This is another period piece from the 70s. The loose syntax shows my breathless enthusiasm, yet the fracture of the era is evident as America’s brief intoxicating glimpse of one variety of liberation/enlightenment faded. I continue to think Han Shan is beautiful, though the Chinese critics don’t rate him so high on their charts, and I continue to relish early Gary Snyder but not late.
O.K., the definitions in the column are sometimes a little fuzzy, but for me Gary Snyder's translation of Han Shan is a classic. I became a missionary of it upon a first reading, xeroxing copies to give friends and reading it aloud to whomever let me. It's true, it's beautiful, and it's not even as pretentious as those adjectives lead you inevitably to expect, and that only because of a heap of worse poetry going back to the Greeks.
We know really that the splendors promised in our highest moments are identical with the world we see every day, but the thought is so commonplace itself that it loses competition for attention to more bizarre notions like money, astrology, and your choice of illuminated master. So here's a poem that does what Chinese poetry does so well, simply describing the world and thus setting out a hundred implications to drift into increasing complexity and finally duplicate the cosmos itself. And for someone proud not to be a magician that's a great stunt. But the stories recounted about Han Shan at the beginning of the work are hardly of the striding on the clouds and eating only light and air variety. They are both marvelous and ordinary, like today.
The prose is irresistible and the message divine. I won't begin to tell these things second-hand because they'd hardly stay the same. But it's clear that Han Shan couldn't have written his introduction himself with any grace, so it’s fortunate that he had an ideally respectable straight man to do it for him. And the flatness and humility of this man’s tone could silence a gabbling room: "I hold to the principle of the Buddha mind. It is fortunate to meet with men of the Tao, so I have made this eulogy." And this from the governor of a state! Greek generals (classical, not modern) and Imperial Chinese bureaucrats teach us it's possible to be civilized and at the same time shove the world through its more sordid changes.
The exteriorized mind. As Snyder says "When he talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind." And that, of course, is only part of the projection. As I said, the implications float outward. The first poem begins, “The path to Han Shan's place is laughable/A path but no sign of cart or horse. Converging gorges — hard to trace their twists . . .” “Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?”
What does this remind you of? It's the solid base in culture that informed their poetry all the distance from that great inventory of images, the I Ching to the present day of Mao who can write of a million willow leaves, red blossoms flying through the air, and spring wind.
This reclamation of nature’s astonishing code builds a structure of parts that is dynamic as it contains tension, and yet balanced at least enough to believably hold together. Like all the finest metaphors, its strength is precisely the ability to extend meaning to so many possibilities with affect and conviction. Effortlessly, gracefully, even through messy situations and sadness. How many spiritual leaders, for instance, have written cleanly about their attachments like Han Shan on his feelings of grief at the death of friends. Or about his pleasure in things as they are. Spontaneous and refreshing. But the strongest point is that he is always realistic. Never a hint of magic or the delightful fairy tale symbols that make Zhuang Zi illuminated with playfulness and elegance like a late Roman poet dealing with mythology. Never any promises. Just things as they are. And yet, the quiet certainty that occasionally wells up and shines numinous through the lines.
His was a fantasy life come true, living among the rocks on wild greens and roots, scrawling poems on the wall when he couldn't help himself. But he was not only real and most likely really lived as we are told, but he was only one of the magnificent series of Chinese mad and holy men who didn't trifle with asceticism or tantric elaborated system or Japanese/Tassajara hierarchy master and devotee life but simply went out and captured perfection direct. Took it by surprise or perhaps it was waiting on the other side of the veil, equally eager to pounce on Han Shan and embrace him with recognition.
It's a fatal style for poets to read because it’s so fine and final, so powerful with image and ultimate in concerns that it makes less ambitious work difficult. But it's also the easiest style to fuck up, like free verse. (Does this term still exist? Does anyone think any verse is free?) Such freedom imposes the heaviest responsibilities.
Snyder since Han Shan has taken another route and seems to be losing his reliance in observed images and patterns and sound systems and relying more — to the detriment of his work — on pat ideological contained statements which may be true and massive but are not therefore poetry. I'm thinking of the “Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution” and suchlike. A lot of Turtle Island, unfortunately. It's a sort of poetry that might work if he were Alexander Pope maybe. Or if these symmetric revelations were funnier, or ironic, curving back to make fun of themselves. But no, unfortunately, they tend in the direction of the satisfied monks so absurd in the tales of Han Shan.
Make no mistake, I feel that Snyder is one of the best poets now writing with an exquisitely acute ear in his most careful cadences and with his eye on the roof of the world. But he'd better watch out. A hundred satoris don't guarantee good sense tomorrow morning.