Classical Chinese poetry

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Attributed to Han Gan, Huiyebai (Night-Shining White Steed), about 750 CE (Tang Dynasty).

Classical Chinese poetry is traditional Chinese poetry written in Classical Chinese: typified by certain traditional forms, or modes, and certain traditional genres, as well as being considered in terms associations with particular historical periods, such as the poetry of the Tang Dynasty. Its existence is documented at least as early as the publication of the Classic of Poetry. Various combinations of forms and genres exist. Many or most of these were developed by the end of the Tang Dynasty, in CE 907. Use and development of Classical Chinese poetry actively continued up to until the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, and is still developed even today in the 21st century. During this over two-and-a-half thousand years of more-or-less continuous historical development, much diversity is displayed – both between the poetry typical of major historical periods, or, as by the traditional Chinese historical method, by dynastic periods. Another aspect of Classical Chinese poetry worthy of mention is its intense inter-relationship with other forms of Chinese art, such as Chinese painting and Chinese calligraphy. Eventually, Classical Chinese poetry has proven to be of immense influence upon poetry worldwide.

History and development

The character which more-or-less means "poetry", in the ancient Chinese Great Seal script style. The modern character is shi (詩/诗).

The stylistic development of Classical Chinese poetry consists of both literary and oral cultural processes, which may be and usually are divided into certain standard periods or eras, in terms both of specific poems as well as styles characteristic of those eras, generally corresponding with Chinese Dynastic Eras, which were the traditional chronological process for Chinese historical events. The poems preserved in written form the poetic literature. Furthermore, there is or were parallel traditions of oral and traditional poetry also known as popular or folk poems or ballads. Some of these poems seem to have been preserved in written form. Generally, the folk type of poems they are anonymous, and may show signs of having been edited or polished in the process of fixing them in written characters. The main source sources for the earliest preserved poems are the Classic of Poetry, or Shijing and the Songs of the South (or, Chuci), although some individual pieces or fragments survive in other forms, for example embedded in classical histories or other literature.

Classic of Poetry (Shijing)

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Shijing first verse by Qing Qianlong Emperor. Qing Dynasty.

The literary tradition of Classical Chinese poetry begins with the Classic of Poetry, or Shijing, dated to early 1st millennium BC. According to tradition, Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) was the final editor of the collection in its present form, although the individual poems would accordingly all be more-or-less older than this. Burton Watson dates the anthology's main compilation date to about 7th century BCE, with the poems having been collected over the previous four to five centuries before.[1] This, among other factors, indicates a rather sustained cross-class popularity for this type or these types of poetry, including for instance their characteristic four-character per line meter.[2] The Shijing tends to be associated with northern Chinese vocabulary and culture, and in particular with the great sage and philosopher Confucius: this helped to eventuate the development of this type of poetry into the classic shi style, the literal meaning of Shijing. The remarkable thing is that despite their commendation by Confucius, no extant samples of any poetry of this style are known for the next three hundred years.[3]

Songs of the South (Chu Ci)

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Map of the Chu area, in one of its reconstructed historical configurations.

Another early poetry collection/genre is the Chu Ci (dated to the Warring States period about 475–221 BCE), which is typified by various line lengths and the imagery and influence of the vernacular associated with the state of Chu, in southern China. One important part of this is the Li Sao, attributed to Qu Yuan. These poems from the State of Chu are among the most important of all Classical Chinese poetry, however, these poems and their style seem to have had less impact on Classical Chinese poetry, at least at first, than did the Shijing collection and style.

Han dynasty

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A Han Dynasty terracotta horse head (1st–2nd century CE).

The classic shi poetry, with its four-character lines, was revived by Han and Three Kingdoms poets, to some extent.[4] However, among other poetic developments during the Han epoch was the development of a new form of shi poetry, dating from about the 1st century BCE, initially consisting of five-character lines, and later seven-character lines.[5] The development of this form of shi poetry would occur in conjunction with various other phenomena related to Han poetry. It is indeed ironic that the new form of shi developed during the Han and the Jian'an period would become known as "gushi", or "ancient style poetry".

Music Bureau and folk ballads

The Han dynasty witnessed major developments in Classical Chinese poems, including both the active role of the imperial government in encouraging poetry through the Music Bureau, an official agency, and through the collection of Han dynasty folk ballads (although some of these seem to have perhaps been subject to a post-folk literary polishing, as in the case of the Shijing, the amount of editing is not certain). In Chinese, Yuefu, "Music Bureau", is synonymous with yuefu the poetry style, thus the term Yuefu[6] has come to refer both to the Music Bureau's collected lyrics and to the genre of which they are representative and a source of inspiration.[7] Another important Han dynasty poetry collection is the Nineteen Old Poems.

