Yuan Mei


A month alone behind closed doors
forgotten books, remembered, clear again.
Poems come, like water to the pool
Welling,
up and out,
from perfect silence

Yuan Mei - J.P. Seaton

Yuan Mei (1716-1798) was without question the finest poet in the final thousand years of the classical Chinese tradition. A man of great ambition, he let failure in political life bring him wisdom rather than bitterness, and perhaps to spite his Manchu “masters” he lived a conspicuously unconventional life, mocking Chinese collaborators and the Manchus themselves with his “life-style”, licentious and libertine from a prig’s point of view, merely broad minded or even libertarian, from the point of an English gentleman such as his biographer and translator Arthur Waley.

it is surely surprising that . . . Yuan Mei and the monk Ching An, are certainly among the best of all the classical Chinese poetic tradition. Both are outstanding for their mastery of classical forms, and their willingness to use those forms to record the realities of their lives in a language that made classical poetry available to ordinary people. Both poets, a century apart, realized that the millions of readers of popular fiction were a potential audience, and so, unlike the majority of “classical” poets of the period, both refused merely to imitate the great poetry of “the ancient”, choosing rather to put classical techniques at the service of vernacular language, in order to reach the people, always the intended audience for wen. [tooltip content= “The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, J.P. Seaton (Shambhala, 2006)”] [source][/tooltip]

 

Just Done

A month alone behind closed doors
forgotten books, remembered, clear again.
Poems come, like water to the pool
Welling,
up and out,
from perfect silence

J.P. Seaton

Things Seen

Apricot about to fade, raindrops quiet now;
filling the paths, patches of moss,
the green has stained my clothes.
The wind is strong-I cannot get the little window shut:
flower petals and my poems
go flying through the air.

Jonathan Chaves

Motto

When I meet a monk,
I bow politely.
When I see a Buddha,
I don’t.

If I bow to a Buddha,
the Buddha won’t know.
But I honor a monk:
he’s here now, apparently,
or, at least, he seems to be.

J.P. Seaton

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.