Listen to the River


Su Shih: Wood and Rock, c. 1070

by Douglas Penick

In seventeenth century China, Yeh Hsieh wrote The Origins of Poetics to set out how we can understand and value poets and their art. This involved, he believed, a completely personal mode of relationship. As he said: “…writing poems resides in describing one’s affections and nature … If one’s nature and affections live in the writing of poetry, the poem … (will) have a “face”.

Su Shi (1037-1101), also called Su Tung Po, is one of China’s most renowned poets. In his lifetime, he experienced great success and cataclysmic misfortune. He lived during the waning of the Sung Dynasty and was a gifted scholar, administrator, military strategist, connoisseur of antiquities, honourable politician and, most of all, poet/calligrapher. Although he reached the summit of government, he was later imprisoned and exiled. His Confucian training and his Buddhist practice enabled him to meet and convey his circumstances in ways that still feel immediate to us.

Yeh Hsieh said of him: “If I take up any poem by Su Shih, everywhere in it I can see him … a fusion of passionate stylishness and Confucian dignity that encompasses everything. This is Su Shih’s true face”. [1] And so we meet him here in a poem he wrote to a long-forgotten melody, “Immortal by the River”:

At East Slope, I drink all night, wake up sober, drink again.
It must be just before dawn when I get home.
The servant boy is snoring up a storm.
I knock on the door. There’s no reply.
I lean on my staff, listen to the river,
I regret this body is not really something I can keep.
When to forget the busy sounds of life?
Night is deep, wind quiet, waves smooth.
A small boat gone adrift,
I must trust the rest of life to the river and the sea. [2]

In 2018, Su Shi’s painting, Wood and Rock, was sold in Hong Kong at Christie’s for $59.5m. The picture is small, but the brush strokes are alive with pulse and pause and graceful onward flow. Colophons record the most distinguished owners who have loved it. It was sold to a mainland buyer. “We are so glad it is coming home,” said a Chinese observer. [3]

Three years later, Beeple’s The First 5000 Days was sold for $69 million, also at Christie’s. Beeple (real name Mike Winkelmann) created the piece by posting a single computer generated or modified image online every day for seven years. [4] The buyer purchased, in effect, code for a nonfungible token (NFT). This form of blockchain technology bears the certification of its unique authenticity and history of its ownership. It is valuable only because of its utterly secure digital uniqueness. Anyone can reproduce or display the image, but only the holder of the code can open or transfer ownership. It exists in no place and has no home. Its value is not artistic or experiential. Utterly absent are all the contingent circumstances that contribute to what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of a work of art.

Beeple: Dust, 2018

How inconceivable is such a world to Su Shi. What a new world we are looking at. Access to Su Shi’s poem is given by careful reading, reflection and depth of sympathy. Ownership of Beeple’s work is granted by money. That the NFT’s value is purely financial represents a reduction of our belief in humanity altogether. Though subsequently validated by money, Su Shi’s work is valued because of his skill at conveying a depth of humanity. It is a kind of default certainty. Its deeper context is an abstract sense of life encased in the powerlessness we feel as we are carried into an unstoppable, human-mandated ecological catastrophe of poisoned rivers and rising seas. Its value is not dependent on our experience as women and men; it is devoid of a human face and reflects our desperation to escape human fate. Su Shi’s poems and paintings speaks beyond time and place and returns us to our shared life, our shared uncertainty, our shared search.


[1] Stephen Owen, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, Harvard Yenching Institute Monograph (p.577)

[2] Retranslated from Wai Lim Yip’s Chinese Poetry, Duke U.P. (p.321)

[3] “Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, Holy Grail of Chinese Painting, Sells for HK$463m

[4] “JPG File Sells for $69 Million, as ‘NFT Mania’ Gathers Pace

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.


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