Han Fu

The Han Dynasty poetry is particularly associated with the fu, as opposed to the shi style of poetry or literature: note, however, that this fu is a different word than the fu meaning government bureau in the term yuefu (sometimes spelled Yüeh Fu, or similarly).[8] One exponent of this style was Sima Xiangru.

Jian'an poetry

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A Ming Dynasty portrayal of Cao Cao.

Jian'an poetry refers to those poetic movements occurring during the final years of the failing Han Dynasty and continuing their development into the beginning of the Six Dynasties period. The reason why Jian'an is considered as a separate period is because this is one case where the poetic developments fail to correspond with the neat categories aligned to chronology by dynasty. Typical poets of this period are Cao Cao, Cao Pi, Cao Zhi, and Xu Gan. One of the more important poetic developments of this period is toward the odd number, fixed length, verse styles also typical of the Tang poetry period. Thus, some of the poetic forms especially associated with Tang poetry can be traced back developmentally to some of the new forms which seem to have developed during the Jian'an period.

Six Dynasties poetry

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Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove from a picture from the brick wall of a tomb located near the Eastern Jin capital (modern Nanjing, China).

The Six Dynasties (220–589) also witnessed major developments in Classical Chinese poetry, especially emphasizing romantic love, gender roles, and human relationships, and including the important collection New Songs from the Jade Terrace. The Six Dynasties era covers three main periods: the Three Kingdoms (220–280), Jin Dynasty (265–420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589). The Three Kingdoms was a period with much violence, which was sometimes reflected in the poetry, or sometimes highlighted by the poets' seeking refuge from the social and political turmoil by retreating into more natural settings, as in the case of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. The Jin Dynasty era was typified poetically by, for example, the Orchid Pavilion Gathering of 42 literati; the romantic Midnight Songs poetry; and, Tao Yuanming, the great and highly personal poet who was noted for speaking in his own voice rather than a persona or anonymously. Some of the highlights of the poetry of the Northern and Southern Dynasties include the Yongming poets and the anthology collection New Songs from the Jade Terrace.

Sui and Tang dynasties poetry

Sui poetry

Sui Dynasty Pilgrim Flask

Although poetry continued to be written, and certain poets rose in prominence while others disappeared from the landscape, the brief Sui Dynasty (581–618 CE), in terms of the development of Chinese poetry, lacks distinction, though it nonetheless represents a continuity between the Six Dynasties and the poetry of Tang.[9] Sui dynasty poets include Yang Guang (580–618), who was the last Sui emperor (and a sort of poetry critic); and also, the Lady Hou, one of his consorts.

Tang poetry

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A Map showing the approximate extent of the Tang Dynasty in the beginning of the 8th century.

The Tang dynasty (618–907) was particularly noted for its poetry, especially the shi forms.[10] This poetry was both a pervasive social phenomenon throughout the Tang literate classes, which the ability to compose poems on demand part of the Imperial examination system, but also a social grace necessary for polite conduct on social occasions, such as seeing a friend off on a long assignment to a distant post or as part of the interaction at banquets or social gatherings. Some 50,000 poems survive, mostly represented in the Ming Dynasty collection the Quantangshi. Their popularity in the historical Chinese cultural area has varied over time, with certain authors coming in and out of favor, others permanently obscure, and some, such as Li Bai, Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi (also, known as "Po Chü-i") maintaining consistent popularity. Tang poetry has since developed an ongoing influence on world literature and modern and quasi-modern poetry; for instance, as in the case of Li Bai (also known as Li Po) whose modern influence extends as far as Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Beat poetry. Furthermore, in part because of the prevalence of rhymed and parallel structures within Tang poetry, it has a role in linguistics studies, such as in the reconstruction of Middle Chinese pronunciation.

Song dynasty poetry

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Calligraphy detail of one of Su Shi (Dongpo)'s poems.

The Song dynasty (960–1279) was noted for its poetry, perhaps especially the development of the Ci form; indeed, the ci as a poetic form perhaps reached a high point during the Song Dynasty. The poets of the Song Dynasty drew on a long tradition of poetry, perhaps especially those forms which were prevalent in the Tang Dynasty. The Song Dynasty is known for its achievements in terms of combining poetry, painting, and calligraphy into a shared art form. Prominent examples of Song poets include Su Shi (Dongpo), Ouyang Xiu, Lu You and Yang Wanli. The ci is a kind of lyric poetry using a poetic meter based upon certain patterns of fixed-rhythm formal types, of which there were about 800 of these set patterns, each associated with a particular title. Originally ci were written to be sung to a specific tune of that title, with set rhythm, rhyme, and tempo. However, over time the actual tunes seem to have disappeared (similarly to the case of the English ballads). Thus, the title of a certain ci may have nothing to do with its contents, although the poetic meter is the same. It is common for several ci to share the same title. As developed during the Song poetic period, the ci was a versatile verse form.

