The Ch’an Poetry of Po Chu-i

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

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3 thoughts on “The Ch’an Poetry of Po Chu-i

  1. One of my faves:
    Under the crescent moon a light autumn dew
    Has chilled the robe she will not change –
    And she touches a silver lute all night,
    Afraid to go back to her empty room. – Wang Wei

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