Yang Wan-li

Don’t read books…
It’s so much better
to close your eyes sxt in your study
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

Yang Wan-li – Jonathan Chaves


Yang Wan-li – David Hinton
Yang Wan-li ….was interested in poetry primarily as a form of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist practice, and indeed he
had a more thoroughly Ch’an conception of poetry than any other poet in the tradition.
Like an adept practicing directly under Ch’an masters, Yang studied the poetic masters of the past assiduously, trying to match his poetic insights to theirs. Then finally, when he was fifty, this “practice” led to a moment of sudden enlightenment. He began working spontaneously in his own style from immediate experience, and tzu-jan’s ten thousand things seemed to present themselves to him in poems written efortlessly. In the three decades after his enlightenment, Yang wrote with the same spontaneity as Lu Yu did during his two decades of retirement producing no fewer than 3,500 poems…

Yang Wan-li’s poetic enlightenment seems to have been part of a fundamental Ch’an awakening that is reflected in his poems. A typical Yang poem attends to the passing moments of immediate experience with a resounding clarity and this attention usually leads to a moment of sudden enlightenment: a startling image or turn of thought, a surprising imaginative gesture, a twist of humor. And he could make poems out of nothing more than a crystalline attention to things themselves. Like Mei Yao-ch’en and Lu Yu,Yang o&en attends to the most mundane aspects of life, and he does this in the most profound way-empty mind completely occupied with nothing special: a fly, for instance, sunning on a Windowsill.

David Hinton
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

Listening to the Rain

A year ago my boat, homeward bound,
moored at Yen-ling –
I was kept awake all night by the rain
beating against the sails.
Last night the rain fell on the thatched roof
of my house.
I dreamed of the sound of rain
beating against the sails.

Jonathan Chaves

Rising Early

Chrysanthemums in bloom-as gaunt as ever;
peonies, leaves falling off; seem completely withered.
A locust, frozen nearly to death,
clings desperately to a cold branch.

Jonathan Chaves

Cold Sparrows

Hundreds of cold sparrows dive into the empty courtyard,
cluster on plum branches and speak of sun after rain at dusk.
They choose to gather en masse and kill me with noise.
Suddenly startled, they disperse. Then, soundlessness.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

On a Portrait of Myself

The pure wind makes me chant poems.
The bright moon urges me to drink.
Intoxicated, I fall among the flowers,
heaven my blanket, earth my pillow.

Jonathan Chaves

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.