National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two

Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these surface questions are the result of the friction from winds of poetry.

What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.

But I am no scholar. Only a modern-day peasant who watched as twelve- to eighteen-foot waves battered the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline this weekend.

On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.

I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Han Shan, Basho and others.

During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a sample Cold Mountain poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination. After reading and thinking about this poem for a few months there are things inferred and/or referenced. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical?

While Han Shan wrote this poem on rocks or trees, elsewhere in the world Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?

Earlier this year I shared poems with a high school group on invitation of the tutor. Han Shan was one of the poets I recited (among other poets like Ghalib and Akhmatova). After the class, one of the tutors thanked me for visiting the class. She was grateful that the young men in the class saw a man engaged and enthusiastic about poetry and literature. The tutor asked how I became interested in poetry. My answer was that poetry is part of the Great Conversation.