It’s been some years since I’ve attended a poetry reading. I enjoy them, but I also struggle with my cynical side. I’ve been to too many readings that ape religious rites—the priest or priestess intones prayer-poems until the final moment when the audience ohs like a flock of smiling pilgrims, their eyes half-lidded in ecstasy.
Okay, I exaggerate—and maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant—but I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths approaching revelation. Sometimes simple statements on the human condition would go a long way.
Poetry can be whimsical and still revealing. One of my favorite poets is Han-shan of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:
As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!
Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor in failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, ludicrous and self-deprecating but also bitter. Those hawks had better watch out.
A crowd of girls playing in the dusk,
And a wind-blown fragrance that fills the road!
Golden butterflies are sewn into the hems of their skirts;
Their chignons are pinned with mandarin ducks of jade.
Their maids wear cloaks of sheer crimson silk;
Purple brocade for the eunuchs who attend them.
Will they give a glance to one who’s lost the way,
With hair turned white and a restless heart?
Largely descriptive—and, at times, seemingly gratuitously so, almost wedding page so—this poem doesn’t demonize these girls but engages in the devoted attention that accounts for its final moments. Their finery is genuinely fine, and his meticulous observation of particulars suggests a sort of reverence for youthful innocence—the girls are playing, though servants attend them—and the butterflies, the ducks are the playthings of a child. The sincere longing erupts in the final question, and it seems important it is a question. A statement might turn all that preceded it into ammunition for resentment. Instead, the speaker asks, and in asking, might set off some spark in a reader. Oh to be young…oh to be noticed…
I picture Han-shan at a poetry reading and wonder what the crowd might do at the end of this poem. They could “oh,” but Han-Shan’s poems don’t aim for that response. Walt Whitman said he was “No stander above men.” Though I love Walt Whitman, his phrasing belies its sentiment. In Han-shan, the sentiment is never too grave or ponderous and nearly always fundamentally amused. Instead of a priest, he presents a person.
When I read Han-shan I think about a poet I heard read once in MFA school. He would stop periodically and say “Did you catch that?” and reread the phrase. Sometimes he would even read the poem again…more than once.
The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. Han-Shan tells you to pause and listen to how silly you sound.