The title for this entry is taken from David Hinton’s introduction to his collection (in translation) of poems by the T’ang Era poet, Po Chu-i (772-846 C.E.). Quoting Confucius, who wrote in The Analects, “There are three hundred songs in The Book of Songs, but this one phrase tells it all: thoughts never twisty,” Hinton applies the phrase to the entire Chinese poetic tradition, and in particular, the T’ang Era poets.
The Chinese poets of the T’ang Era are the sources of my inspiration as a poet. Their poems use simple, straightforward language to comment on everyday events and activities, commonplace thoughts, concerns, and worries. Their poems touch on all aspects of life, expressed with reverence in simple words, without flourishes. Out of that, however, comes a deeper meaning pointing to our common humanity. Over a thousand years later, their poetry still speaks to us. I thought I’d share a few examples. The first, from Po Chu-i, mourning the death of his young son, expresses the grief of any parent who loses a child.
A three-year old son, lone pearl treasured so in the hand,
A sixty-year old father, hair a thousand streaks of snow,
I can’t think through it–you become some strange thing,
and sorrow endless now you’ll never grow into a person.
There’s no swordstroke clarity when grief tears the heart,
and tears darkening my eyes aren’t rinsing red dust away,
but I’m still nurturing emptiness–emptiness of heaven’s
black black, this childless life stretching away before me.
Nature plays a central role in T’ang poetry, but not as something external to us at which to simply gaze and reflect upon, but as something of which we are part. The T’ang poets are in nature, often hiking up mountains to view a waterfall, a grove of trees, look out upon a valley, or visit the hermitage of a Taoist or Buddhist monk. Here’s Wang Wei (with one of those long titles that are typical in Chinese poetry and almost a poem itself):
I rest three times every mile on this trail’s
ten thousand precarious twists and turns,
and when it loops back, I see friends vanish
into distant forests and hills, then reappear
beneath windblown rain high atop pines.
Water clamoring through stones becomes
silent conversation in the stream’s depths,
and across high peaks, winds wail and sigh.
Gazing out toward South Mountain’s sunlit
south face, sun white through far-off haze,
I see azure marshland all tranquil beauty
and dense forests that seem to drift at ease.
Forever hemmed in, I trust myself to wide-
open distance: it melts tangles clean away.
Isn’t this why we head out into nature? To get away from the daily tangles of life in order to recharge and reconnect? Here’s one from Po Chu-i about another climbing excursion. Although written 1300 years ago, it is timeless.
ALL THE MOUNTAIN GUESTS STARTED UP INCENSE-BURNER PEAK TOGETHER, HELPING EACH OTHER ALONG, UNTIL RAIN FORCED US BACK AND WE CAME HOME A DRENCHED CONFUSION OF WILD LAUGHTER
We started climbing full of breezy serenity.
As dragon bells rang out, rain forced us back,
clinging to roots and vines on dangerous cliffs,
slipping on rocks covered with lichen and moss.
Socks a filthy mess, you poke fun at each other.
Shoes torn through, I keep laughing at myself.
Today, there really were earthen feet of mud
treading the jade staircase to celestial palaces.
I’ll finish this entry with a poem from T’ao Ch’ien, who wrote 300 years before the T’ang Era (he lived from 365 to 427 C.E.), but whose poetry inspired the T’ang poets. This poem sums up his view of life as well as those of the poets who came after him.
Great men want the four seas. I’ve only
wanted old age to come unnoticed like
this. My family together in one place,
kids and grandkids looking after each
other still, I linger out mornings over
koto and wine, the winejar never dry.
My clothes a shambles, exhausting every
joy, I sleep late now, and nod off early.
Why live like all those fine men, hearts
stuffed with fire and ice to the end,
their hundred-year return to the grave
nothing but an empty path of ambition?