Saturday, December 15, 2012

Winter Reading: Cold Mountain Poems

In a society of admittedly diminishing attention spans, I wish that genres that are inherently "shorter," rather than those that are faux-edgier (Fifty Shades, anyone?) would find more widespread acceptance. Even if the length (and therefore perceived "ease" of reading) weren't the hook, it would be wonderful to have more folks engage in simply picking up a published book of poetry with the intent of taking a taste. This is how I came across the first of a number of versions (translations) of Cold Mountain poetry, originally written by Chinese Tang Dynasty hermit/poet, Hanshan.

During this time of year, though a calendar week away from the official start of Winter, during which the air not only turns colder, but as current events show us, the hearts and actions of some individuals do as well, I feel a need to pull one of the slim volumes from the bookshelf to cleanse my spiritual pallet.

Over the past 20+ years, I have come across a number of volumes, starting first with Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder, of which translations of Hanshan's works are a significant part. Here is the second poem in the collection of 24 included therein.

In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place -
Bird paths, but no trails for me.
What's beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I've lived here - how many years -
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
"What's the use of all that noise and money?"
Not much is known about Hanshan. What is known is that there is a fairly large catalog of poetry attributed to a Zen monk, who like many cave-dwellers took his name from the place he lived--cold mountain. Each of his poems tells its own tale, and it's up to you, the reader, to feel the quality of the energy within yourself.  A second edition that I have for rereading is Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T'ang Poet Han-shan translated by Burton Watson. The language used in these translations is a sligthly less sparse and modern feeling, but no less powerful and clean:

A thatched hut is home for a country man;
Horse or carriage seldom pass my gate:
Forests so still all the birds come to roost,
Broad valley streams always full of fish.
I pick wild fruit in my hand with my child,
Till the hillside fields with my wife.
And in my house, what do I have?
Only a bed piled high with books.
A third volume, featuring translated by Arthur Tobias, James Sanford and J.P. Seaton, is The View from Cold Mountain: Poems of Han-shan and Shih-te .  Note the difference in structure and absence of punctuation... and also the power of the lines:

My heart is like the autumn moon
perfectly bright in the deep green pool
nothing can compare with it
you tell me how it can be explained


Despite the obstacles I pursued the great monk
the misty mountains a million layers high
he pointed to the road back home
one round moon lantern of the sky
Though some of the books mentioned above are no longer in print, there are a few more recent translations available for purchase, and Gary Synder's Riprap recently had a fiftieth anniversary edition published.


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