One of my favorite radio events each day is The Writers Almanac, with its beautiful theme music, its rundown of writers’ birthdays, and Garrison Keillor’s mellifluous reading of a poem (and my thanks to WAMC for running it twice every morning, doubling my chances of catching it). Today’s poem was “Writing,” by Howard Nemerov, which begins:

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice…

I was enjoying it, even if I didn’t feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, when a reference caught my ear:

…The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger’s to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the ‘Slender Gold.’

Who was this emperor Hui Tsung? Being the type who can’t simply accept such things as part of the poetic tapestry, I went to my reference books and discovered an unhappy tale. Hui Tsung, or Huizong as he is known in this pinyincentric world, should never have been an emperor. I’ll let the Columbia Encyclopedia tell the tale:

Politically he was a rather ineffectual ruler, but he was said to have devoted all his spare time to painting and to the reorganization of the Imperial Academy of Painting. Through his encouragement, art collecting came into vogue during his reign. The emperor himself was an accomplished artist, specializing in delicately colored bird-and-flower paintings. There are also many such paintings by others that have his seals and signatures—affixed by the emperor to signify his approval of the work of artists who laboriously copied his own paintings. Most of these works show intimate, detailed studies of nature, executed in a refined, sensitive, and meticulous manner. He abdicated in 1125 when his attempts to buy off the advancing Jurchens failed. In 1126 the Northern Sung capital at Kaifeng was overrun by the Jurchens, and he was captured together with the new emperor and taken to Manchuria, where he died in captivity.

I opened Pound’s Cantos, as I often do when I’m investigating Chinese history, to see what that mad magpie might have had to say about the matter in the Chinese cantos; in this case there was only the disappointing half-line “HOEÏ went taozer.” But this was shortly followed by the pleasing passage

…The tartar lord
      wanted an alphabet
by name Akouta, ordered a written tongue for Kin tartars

—which brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the topic of writing.
(For “Akouta” see the Wikipedia entry on the Jin (Chin) Dynasty, whose first ruler, Jin Taizu, had the given name of Aguda.)


  1. The writer’s almanac was a very happy find for me in Houston one very jetlagged morning shortly after I arrived. I don’t always catch it but it’s a good reason to be in my car going to work at 8:34 am (or still in bed…) They don’t play it in Boston as far as I know.

  2. The good news is that they do play it in Boston: on WUMB-FM (91.9). The bad news is that it’s on at 6:20 AM. But you can hear it on the website I linked in the entry, any time you like!

  3. Huizong’s calligraphy is well worth looking up. His style is distinctive and unique. I am by no means an expert in calligraphy, but “Slender Gold” really leaps off the page. You can’t really miss it.
    Pound’s Sinology is, as I remember, is heavily reliant in a History of China by the XVIIIc Jesuit missionary Joseph Marie Anne de Moyriac de Mailla, which in turn was heavily reliant on Ssu-ma Kuang’s synoptic history with its notable Confucian slant. So (how do I say this) after passing through these three filters Pound’s version is very highly colored.

  4. I chanced on The Writer’s Almanac in Indianapolis in January — so intriguing that I sat in the car and listened to the end. None of the public radio stations in the Chicago area play it, it seems, but as you say, there’s always the web site.

  5. Did you know Howard Nemerov was the brother of Diane Arbus the photographer so visual imagery is not surprising.

  6. xiaolongnu says

    In Huizong’s defense, he never expected to become emperor and therefore didn’t bother to train up for it. He was born ELEVENTH in line for the throne, which even by twelfth-century standards of infant mortality is a pretty fair margin of safety.

  7. Yikes. I did not know that. Reminds me of Ramses the Great, who quite unexpectedly lived into his 90s and had twelve heirs apparent die on him.

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