Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meng Chiao’s Late Poems

Meng Chiao (also spelled Meng Jiao) (751-814), a poet of the late Tang Dynasty era, has been something of a revelation for me.  Via the immense distraction but occasional wonders of modern-day social media, I saw a poetry friend post a couple of Meng’s works, translated by David Hinton, and immediately had to acquire the book (The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, Princeton University Press, 1996).  I had previously read the couple of short poems of Meng’s included in Witter Bynner’s 1929 translation (with the assistance of Kiang Kang-Hu) of the classic anthology Three-Hundred Poems of the T’ang (which Bynner titled The Jade Mountain), but hardly registered them.  As Hinton writes, Meng’s earlier work was “decidedly mediocre: conventional verse often mired in petty obsessions and inevitably undone by his penchant for the strange and surprising” (xiii).  A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang (1965) gives a good overview of Meng’s career, but Hinton’s Late Poems of Meng Chiao encompasses their broader breadth.

In these sequences, Meng has decided to foreground the “strange and surprising,” verging into what we might now call surrealism, marshaling intense images of the natural world, often of winter, ice, frozen streams, moonlight like sword-blades, ephemeral blossoms.  These long sequences allow for repetition of the images, with certain differences or variations on the theme, building up layers of meaning in the process of writing (and reading) them.  Hinton points out that such larger sequences were rare in Chinese poetry at this time, and that Meng’s “innovations anticipated landmark developments in the modern western tradition by a millennium” (xv).  In Hinton’s translation, they do read rather like avant-garde, twentieth-century American poetry, a bit like William Carlos Williams or George Oppen perhaps.  Without facing originals or some discussion of the translation process, it’s hard to tell how much of this effect comes from Hinton himself (for example, I suspect Meng’s original Chinese lines were end-stopped, whereas Hinton frequently enjambs them), but in any case the images and repetition come through to give a quite stunning sense of what Meng was doing here.

Though informed by Taoism and its affirmation of change and the cyclic nature of life, Meng’s worldview is somewhat harsh, at times pessimistic: “The Way of heaven / warns against fullness: it just empties away” (70).  Of poetic “fame,” he writes in his elegy for Lu Yin, “after a long illness, your body lies waiting // among all those prize books hungry mice / shredded and scattered through the house” (5).  The keynote, throughout, though, is winter’s ice and cold, or, as in these lines from “Autumn Thoughts,” the foreboding of coming winter:

Bitter winds sob among thorn-date branches,
wu-t’ung leaves now faces of frost on high,

and as old insects cry parched-iron cries,
a startled animal howls lone, jade-pure howls. (74)
Perhaps, it could be said, Meng’s poems themselves are “lone, jade-pure howls.” Though he sparked a significant if short-lived alternative movement in ancient Chinese poetry (one of his acolytes being Li He, who I wrote about here), Meng seems still to be somewhat overlooked in the West, despite Hinton’s now 22-year-old reclamation project.  However, there is a bleak beauty in these late poems of his.  Not only do they make up some of the greatest of Tang-era poetry, but they also, I would suggest, speak to our present moment, however obliquely — philosophically, politically (the late Tang was a period of political uncertainty, corruption, and war, and this hangs in the background of Meng’s work), and metaphorically.  Here is one poem from Meng’s “Cold Creek,” utterly, shockingly un-ignorable:

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