The Southern Song Dynasty which ruled southern China from 1127 to 1279 was largely co-existent with the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234), which had established control over northern China and its largely Chinese population. The Chinese poets of the Jin Dynasty produced poetry which shared the characteristics of the Song Dynasty poetry; and, towards the end of the Jin, which occurred earlier than the end of the Song, the poetry begins to similarly show the effects of the Mongol invasions, which eventually led to the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty and its characteristic poetry.

Yuan Dynasty poetry

Yuan Dynasty theater, a reconstruction based on a contemporary temple mural.

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Poetry during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) continued the Classical Chinese poetry tradition and is especially noted for the burgeoning of the Chinese opera verse tradition. Yuan drama's notable qu form was set to music, restricting each individual poem to one of nine modal key selections and one of over two hundred tune patterns.[11] Depending on the pattern, this imposed fixed rhythmic and tonal requirements that remained in place for future poets even if its musical component was later lost. Noteworthy Yuan dramatist-poets include Bai Pu, Guan Hanqing, Ma Zhiyuan, and Qiao Ji.[12]

A painter-poet tradition also thrived during the Yuan period, including masterful calligraphy, for example Ni Zan and Wu Zhen.[13] Another exemplar was Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), a former official of the Song Dynasty who served under the Mongol administration of the Yuan and whose wife Guan Daosheng (1262–1319) was also a painter-poet and calligrapher.

Ming Dynasty poetry

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Classical Chinese poetry continued to thrive during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Ming prosperity was accompanied by a tremendous increase in population, commerce, and poetry composition. Thanks to educational opportunities made possible by commercial printing and the reinvigorated examination system, a massively larger literate population emerged who relied on poetry to express personal emotion and to engage with each other socially.[14] A contemporaneous debate as to whether the Tang or Song poets had achieved the highest heights of excellence solidified a collective consensus that past heights could not be surpassed. With over one million surviving Ming poems, modern critics and researchers have been unable to sufficiently sift through it all to definitively answer whether that conviction of past greatest glories is a prejudice or a fact.[15]

Leading Ming poets include Gao Qi, Li Dongyang, and the publisher-poet Yuan Hongdao. Representatives of the dramatist-poet tradition include Tang Xianzu[16] and Li Yu. Li Yu is also a prime example of the Ming-Qing transition's emotional outpouring when disorder swept away Ming stability as the incoming dynasty's Manchu warriors conquered from North to South.[17] Ming representatives of the painter-poet tradition include Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, and Wen Zhengming.[18]

Qing Dynasty poetry

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Classical Chinese poetry continued to be the major poetic form of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). This was also a time of related literary developments, such as the collection of Tang poetry, under the Kangxi Emperor. The debates, trends and widespread literacy of the Ming period began to flourish once again after the Qing Dynasty had established its dominance. The fresh poetic voice of Yuan Mei has won wide appeal, as have the long narrative poems by Wu Jiaji.[19] Kunqu opera matured and led toward the later Chinese opera tradition of drama, poetry and music combined. The painter-poet tradition thrived with exemplars such as Yun Shouping.[20] The challenge for researchers grew as even more people became poets and even more poems were preserved, including (with Yuan Mei's encouragement) more poetry by women.[21] In 1980 fine shi poems by the famed Qing novelist Liu E were published for the first time, illustrating the potential to continue finding sunken treasure in the vast body of surviving Qing poetry.[22]

Post-Qing Classical Chinese poetry

Although Qing is the last Chinese Dynasty, this did not mean that Classical Chinese poetry ended co-terminously with the end of the imperial period, indeed Mao Zedong of the Communist Party of China was a major exponent and practitioner of Classical Chinese poetry well into the 20th century. However, the development and great expansion of Modern Chinese poetry is something to consider, beginning at this point, or shortly after.

Oral versus written

Oral nature of poetry

One important aspect of Classical Chinese poetry is that it was generally designed to be chanted or sung, with or without musical accompaniment. In fact, folk poetry, almost by definition, was orally composed and orally transmitted. This is because the "folk" were for the most part illiterate, as opposed to the scholarly classes who were generally literate; however, even the poems of the scholarly classes were intended to be sung or chanted.

