For many years I’ve read and enjoyed Japanese poetry, and indeed I’ve written poems in several Japanese forms – especially the magnificent collective verse-writing form called renga. (Remind me later to mention the renga event I’m leading at the SPL in August). Anyway, since last year I’ve been finding out more about Chinese poets and poetry, and I thought I’d list a few of the outstanding poets I’ve come across. First, a word on transliteration: modern China uses the pinyin system, but many of the Chinese poets will be more familiar to Western readers in the Wade-Giles system. So Li Bai is known more often here as Li Po, and so on.
First, a triumvirate of contrasting poets from the same generation of 8th century T’ang Dynasty masters.
Wang Wei, a Buddhist scholar, poet of the natural world and of gentle contemplation;
Li Bai (Li Po), a Taoist, sociable, quarrelsome, a drinker and a wild poet, and
Du Fu (Tu Fu), a Confucian, humanitarian and empathic with the suffering of people in a time of war.
Fortunately, these three have been translated and collected in a single volume by Vikram Seth, in Three Chinese Poets (Phoenix). It’s an excellent collection, and a good introduction to the works of these great poets.
Han Shan (maybe 8th century), whose name literally means ‘Cold Mountain’ may not even have been one man, but possibly a number of poets who wrote inscriptions on rocks, trees and temple walls in the Tientai Mountains. Gary Snyder has produced excellent versions of some of these poems, but for the fullest collection, the one by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press) is the one to read. Larry Butler recently produced Han Shan Revisited, a chapbook of poems written in the joyously liberated spirit of Han Shan.
For an anthology of poems written in the ‘mountains and rivers’ style (shan-shui), I recommend Mountain Home; the wilderness poetry of ancient China, selected and translated by David Hinton (Anvil). There’s a wealth of wonderful poetry in here – I keep dipping in and pulling out … plums, gems? Some of these have impressed me so much that I’ve started to write some poems in the style.
David Hinton has also translated The Selected Poems of Po Chü-I (also Anvil). Secretary Po lived from 772 to 846, slightly later than Li Bai et al, but still within the T’ang Dynasty. He’s regarded by many Chinese as their greatest poet, and I find in his work qualities of compassion, honest description and a deep understanding of nature and humanity.
Finally, I recommend When I Find You Again It Will Be In Mountains; Selected Poems of Chia Tao, translated by Mike O’Connor (Wisdon Publications).
The T’ang Dynasty represented, at least in its early years, a flowering of the arts in China. Its capital was the great city of Chang’An (now Xi’An), where the Terracotta Warriors rest in ceramic splendour. Painting, music, sculpture, pottery and poetry all flourished at this time.
Incidentally, the Chinese form of Buddhism is called Ch’an. It developed as a unique and fortunate marrying of some aspects of Taoism with Indian Buddhism. Exported to Japan, Ch’an became Zen. And bringing me full circle, my new American friend Kerry Shawn Keys who, as he puts it, ‘hung out with Snyder’, has just sent me a copy of his collection Ch’antscapes. Amazing that poetry written so many centuries ago still has resonance with todays readers and poets.