Rat! Do You Suppose the Mountain Knows? Two Favorite Poems

“And now for something almost completely different”

The ratty poem seemed for a while to be a hard act to follow, but it wasn’t long before I remembered another poem by Yuan Mei.  Here it goes:

When the clouds come the mountain
    “ontologically dismanifests.”
When they go (I guess) it exhibits its
    phenomenological “mountainness.”
Do you suppose
    the mountain knows?

I avoided putting this poem up for adoption by some editor for a long time, because I was an “academic”, or at least at the time I felt I was caught in that web, and this was far too free to be a translation for a “scholar” to be making… It’s very easy to find all the right words in a Chinese-English dictionary to say in prose, “When the clouds come we don’t have the mountains (or the mountains aren’t there) and when the clouds go, we have them (or they are there). Do you suppose the mountain is aware (of that)?…knows would be OK here too, and it rhymes with suppose…  The trouble with the easy translation is that the words for to have, or to be there, the character  有, yu, also means “to exist” in high Buddhist and Taoist thinking (first passage of Tao Te Ching, for instance), and the word for not being there, or not having,  無  (wu),  in that same Buddhist/ Taoist “discourse” means non-existence, emptiness, non-being, the void, and so on.  Yuan Mei was a poet, but he was also a popular writer on many subjects. In a period during which one lost all dignity by writing for money, and all fiction writers therefore used pseudonyms, he retired from high official position and made a mint on books about how to construct winning essays for the Imperial Civil Service Examinations. In addition to several versions of Fame and Fortune Thru the Imperial Exams for Dummies, he also wrote a “cookbook” (it’s far more than just a list of recipes) which is still in print in several languages. He wrote, and sold, lots and lots of ghost stories. A professional writer he was, but a philosopher he wasn’t.  A Zen man by practice, yes: you can find reference to meditation throughout his work, and the same humorous sense of paradox that links Taoism and Ch’an (Chinese for Zen) pervades his poetry. And if the line of the Yuan Mei poem that gives my book of translations its title is “I don’t bow to Buddhas”, the next line is, indeed, “But I do bow to a monk (he’s apparently there)”. He is certainly at the very least sympathetic to Taoism and Zen,  but like the greatest of the Chinese Zen teachers he had very little to say for “philosophy” systematically articulated in words,  as a way of living or teaching. The poem makes fun of “deep thinking” because deep thinking is done in words, and any words but  poets’ words, as many among Lao Tzu’s  5,000 words tell us, are not to be trusted. So, as translator, I had to use words that sound sarcastic. To get the real meaning of the poem I had to dump the surface level, the trivial description of phenomenal reality that Yuan Mei could include, and even put in the foreground. What might appear to us to be the subtle point in Yuan Mei’s work had to come way out front in the translation if it was to come across, at all. So I apologize to ontologists (if there are any) and to phenomenologists (which I have been told, fairly often, I am). I do mean to mock big words (MS Word refuses to recognize phenomenologists or ontologists  though it accepts both ontology and phenomenology and even phenomenologist…in spell check) and to let Yuan Mei mock whomever and whatever it pleases him to mock.  There now, I’ve finally made a mountainously important point about translation: sometimes the translator has to make choices. Deep.
Well, so in fact it did turn out to be easy to do a little essay on my favorite poems.

But to the real point: I love one of these two poems for the simple reason that its author  dares to identify himself with a rat. The words almost translate themselves, right out of any dictionary.

And I love the other because, I think, it is meant to mock pomposity. The fact that the pomposity is directed at philosophy that was written to support Zen or other sorts of Buddhism just makes it a better reminder. Meditation (practice) changed my life, and lest all my jocularity has gotten totally out of hand, I’ll clarify that, yes, meditation (Ch’an, Zen) has changed my life for the better, for the much better.  But if I can’t laugh at myself, even at my firmest convictions, eg. Buddhism is a good,  I’d better take a look at my new clothes. If the clouds come, will they disappear?

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.