Poems of Meng Jiao
(Written as five gurglings in ten verses)
I'm no good in craggy canyons.
Distant river trees are all too strange.
North wind runs around these empty windings.
But Jing's flow has no big waves.
No reaching the end of this long hard road
And broken ground obscures the terrain.
Sometimes washed by snow and frost,
Mostly the dust is unable to settle.
I really don't detest this pure cold but
What difference can my late entrance make?
Leaving the canyons, this river doesn't end.
Entering the hills, it only runs deeper.
Clear in the distance, it's as if immortals spoke
Brilliantly about something completely different.
In a thousand voices, never overlapping,
In every season, these voices always strong.
Sun and moon, together, illuminate them.
From clouds' glow, they rise as peaks.
Where old confusion turns to realm of truth,
We grasp where their old traces urge us to go.
Desolate writings all cavort in the distance
Making the simple and honest hard to regain.
I've already embraced that moss-covered sickness
But continue into the slow flow of the river's bend.
Good horses resent the bit.
Caged birds hate their enforced idleness.
Strength still lacks a certain playfulness
As it boasts of its faith in freedom.
Just look at the time I've wasted --
Yet peaceful words still make me happy.
Frigid water, sharp as knives.
Autumn stones, newly green like fine jade.
You can't smell the stench of dragons underwater.
Yet their caves increase in beauty.
Descend the snowy steps into the valley.
Grasp the stars sprinkled across the sky.
Bustling tones don't suffice for rhyming but
This powerful sickness blocks many streams.
The defeated leave but keep their hatred.
The impetuous are somehow overturned.
These meanders hinder each other in their tangles.
Even the rocky crags repeat themselves.
Grasses are blackend by iron eruptions.
White mosses float in frozen copper cash.
Talent only springs from these distant clouds
For without virtue nothing can be discerned.
How is it that intelligent men
Are constrained by hollow authority?
I begin to see that culture always comes from
Being calm in the face of rigidity and oppression.
Empty valleys arouse our senses.
Distant rapids grace our thoughts.
This urgent flow strips off our armor
Like thunderous storms pounding sandy shores.
Red peaks fall away in every direction and the
Sky clears, illuminating empty forms.
The gurgling of the current crescendoes and
Eyes open to a higher understanding.
A feeble canon straddles our jade vessel.
A perilous ladder leans against the sky.
Lightly, crane-boned immortals
Fly in their turtle-back hall.
I often hear the big-mouths boasting their
Disparagement of all the floating duckweed.
In one hundred feet of mirror-bright current
A thousand chill stars float singing.
For you, I wash the old things clean
So their colors appear like new clothes.
Don't drink the muddy filth but
Quench your thirst on snow and frost,
On stony edges like fine sharp jade,
And on the color of grass, precious and luxuriant.
The mills in the valleys have plenty of power.
And there are enough streams for many mills.
As always, the wisdom appearing in one man
Can cause many to return to what is good.
It is because we are midstream in a mountain river
That we must talk loudly of right and wrong.
Entering the depths, you must be extraordinarily interesting.
Rising into difficult places shows real progress.
Seek excellence by using your senses.
Forsake the ordinary for the trackless places.
The current in caverns turns about as it pleases.
The essential scenery is not about things.
Simple beasts fear what is new --
So catch men in artful nets.
Ride far to find different places.
Endure the effort of layering meaning.
What can I take from an empty harvest?
Returning to the real will confuse no one.
The cultured say what is pure, without restraint.
This ideal -- who can equal it?
Fragments of pearls are slowly washed away.
What power remains in broken jade?
Play your tune on a thousand harpstrings --
You can still fail to make one harmonious song.
The old is scary -- hair stands on end.
This fear obeys popular opinion.
Our parents had stronger bones.
Popular customs beat against a karmic cliff.
Distant lands have beauty in plenty.
I travel to pluck their discarded ideas.
Seize the opportunity luck and hard work bring
Before you regret all the distant mysteries.
In your weakness, be grateful for your strength.
Broken principles are precious when restored.
I begin to know to follow the peaceful things.
There is no need to be fasting in this evening.
The ancients would float on sourthern whirlwinds.
Today we climb into northern mountain scenes.
The color of everything is paler.
The happy poet becomes an eternal orphan.
Every day, the cold is agressive --
Bare snow landscapes devoid of shadows.
Harvests of jade don't ice over.
The whirls of southern rivers give us drink.
Hidden promontories erupt with light.
Secret facets spread their luminescence.
Chant once more to grasp new victories.
Turn back and you will not awake.
Although much is satisfactorily achieved,
Our travail cannot be over.
Wherever the setting sun descends.
A dark spirit arises, embracing the scattered peaks.
