ancient Chinese poets

2 posts

Ditching Social Networks for Answering Poems

wang wei

By now it’s no news that social networks online are not only bad for you but bad for us (or should I say, “U.S.”?). If your new year’s resolution is to ditch the people who make you and your personal information their product (read: Facebook, Twitter, et al.), you might consider a more ancient form of social networking: the answering poem.

What, you ask, is an answering poem? Think of the telephone. You call a friend. He or she answers. Only it takes a bit of time, because your “call” takes the form of a poem, and your friend’s response takes the form of a responding poem.

Put them together and what have you got? Something the Earl of Sandwich, in a mood more reflective than mayonnaise, might like.

Answering poems are on my mind because I’ve been poking around in the new release, Robert Bly: Collected Poems, wherein we get some best hits from Bly’s various and (answering) sundry books. In his 1973 collection, Jumping Out of Bed, we find answering poems between Wang Wei and P’ei Ti, translated by Bly.

Let’s make like a party line and listen in:


“The Walnut Tree Orchards”

WANG WEI:  In the old days the serious man was not an “important
He thought making decisions was too complicated for
He took whatever small job came along.
Essentially he did nothing, like these walnut trees.

P’EI TI:  I soon found doing nothing was a great joy to me.
Look, you see, here I am! Keeping my ancient promise.
Let’s spend today just strolling around these walnut trees.
The two of us will nourish the ecstasies Chuang Tzu loved.


“The Hill of Hua-Tzu”

WANG WEI:  The birds fly away into the air that never ends;
the magnificence of fall comes back to the mountain.
Whenever I walk up or down Hua-Tzu hill,
my whole body feels confusion and inner suffering.

P’EI TI:  The sun goes down; there is wind sound in the pines.
Walking home I notice dew on the grass.
The white clouds look up at me from the tracks of my
The blue from the mountain touches my clothes.


“The Creek by the Luan House”

WANG WEI:  Autumn rain and sudden winds.
The water plunges, bouncing off the rocks.
Waves leap aimlessly over each other.
The white heron is alarmed and lands.

P’EI TI:  A man could hear the water-sound far off.
I walk down looking for the ford.
Ducks and egrets swim away, and then
veer back, longing to be near people.


“The Magnolia Grove”

WANG WEI:  The mountain receives the last sunshine of fall.
Flocks fly off following the first that leaves.
Occasionally something emerald flashes in the trees.
The evening dark has nowhere to settle down.

P’EI TI:  Settling down at dusk from the dome of light
bird voices get mingled with the river sounds.
The path beside the river winds off into the distance.
Joy of solitude, will you ever come to an end?


Of course, in 8th-century China, nature is front page news every day, as are the charms of doing nothing (known, philosophically, as “wu wei,” or “non-action”). This couldn’t be farther from where we are today, in the Realm of Instant Gratification, where we are conditioned to constantly check cellphones (read: “binkies”) for messages and “likes.”

Lord, what would Wang Wei and P’ei Ti make of what we’ve become? Nothing human, I’m guessing. Something that has evolved far away from what they knew in their day.

That said, if you want to try an answering poem with a fellow poet, it doesn’t have to be about nature. No. Subject matter is your call. And the response is your answering call.

And, here’s the pay-off: in doing so, neither of you are burning time on social networks or your addicting binkie—all good, as they say on the Hill of Hua-Tzu.

Where Pretentious Poetry Need Not Apply


It’s always a good day when you stumble upon a book of poetry you love, a day that introduces you to a new poet who has written plenty of other books you can now explore, a day that time forgets but you won’t soon because, well, it was so fun being lost in the thicket of its hours and minutes.

Such was yesterday morning when I waded into David Budbill’s Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse. Budbill, a Vermont poet, appeals to me for a few reasons. Let me enumerate a few:

  • His poems frequently allude to the ancient poets of China and Japan.
  • His poems are grounded in nature. There’s a Walden-esque air to his work, though he’d much prefer I say a T’ang Dynasty air to his work, maybe.
  • His poems can be self-deprecating.
  • His poems have a sense of humor.
  • His poetry comes alive on the page due to its strong sense of voice.
  • He pulls no punches when it comes to the Poohbahs of Poetry, people who write obscure poetry, the New Yorker type poets and, of course, the ubiquitous, inbred MFA-machine types.
  • His poems are simple, much like me.

Good enough reason to celebrate a day and a poet, to not only line up more Budbill books to read, but seek more of the humble poetry he admires from a distant Chinese and Japanese past. When books lead to books, a bibliophile is a happy being!

Here is a taste of Budbill’s straightforward poems, most of them short, many of them demonstrating traits shared above:

“When I Came to  Judevine Mountain”

When I came to Judevine Mountain
I thought
all my troubles would cease,
but I brought
books and papers–my ambition–
so now, still,
all I know is grief.

“In the Ancient Tradition”

I live within the ancient tradition:
the poet as mountain recluse,
withdrawn and hidden,
a life of genteel poverty,
a quiet life of meditation,

which gives me lots of time
to gnash my teeth and worry over
how I want to be known and read
by everyone and have admirers
everywhere and lots of money!

“Like the Clouds”

Our lives are like the clouds.

We come from out of nowhere,
take some shape a little while,
then disappear.

No wonder we all want
money, power, prestige,
immortality from poetry.

“The Three Goals”

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.

In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

“Another Lie”

This silence, this emptiness,
this freedom to listen and dream
are all I’ve ever wanted.

And if that were true my
ambition, bitterness, and envy
would have left me years ago.

“Be Glad”

Why become wise

when you can be stupid?

Why become sophisticated

when you can be simple and original?

If you are artless and ordinary,

the literati, who recognize only

artifice and self-consciousness,

will ignore you.

Be glad with just a cup of tea,

a bird’s song,

a small book of plain poems,

and your anonymity.


I want to be


so I can be


about being


What good is my


when I am


in this


“The Cycle of the Seasons”

The cycle of the seasons is to teach us to prepare

for our own deaths.

We get to practice every year, especially in the fall.

I’ve had fifty-eight practice sessions now.

But I’m not getting anywhere.

I can’t seem to get it.

The more I practice, the older I get,

the less I want to die.

“An Age of Academic Mandarins”

This is an age of academic mandarins
who manufacture secret vocabularies
so they can keep their verses to themselves
and away from ordinary people
who could never understand the erudition
of their obtuse allusions, or the quirky twists
of their self-indulgent minds.

Ah, Po Chü-i, how they would laugh at you,
My Friend, standing there in your kitchen
testing your poem on your illiterate cook to see
if it is plain enough so that she and people like her
will be able to comprehend what you have to say.

And when she says she doesn’t know what you
are talking about, you go back to your study
to make it plainer, more easily accessible–
pure, clean, simple: so anyone can understand.

–all poems from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse by David Budbill, Copper Canyon Press, 1999.