Hunger Mountain by David Hinton

The subtitle of this short book of essays is A Field-Guide to Mind and Landscape, and it was written by the man who published the translations of Classical Chinese poetry which I wrote about in a post called Wilderness Poetry. Hunger Mountain is a study of Chinese poetics, closely bound up with Taoist and Zen philosophy, It is concerned with the transience and mutability of ‘the hundred thousand things’ comprising the universe, and rejects the idea of a separate with-held observing self. We are the universe, and there is no actual distinction between human, animal, mountain, bird, sky.

This is a point of view made very familiar in Kenneth White’s concept of geo-poetics – that a poet should write as if the universe was writing, as if earth, river, trees were simply earth, river and trees and not extended metaphors (or stage settings) for what is going on in the human mind and heart. I like this a lot – in fact, most of The Territory of Rain was written under the influence of this kind of thinking. We need the sense and knowledge of our environmental context as much as an understanding of psychology or politics and economics. But I’m finding a few reservations as I go deeper into the poetics of the next book.

Kenneth White has often been accused of a lack of interest, even of contempt for the human mind and heart, which he denies, pointing out that writing itself implies the presence of a mind in the landscape. David Hinton makes it obvious that what humans think and feel is related to what happpens in the world around us, given the enormously destructive impact of our industrial utilitarian philosophy on the other species on this planet.This is a vital redressing of the balance when politics and market forces combine to see the environment as a romantic consolation, a resource to be exploited, or (worst of all) a treasure or a treat for the elite to keep for themselves. But if so, what we think and feel is as much part of the universe and its continual transformation as autumn or the phases of the moon. If we are the universe writing, are we not the universe grieving, loving, building, fighting, forgiving?

Poetry has to be more than redressing a balance, more than drawing overlooked insights to a flagging attention. What poetry needs is to provide a way of negotiating the dialogue of consciousness and the environment, a transforming deep and intimate relationship rather than a dissolution into an undifferentiated cosmic morass.

One interesting sideline of this book is that David Hinton draws attention to several women poets in the Classical Chinese tradtion. I had not previously realised that women had particpated at all in what has been presented very much as a masculine ethos. But far from it. Some of them were among the most radical and original of the whole period, a quietly pleasing reflection to finish with.

 

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