Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lit dew shimmers

Poet and Chinese scholar David Hinton has specialised in translations from the Chinese rivers-and-mountains tradition. He has been well served by publishers – the books are beautifully produced, as can be seen on the David Hinton website. As I write this I am looking at the Archipelago Books edition of The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan, printed on “60lb Mohawk Vellum” paper, with its imagistic poems spaced elegantly on each page.

The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan is the first English book devoted completely to the High T’ang poet Meng Hao-jan (689-740). The introduction quotes poems by Li Po and Wang Wei to give a sense of how these better known poets revered Meng, and a later poem by Po Chü-i in which ‘Meng himself disappears into landscape while his poems survive as landscape’. Rather than become a bureaucrat or monk, Meng lived a simple life in the mountains of Hsiang-yang. His surviving body of work is not large; ‘it is said that Meng’s practice was to destroy poems after writing them because they inevitably failed to render experience at that absolute level that lies beyond words.’

There are a few sample poems on Hinton’s site which demonstrate the way Meng rendered experience: “My thatch hut grows still. At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.” In one of these poems, Meng climbs Long-View Mountain to survey the landscape, clouded in mists and blossoms. In another, Meng writes from his ‘bamboo-leaf gardens’ to Ch'ao, the ‘Palace Reviser’ – while Ch’ao toils in the library, Meng lives close to nature, where words start to be forgotten.

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