Rexroth’s Tu Fu

Although I prefer Chinese poetry that has stronger Taoist or Chan Buddhist elements than those chosen by Kenneth Rexroth in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. However, even Confucian poets manage to include taoist or Chan elements in their poetry. Tu Fu is generally regarded as a Confucian poet, but my favorite poem of his in Rexroth’s selection sounds like it could have been written by a Taoist priest, perhaps because of its setting:

WRITTEN ON THE WALL AT CHANG’S HERMITAGE

It is spring in the Mountains.
I come along seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you
An empty boay, floating, adrift.

Though this is a classic, idealistic, portrayal of a Chinese hermit who has cut himself off from the concerns of the world, but the careful attention to detail, particularly the “aura of gold/ And silver ore all around you? and the smooth transition to the narrator’s own feelings at the end of the poem that make it a masterpiece. We all long for the ability to “want nothing,? to be at one where we are, and perhaps we’ve all felt that in the beauty of the mountains.

My other favorite Tu Fu poem is

LONELINESS

A hawk hovers in the air.
Two white gulls float on the stream.
Soaring with the wind, it is easy
To drop and seize
Birds who foolishly drift with the current.
Where the dew sparkles in the grass,
The spider’s web waits for its prey.
The processes of nature resemble the business of men.
I stand alone with ten thousand sorrows.

The first five lines almost sound anti-Taoist in the sense that it is “foolish? to go with the “flow.? Drift along in life, and someone above will swoop down and destroy you. Perhaps that would be a Confucian objection to Taoist philosophy. It’s not enough to go along, one must strive for position and be aware of those who would conspire against you.

Even the Puritans thought that God delivered messages through natural events, the difficulty, of course, is interpreting those events correctly. I do know that the phrase “sitting duck? has taken on an entirely new meaning to me since I started visiting my nearby wildlife refuge regularly.

No matter how we read it, though, “the processes of nature? can certainly be as cruel as “the business of men,? giving ample reason for “ten thousand sorrows.? It’s hard to admire the beauty of owls, hawks, and eagles without realizing that they prey on the small birds that we love to attract to our bird feeders.

One thought on “Rexroth’s Tu Fu

  1. You’ve reminded me that I was called a few mornings ago to the patio door by my cat to witness the “process of nature”, a hawk on a bare branch of the linden tree clutching a dead bird in his talons, looking over his shoulders for a good long while before seeming to decide he could eat his breakfast in peace. I wish I could tell you what kind of hawk, but I was so awestruck by the scene that noting the markings and turning to my bird book escaped me.

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