently endowed with
promise. Vetted by her Majesty’s
most seasoned aide (Mistress-of-
the-Chamber), he is said to be not
wanting in enthusiasm or talent.
So, Emilia, dearest cousin, although
past childbearing, our Empress truly
blossoms. Shuvalov says this year’s
harvest will yield a bumper crop.
I trust you are practising your divine
spinet. My greetings to your Father.
a withered willow——–puts out yellow blossoms
It isn’t necessary to know the specific historical context of this poem to be able to appreciate the speaker’s clever indirection and tongue-in-cheek ironic tone, reminiscent of the tone of many of Browning’s dramatic monologues. But the note identifies the Shuvalov in line 15 as Count Andrey Petrovich Shuvalov, Chamberlain to the Empress Catherine II of Russia, and with that information the larger sense of the poem opens out. Add in the images provided in the base-line and the poem expands even more. It traces its own provenance. We can see how it reflects on line number 5 of hexagram 28, whose title Berengarten renders as ‘Overbrimming’.4
Every poem in Changing is a commentary on or a personal interpretation of a line of a hexagram. The initial reading for this line, as given in the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, is:
Nine in the fifth place means:
A withered poplar puts forth flowers.
An older woman takes a husband.
No blame. No praise.
As in the whole book, this initial reading is followed by various commentaries in different sections of the book on how it might be interpreted. Even more, many of the seven-poem suites that make up Changing can be read as unified sequences. One example is the group for Hexagram 29, ‘Falling (in a pit)’. Berengarten’s note identifies the unifying thread: ‘Homage to the three brothers, Ali, Bayazid and Midhat Bourequat. Based on the documentary film On the Dignity of the Human Soul: Ali Bourequat and his imprisonment in Tazmamart, directed by Ingela Romare (Malmö, 1996)’. The story told here, with simple, self-assured strokes, is a poignant one of human endurance and an aptly-chosen reflection of the I Ching’s ‘judgement’ on the general sense of the hexagram, which reads in the Wilhem/Baynes translation in part as follows:
Through repetition of danger we grow accustomed to it. Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances.5 It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. […] In danger all that counts is really carrying out all that has to be done – thoroughness – and going forward, in order not to perish through tarrying in the danger […].
Another example is the suite for Hexagram 48, ‘Welling, Replenishing’. Its Chinese name, 井 (jing), means ‘well’, and Berengarten interprets this as an image of the I Ching itself: a bottomless source of spiritual and creative nourishment. All of the poems in this group resonate directly with the Book of Changes’ voice; Number 4 is entitled ‘I Ching’:
Fifty years my
solid yet flowing
firm yet yielding
ever-fresh well –
in plumbing you
in this here now.
BERENGARTEN’S BOOK RINGS its own personal set of changes on the Book of Changes. He has constructed a brilliantly complex poetic sequence – or sequence of sequences – that grows out of the wisdom of the Chinese past, implicit in the structures and images of the Chinese language, and will extend its subtle tentacles of words into the minds of future readers. This is how he expresses the intention and function of this culminating work in the head-poem of Hexagram 21 (‘Biting through’):
Lean and strong
Lean and strong
poems, is how I want
you now, the way
you have to be. There’s
nothing else for it. You
have to stand up
against Death and
in the face of Death
You have told me,
Throw away your
craft, your tricks,
your techniques, all
you have learned. I am
following your directions
so when Death blows or
calls me or anyone out, you
will pass, last, endure.
As I read through Changing I noted down those poems that struck me most deeply. The list extended to around fifty. But I suspect that when I read it again, the list will be different, and probably longer. This very big book contains a panoramic set of sketches of life-situations: of birth and death; of childhood and old age; of ancestry and kinship; of love, marriage and divorce; of city and country; of tragedy, comedy and farce; of the turnings of fortune’s wheel; of personal, political and economic oppression, upheaval, struggle, revolution, sacrifice and liberation; of war and peace. Berengarten is in dialogue not only with the content and structure of the individual hexagrams, but also with the overall content of the Book of Changes, and with its elegant mathematical structure – based on the interestingly symmetrical number 64 (which can also be expressed as 26, 43, and 82). It’s going to take a lot of serious readers a very long time to fully assimilate and comprehend everything Richard Berengarten has accomplished in Changing. But for now, we early readers can permit ourselves the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional charms of its 450 delicate, life-affirming poems.
Paul Scott Derrick is a Senior Lecturer in American literature at the Universitat de València in Spain. He is co-editor, with Norman Jope and Catherine E. Byfield, of The Companion to Richard Berengarten (UK) (Shearsman, 2016) and, with Viorica Patea, co-translator of Ana Blandiana’s My Native Land A4 (UK) (Bloodaxe, 2014). His critical essays, translations and poems have appeared in many print and electronic journals in Europe and the U.S.
- John Blofeld, I Ching, The Book of Changes: a New Translation of the Ancient Chinese Text with Detailed Instructions for Its Practical Use in Divination. New York: Penguin Compass, 1965; pp 25-32. ↩
- The I Ching or Book of Changes, The Richard Wilhelm Translation rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes. 1950. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1950; p. xxiv. ↩
- Which, in its turn, is a response to Ezra Pound’s lines from Canto CXVI: ‘I cannot make it cohere’ and ‘it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere’. ↩
- All of the hexagram titles in Changing are Berengarten’s own versions. He explains that ‘In every case, I’ve chosen my own title after comparing at least five translations. And every one of my titles involves the English “-ing” form, as does the title of the book itself – because this form can be a noun, verb (gerund), adjective, and participle of a verb – and sometimes even an adverb. This “-ing” ending is intended to re-enact and at least give the flavour of the ability of Chinese words to shift quickly and easily across what to us are usually well-demarcated grammatical borders.’ (personal correspondence) ↩
- The title for this hexagram in the Wilhelm/Baynes translation is ‘The Abysmal (water)’. ↩