Mei Yao-ch’en

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

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]

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