Characteristics of written poetry

The particular characteristics of the Chinese writing system certainly had an important role in Chinese poetry. In fact, one of the factors which enabled a continuous poetic tradition in China for more than two millennia has to do with the fact that Chinese words can be represented by their corresponding Chinese characters semi-independently of their pronunciation (and, in fact, this extends even to their use in classical versions of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese).[23] The pronunciations of spoken Chinese changed quite a bit over the course of time from the oldest surviving written Chinese poetry, during the period of Old Chinese, through the Middle Chinese period (which included the Tang Dynasty), and up into the Modern Chinese period. During this course of development, Classical Chinese evolved as a distinct literary language, distinct from the spoken vernacular. The tension between a spoken vernacular and a literary form of the language worked both ways, the poetry of literature can be seen to have "various degrees of vernacular overlay"[24] and also the oral folk poetry sometimes were "filled with literary phrases and constructions", perhaps due to the prestigious nature of the written language.[25][26]

Influence of Chinese writing system

A depiction of the evolution of writing shān, meaning "mountain".

To what degree has the pictorial element latent in Chinese characters informed Classical Chinese poetry? The etymology of Chinese characters must be considered to be related but distinct from the evolution of the language itself. As is the case with many ancient writing systems, such as the Phoenician alphabet, many of the earliest characters seem to have begun as pictograms, with a picture representing an idea which corresponded with the word for that idea.

Evolution of the character corresponding to , meaning "sun".

By the times of Classical Chinese, a complex system of writing had evolved with many characters being composed of combinations of other characters, chosen for similarities of meaning and/or sound. The resulting strong graphical aspect, versus a weaker phonetic element (at least, say, compared to standard written English) cannot be ignored. However, different translators of Classical Chinese poetry have emphasized these elements to differing degrees. Sinologist and translator A. C. Graham cautions against over-emphasizing this visual effect, which he says can "...act on the imagination like blobs in the Rorschach test. It is rather difficult to estimate this effect since a habitual reader of Chinese is hardly conscious of it without deliberately analysing his [sic] reactions....Certainly one can give too much weight to the visual aspect of Chinese writing. Poems in China, as elsewhere, are firstly patterns of sound...."[27] However, Graham is in no way suggesting that the Chinese poet is unaware of the background considerations stemming from character construction.[28]


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There are various typical forms in which Classical Chinese poetry was written. These include the shi, the ci, and qu. The fu literary is also often considered to be within the category of poetry.


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Various genres of Classical Chinese poems have been discerned, either by the composing poet or through literary criticism. The genres of Classical Chinese poetry include the landscape style poetry genres of Shanshui poetry, and Fields and Gardens poetry, which are associated with poets such as Tao Qian and Wang Wei.


Besides various formal modes and genres, Classical Chinese poetry has various other typical features.


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The use of a poetic persona is often encountered in Classical Chinese poetry, in which the author writes a poem from the viewpoint of some other person or type of person. Often these persona types were quite conventional, such as the lonely wife left behind at home, the junior concubine ignored and sequestered in the imperial harem, or the soldier sent off to fight and die beyond the remote frontier.

Sociopolitical criticism

Many Classical Chinese poems can be read as a commentary upon current events and society. Sometimes these are somewhat disguised through the use of symbolic imagery. One popular author in this regard was Tang poet Bai Juyi.

Imagery and symbolism

Certain images and symbolism became quite conventional, and are key to understanding many of the Classical Chinese poems. For example, the falling autumn leaf can refer to personal or dynastic decline.


Imaginary tour through Xiao-xiang

Many Classical Chinese poems were written as more-or-less subtle or implied complaints for the treatment of the author by the government. This is in part due to the nature of the imperial examination system as a way of recruiting talented persons into high political office, and the expectations of the talented poet of finding a suitable position within such a society. One example of this is the poetry written to accompany of to follow the eight-fold settings of the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang which were popularized during the Song Dynasty; although, the theme can certainly be traced back as far as the Chuci.


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Many Classical Chinese poems involve allusions or references to previous literature or well-known folk material.

Optional precision

In part due to the possibilities inherent in the Classical Chinese language and in part as an esthetic principle, many Classical Chinese poems are imprecise when it comes to gender, number, case, or other logically-informative elements of speech which tend to be grammatically obligatory or difficult to avoid in various inflected languages, such as certain Indo-European languages.

Reader participation

Many Classical Chinese poems appear simple on the surface, but contain deeper, more profound ideas. In order to realize what these are, the reader is expected to meet the poet half-way—not just to be told something, but to actively think and feel in sympathy with the poet or the poet's persona.

