wilderness poetry

I had the feeling that I blogged about Chinese rivers-and-mountains poetry before, but maybe that was on Lúcháir. Last year at the Callander poetry festival Larry Butler and Colin Will introduced me to the concept of ‘wilderness poetry’ and Larry recommended Mountain Home, an anthology of this sort of thing, edited and translated by David Hinton.

I loved it. It has a lot in common with what I’m trying to do with my ‘gleam of light on water’ poems – Hinton sums it up as ‘clarity and simplicity, silence and open emptiness’. It is elegant and spare, full of beautiful natural images and profoundly philosophical, which I love.

The poems in this collection were written between 365 and 1206 – about contemporary with the late Latin and goliard poets of Europe. Both respond to major cultural and economic collapse by a retreat to rural solitude and reflection. Wang Wei reminds me a bit of Hilary of Poitiers, both on their rural farms, missing companions of their youth, both reflecting on loss and change.

The differences in philosophy seem less stark than you would first think. The school of Chartres and the Victorines would have had less bother with the ‘ten thousand things’ than your average post-Descartes twenty-first century thinker or post- Romantic poet. The chief difference, even with the greenest of us, is that we still tend to think and write about nature in the context of human needs and aspirations, whereas wilderness poetry puts the human firmly in the context of nature. Less alienating than haiku, less self-regarding than the Romantics, it offers a discipline of thought and response that I find very appealing. It’s the nearest I get, in poetry, to the Irish tradition of sean nos singing.

The major difference I find between China and Europe is that in Europe poetry and philosophy fell into the hands of what seem, compared with the Chinese, very young and passionately enthusiastic people. The Chinese poets are older, more reflective, sometimes bitter, sometimes compassionate, often melancholy. By contrast the goliards seem relatively brash and immature, passionate, undisciplined, but fresh lively, adventurous. I’m going to learn a lot from the Chinese, but I think my heart is with the goliards.They sound a note which I don’t get from Wilderness poetry, but which I need. Delight.

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