Mei Yao-ch’en

Today as in ancient times
it’s hard to write a simple poem

Mei Yao-ch'en – Tony Barnstone

Deeply influenced by Neo-Confucian ideals, proponents of this movement felt that literature should mirror and comment on contemporary life. Mei Yao-ch’en thus made social and political issues the focus of his poetry and sought subjects in commonplace events and people. Rejecting the then-fashionable ci poetry, which derived from romantic ballads and employed elaborate conceits and hyperbole, Mei returned to the old lushi (“regulated poetry”), perfecting a plainer, more prosaic style to gain what he called an “easygoing” voice better suited to his themes and subjects. [tooltip content= “The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, Tony Barnstone (Anchor, 2005)”] [source][/tooltip]

Mei yao-ch'en – David Hinton
This odd character, poor and faltering in his career,came to be called the great “mountain-opening patriarch” of Sung Dynasty poetry. Mei summarized his poetics in the term p’ing-tan, which became a touchstone for Sung poetry P’ing-tan translates literally as “even and bland,” and as a spiritual disposition, p’ing-tan extends to other possible translations of the two terms:“ordinary/tranquil” and “blank/ thinned-out-and-flavorless”… It is an extension of T’ao Ch’ien’s “idleness” via Po Chu-i’s “idle and bland” (hsien-tan), for a p’ing-tan poem enacts the spiritual posture of idleness in the movement of the poem rather than merely taking it as the subject of the poem. This is something Mei and other Sung poets recognized in the poems of T’ao Ch’ien, Wei Ying-Wu, P0 Chu-i, and others, but they made it the primary criterion for poetic insight. A p’ing-tan poem takes experience as it is, without straining to extract from it profound emotional or philosophical insights, and so tends to be realistic, plainspoken, free of exaggerated poetic sentiment, calm and subdued …

Central to Mei’s p’ing-tan poetics is his realism. Poetry in China, as in any other culture, traditionally functioned as a privileged realm containing only the most essential of human utterances: the most complex or intense thoughts or emotions, reflections on spirituality or urgent social issues, and so on. One compelling poetic strategy is to bring seemingly unworthy material into this privileged realm, for this gives a certain eminence to the seemingly unworthy and, at the same time, challenges the idea that some things are loftier than others. In Taoist terms, this means that one is beyond choosing what to value and not value, an act that separates a person from the indifferent unfolding of tzujan. Earlier poets (especially Tu Fu) had played on this tension to a certain extent, but Mei Yao-ch’en took it as the very heart of his poetics, including the most mundane aspects of experience in his poems. This opened his poetic vision to everything equally, the lofty realm of mountain peaks and Ch’an (Zen) insight together with the unsavory everyday realm of lice and latrines.

By replacing the striving for profound and exquisite effects typicsl of serious poetry with an artless simplicity, Mei elevated that simplicity into complex wisdom. P’ing-tan as the embodiment of profound spiritual insight echoes back through the tradition to Chapter 35 of the Tao Te Ching…

So p’ing-tan means moving in profound harmony with the unfolding of Way (natural process) in a poem: already being Way, rather than writing poems that try to make one a part of it. And as in the work of T’ao Ch’ien, whom Mei and later Sung poets recognized as the first master of p’ing-tan, however unassuming this poetic Way may appear, it reflects deep wisdom that comes only after long cultivation. [tooltip content= “Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, David Hinton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)”] [source][/tooltip]

Plum Rain

For three days rain did not stop,
earthworms climbed into my hall,
wet mushrooms grew on dry fences,
and damp air brought white mold to clothes.
Frogs in the east pond,
one jumps after another endlessly.
Reeds invade my flower garden,
suddenly as tall as the banister.
No wagon and horse in front of my door.
The moss looks so dark.
Zhaoting Mountain behind the house
is blocked by clouds again
and directionless where can I go?
I just meditate on a bed
in solitude and forget outside concerns,
in a low voice read aloud the Daoist canon.1
My wife laughs at my leisure,
“Why not raise a cup to yourself? ”
She is better than the wife of Bolun.2
She stays by my side when I am drunk.

Kenneth Rexroth

A Lone Falcon Above the Buddha Hall of the Temple of Universal Purity

From the house I just rented, you can see the temple,
gold and blue-green jade, before my broken down hut:
every day I watch the temple’s flocks of pigeons,
perched or nesting, feasting even in this famine year.
Carved eaves and painted walls are covered with bird droppings,
and even the heads and shoulders of the Buddhas…
The monks wouldn’t dare loose an arrow at them.
Then suddenly, the falcon, cruel claws spread,
and crows caw, magpies screech, and mynah birds (cry out).
The raging falcon, coming on, catches the scent of flesh.
The falcon’s heart is hot and hard: he fears no flock.
In an instant he’s crushed a bird’s head, and the rest flee in panic.
The dead bird’s falling, but before it reaches earth,
Flashing wings, a whirlwind dives to catch it,
and standing alone on the rooftop tears it apart,
ripping the flesh, pecking out the liver, letting the guts drop away.
Scavengers, artless schemers, cowards all:
Circle, aching to come close, their hungering eyes transfixed by the scene.
Soon enough the falcon’s satisfied; he flies away.
In the struggle for the leavings you can’t tell kites from crows.
A crowd of kids stood pointing. Folks on the street just laughed.
I chanted this poem as I stood beside the autumn river.m

J.P. Seaton

Eyes Dark

A darkness disease has seized my eyes.
On bright clear days, I Walk through fog,

and whatever I see is double. It’s scary.
My writing brush scrawls around, lost.

People coming toward me look like haze
and birds soaring past are a quick blur.

No telling what’s what in this confusion,
I’m suddenly free of likes and dislikes.

David Hinton

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.