The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
I was first introduced to the poems of Wang Wei by my friend and fellow poet, George Kalamaras, when he mentioned that Wang Wei was his favorite Chinese poet in a poetry reading at the Village Lights Bookstore. George, who is the Poet Laureate of Indiana, also featured Wang Wei in one of his video blogs on A Gray Barn Rising, which he started to help “bring back to life those poets who are not as widely read as they should be.”
Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of one of the many translations of Wang Wei’s poetry. George recommends Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixinet. But for my money, you cannot go wrong with David Hinton’s fine translations in The Selected Poems of Wang Wei.
Wang Wei lived in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty in China. After an arduous education, he passed the difficult exams to became a prestigious scholar-official in the government with a reputation as a talented poet, painter, and musician. Later in life he retired from his position to live alone in the mountains above the city, living a monk-like existence, practicing Cha’n (Zen) Buddhism, walking in the Way of the Tao, and continuing his poetry. His concise poems paint pictures of nature that evoke spiritual or metaphysical analogs to Taoist and Buddhist thought. Solitude and detachment became his great themes in his later years.
In one of his most famous poems, “Deer Park,” a section from the cycle called Wheel-Rim River, emptiness, solitude, and tranquility are held up as ideal states of beingness-in-the-world.
No one seen. Among empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
flares on green moss again, and rises.
The poet is alone, almost dissolving into and merging with the empty mountains and deep woods, becoming one with nature and the sunlight that flares as his soul is ablaze with true being.
Similarly, in another poem, Wang Wei tells his readers the choice he made in leaving the life of the city behind for the tranquility of the rivers and mountains.
Back Home in the Eminence Mountains
I left all that, followed a crystalline river
into thick woodlands, idleness deepening.
It seems the current is thinking of home,
and near nightfall, birds return. I pass
an overgrown town, ancient river-crossing,
then it’s dusk flooding autumn mountains
where I am back home again, far far away,
closing my gate beneath towering peaks.
The school of poetry (and painting), if one may call it that, practiced by Wang Wei and his contemporaries, Li Po and Tu Fu, is known as Shan Shui which is usually translated as Rivers-and-Mountains. Deceptively simple depictions of tall empty mountains cut through by rivers and streams, are largely devoid of humans. Nature is seen as the transcendental essence of the soul of the universe, and the poet often paints himself as a spirit erased and dissolving into oneness with the outer and inner landscape that surrounds him and becomes him.
It has been noted that Wang Wei was one of the first Chinese artists and poets to paint with brush or words the inner landscape of the natural world. Landscape becomes inscape as in this fine Zen/Taoist meditation poem:
Climbing to Subtle-Aware Monastery
A bamboo path begins at the very beginning,
wanders up past Chimera City to lotus peaks
where windows look out across all of Ch’u
and nine rivers run smooth above forests.
Grasses cushion legs sitting ch’an stillness
up here. Towering pines echo pure chants.
Inhabiting emptiness beyond dharma cloud,
we see through human realms to unborn life.
Sitting on the grass, emptying out his being in pure zen (ch’an) meditative stillness, Wang Wei becomes one with the mountains and rivers and pine forests and reaches a state of satori where he sees past the veil of human illusion and into the eternal consciousness, the “unborn life.” The word empty or emptiness as a state of (non)being recurs over and over again in his poetry. It is a condition to be strived for, to long for: to become empty of all desire and thought and to dissolve oneself into the essence of the natural/spiritual world.
The same thematic repeats itself in A Meal with Kettle-Fold Mountain Monks, but the emptiness and stillness of spiritual oneness with nature is counterpointed with a social meal with some monks during the late afternoon. They share a dinner of pine nuts and then “read books revealing Way/until daylight begins to fade.” Then:
Lamps are lit,
and then at nightfall, chime-stones sing out
and I understand how stillness is itself pure
joy. Life here has idleness enough and more:
how deep could thoughts of return be, when
a lifetime is empty appearance emptied out now?
Wang Wei’s poems are not dated, so we do not know with accuracy when they were written during his lifetime, but there are autobiographical statements in many, and Hinton has arranged the poems so that they seem to chronicle a life in poetry. Towards the end of this volume we encounter poems of his twilight years and old age where idleness, stillness, silence, and emptiness are what he values most.
The Way It Is
Faint shadow, a house, and traces of rain.
In courtyard depths, the gate’s still closed
past noon. That lazy, I gaze at moss until
its azure-green comes seeping into robes.
One can imagine that a Vice-Magistrate named Chang tried to lure him back into civil service, and he replies in the following poem telling Chang what it is he values most now in his life in the mountains. The ch’in mentioned in the poem is a Chinese stringed instrument that Wang Wei was skilled at playing. During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese poets often sang their poems like medieval troubadours with their lutes or ancient Greek poets with their lyres. The “ten thousand affairs” in line two echoes the language of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
In Reply to Vice-Magistrate Chang
In these twilight years, I love tranquility
alone. Mind free of all ten thousand affairs,
Self-regard free of all those grand schemes,
I return to my old forest, knowing empty.
Soon mountain moonlight plays my ch’in,
and pine winds loosen my robe. Explain this
inner pattern behind failure and success?
Fishing song carries into shoreline depths.
Hinton’s selected poems of Wang Wei ends with what could be taken as one of his last poems, a poem of old age, a beautiful poem that recognizes what is truly valuable in a lifetime spent in solitude and Zen/Taoist contemplation. His poetry and paintings for which he was famous during his own lifetime seem now to belong to another life altogether.
I’m ancient, lazy about making poems.
There’s no company here but old age.
I no doubt painted in some former life,
roamed the delusion of words in another,
and habits linger. Unable to get free,
I somehow became known in the world,
but my most fundamental name remains
this mind still here beyond all knowing.
His name indeed still remains. Over one thousand years after his death, school children in China are required to read, memorize, and recite his poems. If school children in this country were required or encouraged to do the same, instead of playing horrific video games, the object of which is to kill other human beings, perhaps our culture of mind-numbing violence might eventually evolve into something more moral and spiritually fulfilling.
Translating is a tricky business, especially from a non-Indo-European, tone-rhythm language like Chinese. Most good translators are keen to preserve the original intent of the poem and also to indicate formal concerns like rhythm, line length, or rhyme. Translations of the same poem often vary widely. But David Hinton’s translations, I think, are a great beginning where you can enter into the world of Wang Wei’s Taoist and Zen poems that penetrate into the stillness and depth at the core of the world’s essential oneness.
The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
Translated by David Hinton.
New York: New Directions, 2006.