Parallelism and antithesis


The arrangement of poems into couplets encouraged the use of parallelism: where for two lines of a poem it would be expected that the reader would compare and contrast the meaning of two lines, which would be specifically marked by the poet by using the same parts of speech in each position, or in certain key positions in each line, or else within one line.


Antithesis refers to the often latent contradiction between two statements which when sufficiently considered can lead to the understanding of a third, unstated opinion. It often plays a part in relationship to parallelism: the reader has to consider whether what seem to be parallel constructions and ideas really are so.

Autobiographic occasionalism

Many of the Classical Chinese poems were written on the occasion of a certain event. This was generally expected to be a fairly spontaneous creation made just for that particular period of time, and sometimes with a fairly limited intended audience in mind. Examples include occasions of parting from a close friend for an extended period of time, expression of gratitude for a gift or act of someone, lamentations about current events, or even as a sort of game at social gatherings.


Major collections of Classical Chinese poetry include the Shijing, the Chuci, the Collected Tang Poems, the New Songs from the Jade Terrace, the Three Hundred Tang Poems, the Tang era Wangchuan ji, and the poems collected from the Orchid Pavilion Gathering and the Midnight Songs poems from the Six Dynasties period .

Influence of Classical Chinese poetry

Classical Chinese poetry has been an influence both on modern Chinese poetry but also on the poetry of other languages. One group of languages on which Classical Chinese poetry had an early influence was on the poetry of the neighboring linguistic groups (that is, the local sprachbund), for example certain early forms of Vietnamese poetry, Korean poetry, as well as Japanese poetry forms such as kanshi. A more global influence has developed in modern times, including Beat poetry, exponents of which even produced translations of Classical Chinese poetry into English, such as Kenneth Rexroth (One Hundred Poems From the Chinese, 1956) and Gary Snyder (Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, 1959, which includes translations of Hanshan).

Translation into English

Various translators have worked to translate Classical Chinese poetry into English, with greater or lesser accuracy. Included among the more accurate are A. C. Graham, Arthur Waley and Archie Barnes.

See also

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Notes and references

  1. Watson 1971, p. 15
  2. Watson 1971, p. 15
  3. Watson 1971, pp. 15-16. On page 38 Watson does admit that Cao Cao wrote successful poems in the four-character line mode, however isolated from the mainstream of subsequent Chinese poetry.
  4. Watson 1971, p. 16
  5. Watson 1971, p. 16
  6. traditional Chinese: 樂府; simplified Chinese: 乐府; pinyin: yuèfǔ
  7. Yip 1997, p. 66
  8. traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin:
  9. Watson 1971, p. 109
  10. Davis 1970, p. xlii
  11. Cai 2008, p. 330
  12. Chaves 1986, pp. 3-6
  13. Chaves 1986, p. 5
  14. Cai 2008, pp. 354-355
  15. Chaves 1986, pp. 6-9
  16. Chaves 1986, p. 338
  17. Cai 2008, pp. 361-364
  18. Chaves 1986, p. 8
  19. Chaves 1986, pp. 9-11
  20. Chaves 1986, p. 388
  21. Cai 2008, pp. 359-360
  22. Chaves 1986, p. 466
  23. Norman 1991, pp. 74-79
  24. Norman 1991, p. 111
  25. Norman 1991, p. 109 (for more of an overview, also see pp. 83-84 and 108-112)
  26. Also see Watson 1971, p. 13
  27. Graham 1977, p. 17
  28. Graham 1977, p. 18


  • Birrell, Anne (1988). Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China. (London: Unwin Hyman). ISBN 0-04-440037-3
  • Cai, Zong-qi, ed. (2008). How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-13941-1
  • Chang, H. C. (1977). Chinese Literature 2: Nature Poetry. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-04288-4
  • Chaves, Jonathan, ed. (1986). The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yüan, Ming, and Ch'ing Dynasties (1279-1911). New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06149-8
  • Cui, Jie and Zong-qi Cai (2012). How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-15658-8
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).
  • Frankel, Hans H. (1978). The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-02242-5
  • Graham, A. C. (1977). Poems of the Late T'ang. New York, New York: The New York Review of Books. ISBN 978-1-59017-257-5
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-10536-7 / ISBN 978-0-374-10536-5.
  • Norman, Jerry (1991). Chinese. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ISBN 0-521-29653-6
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  • Watson, Burton (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-03464-4
  • Watson, Burton, ed. (1984). The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05683-4
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres . (Durham and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-1946-2

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