Cold Mountain 3, by Brice Marden

Here’s a thoughtful and provoking passage from one of my favorite blogs, Joe Felso: Ruminations. He references Han-shan, the same poet who inspired Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series of paintings, who feels similar in spirit to my earlier posting on Master Linji, also from the Tang Dynasty:

I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths that approach revelation. Sometimes a little simple human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry by Han-shan, poet 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 the way 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 of failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, threatening but also ludicrous. The poem may not be oh-worthy, but the speaker is fully present in these few lines…

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. I’m happy Han-Shan reappeared at this stage of my writing—he tells me to pause and listen to how silly I sound.