To make his speaking beautiful
THERE he is in our home movies. Pan Xiaoming. He is walking up the 392 steps of the Sun Yat-sen Monument in Nanking. A strand of dark hair falls across his forehead in the breeze and the sunshine. When the camera moves to a back view, you can almost read the Bloomingdale's label on his jeans. What is he smiling and talking about? Perhaps the facts and figures he has to offer as a student guide accompanying a senior guide on our tour of his city.Skip to next paragraph
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But off camera I met a different Pan, as we were encouraged to call him. I don't know how the subject of Robert Frost came up as we strolled between the massive stone animals standing like friendly sentinels on the path to a Ming tomb. But suddenly Pan was saying, ``Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...''
And I was saying, ``Whose woods these are I think I know./ His house is in the village...''
And Pan was adding ``though'' to complete the rhyme.
I can imagine Frost, the old Drumlin woodchuck, peering from that ``crevice and burrow'' about which he has been ``so instinctively thorough.'' What would he have thought of his lines being traded by new acquaintances so far from Vermont and New Hampshire?
Even the wary Frost might thaw a little to hear a young Chinese say he was reading poetry to make his speaking beautiful. And to hear this same young Chinese recall Frost's line about the figure a poem makes: ``It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.''
Pan Xiaoming. As he translated his name, it was itself a kind of poetry -- ``birds in the morning.'' We loved his parents for that.
I loved him also when he said he liked puns in addition to poetry. Knowing no shame, I told him about the street musician on Broadway being asked by a tourist how to get to Carnegie Hall: ``Practice, practice, practice.'' When Pan exclaimed, ``Broadway!'' I felt like a hit.
Fortunately most of our conversation was on a higher plane. Pan quoted Edgar Allan Poe: ``It was many and many a year ago,/ In a kingdom by the sea...'' Walt Whitman: ``I celebrate myself...'' Emily Dickinson: ``I'm nobody...''
So far we were among the giants, the same poets Pan would have found taught in an American university. Then he mentioned a newspaper poet from the first half of this century who was known more to the public than to the classroom. Edgar A. Guest. Everybody has heard some misquoted version of Guest's most famous line: ``It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home.'' Not everyone remembers he was ahead of his time with lines against war and capital punishment, along with his cozy family scenes and bits of philosophy.
Pan showed me a lovely orange book with Chinese paintings reproduced among its lined pages. In it he had written a number of Guest's poems. Opposite a painting of two birds was a poem with the line: ``The birds are homing.''
Pan spoke of enjoying the tran-quillity, the serenity of Guest's poems. I wondered if their English came across to a Chinese student of English with some of the simplicity of traditional Chinese poetry.
I kept asking Pan about Chinese poets whose names I vaguely knew, such as Li Po and Tu Fu. At a museum Pan whispered in my ear: ``That's Li Po.'' There was a portrait of Li Po among items from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Tu Fu also wrote. Pan translated a couple of Li Po's lines: ``Water in the Yellow River comes from the sky./ It empties into the sea and never comes back.'' They had the same feeling as lines from Li Po I had in a book at home: ``Then the lutes were played, and coiling away and away/ The tune fell earthward, dropping from the gray clouds.''
Eddie Guest was never like this, one would have to say. Yet, because Pan likes Guest, I look up a book of Guest's when we get back to the United States. I find it in this newspaper's library, with a former editor's name stamped in gold on the cover. There is a typical lesson for us all in ``Copy Paper'': ``I start the day with paper white,/ And put it in my old machine,/ And wonder whether, as I write/ The night will find my copy clean.'' But, in another poem, Pan's beloved poet describes just what Pan has given us: ``memories of tomorrow,'' such as ``smile of friend we meet today.''