Monday, October 19, 2009

`A Bunch of Poor Scholars'

Probably the first Chinese poetry I read was Burton Watson’s translation of Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan, published in 1962 by Grove Press. I read it around 1967. Though I may already have encountered Pound’s Cathay and A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang, it’s Cold Mountain I remember best, for its one-poem-per-page layout, the owlish photo of Watson on the back cover and the detail from Mokuan’s Four Sleepers on the front. I’ve found a copy in the library and have had the increasingly familiar experience of rereading a fondly recalled book with doubled pleasure.

The poet we know as Han-shan (“Cold Mountain” or “Cold Cliff”) and his friend Shih-te (“The Foundling”) may be myths, though I like Watson’s description of them in his introduction – “two grotesque little men guffawing in the wilderness.” If they lived, it was in the eighth century A.D., in the mountains along the seacoast in the northeastern corner of Chekiang Province, south of the Bay of Hangchow. How pleased I was to discover myself in a poem attributed to a poet who may or may not have existed. In the poem numbered “10” by Watson is a description of a life similar to my own but exaggerated for comic effect:

“Here we languish, a bunch of poor scholars,
Battered by extremes of hunger and cold.
Out of work, our only joy is poetry:
Scribble, scribble, we wear out our brains.
Who will read the works of such men?
On that point you can save your sighs.
We could inscribe our poems on biscuits
And homeless dogs wouldn't deign to nibble.”

He might be talking about bloggers. The final lines remind me of the old Stanley Brothers song “False-Hearted Lover Blues”:

“They'll bite the hand that feeds them
Spend all the money you can save
From your heart strings weave silk garters
Build a dog house on your grave.”

Less ridiculously, Han-shan’s poem reminds me of many passages in the poems and ficciones of Borges and the essays and letters of Charles Lamb. In “The Superannuated Man” (collected in The Last Essays of Elia), the latter writes:

“If Time were troublesome, I could read it away, but I do not read in that violent measure, with which, having no Time my own but candle-light Time, I used to weary out my head and eyesight in by-gone winters. I walk, read or scribble (as now) just when the fit seizes me. I no longer hunt after pleasure; I let it come to me.”

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