Sacred dawn gathers the cliffs and valleys.
This place offers much to enjoy:
Idleness that leads to long wanderings,
Playfulness that indulges spritual outlook.
Strong winds brush the distant vistas.
Raging rivers frighten timid men.
Once, all was truly fragrant but
Here we struggle long against the current.
Frozen trails arise from dangerous worries
But frosted jade is glimpsed in the distance.
While everything here can be encouraging,
Fruitless searches make it difficult everywhere.
Go then, to the far north.
Hasten to the meadows of Chu.
I looked hard for more meanings for the character 淙 in the title. There aren't any. It's onomatapoeia for the gurgling of water over stones or similar. In this case, clearly stones (石). And thus, Stony Gurglings. Five of them. In ten verses.
Given our experience with Mourning the Gorges and with Autumn Mind, we more or less expect literary criticism and analysis any time Meng Jiao cuts loose and writes a long poem. Here, he is addressing 古文 again, in some sense. The river Jing (泾) ran into the Wei river, as it cut the ancient Kingdom of Zhou in half from top to bottom. This is the heart of the Spring and Autumn period in every sense. Meng Jiao is telling us of his difficulties in making relevant use of this old literary terrain. And yet, clearly, he wants to traverse it in spite of coming to it so late. I get the feeling that he is actually trying to reach back further than Han Yu's 古文 would take him.
So this second verse describes what he perceives of this distant literary region. He can hear the distinct power of its myriad voices. And at the end of this verse, he seems ready to tell us where these old voices from the Spring and Autumn want the new voices of the Tang to go.
The thing that strikes me is Meng Jiao's self-criticism. He wants to find a true way of poetry that does not absolutely break with the past. He wants it to be simple and honest. And if he blames anyone for wasted time or failure, he blames himself. On the other hand, he does criticize those who are upon what he considers false ways. Those arts which flourish by going along with the mindless flow of least thinking and most grasping were flourishing in his time, on the cusp of the Tang's decline, as they are today.
If you will look back over Meng Jiao's poems you will find one or two which, while short, seem to presage Mourning the Gorges. He has a literary image of the cultural world as a flowing through watery canyons. There's a hint of this in his first long poem, Autumn Mind. But certainly in this long poem of gurglings, we are upon his literary river where the dragons lie below and the rocks above. But we are on the Jing River not the Long River. We are within the more or less generic windings through the hills of ancient Zhou and not within the three most famous gorges in the Chinese mind. Part of his literary effort is clearly working its way upstream towards the Three Gorges. (So the next long poem should be upon the Wei?) But it would belittle his overall effort to treat this current in his work as the point of his poetry. It is, rather, the point of his criticism. His work as a whole really proceeds along two lines: a line of beauty in poetry and a line of (brutal?) honesty in criticism. I believe his translators have chosen the critical poems for the variety they add to amusing petites chinoiseries for the Western appetite. (Ah, how amusante. Do pass me a crouton...) But if you ask me, his beauty is at least as powerful as his criticism.
The one thing I should point out here is the duckweed (萍). It is usually floating (浮萍) but here it is fine (细). "Floating duckweed" is a symbol of those who wander wherever the road takes them, like the duckweed that floats with the wind and current. I think Meng Jiao means by this the fine wandering efforts of the poets who are unconstrained by hollow authority.
Poetry had a place in Tang China that no writing has now. Poetry was an expression of goodness. And good poets, like Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen for example, were more or less national (kingdomal? societal?) celebrities. They spoke out for what is good and their words were in the mouths of many people, even the common people. So it is understandable that, because Meng Jiao is reaching for what is good, Meng Jiao is asking, perhaps even expecting, other poets to join him on this path he is cutting through the wilderness. This has something to do with the Tang conception of the Way. The more good you express, the more firmly you are upon the one, only Way of Heaven and Earth.
Apart from considering Meng Jiao's guide for how he thinks poetry should be written, we should notice who he is talking to. He is talking directly to himself. I doubt this is a private poem. So he is also sharing his own guidelines with his readers. But in addressing himself, he is taking responsibility for his ideas and his ideal.
I love that Meng Jiao reveals fear of the new as based upon popular opinion, upon the least common denominator of human thought. And he see further that this low level of thought beats futilely against a karmic cliff, against the principles which should again be put into practice and restored.
To me, this verse has the sense of "bring the beauty and strength of the old south to the new north we must live in." But nevertheless, Meng Jiao expects the happy poet to be a thing of the past. For him, gone are the days of drunken, pleasant wistfulness. And this, perhaps, accounts for his criticisms of Li Bai. The "dark spirit" here is the "earthbound soul" of man as opposed to the sky soul or 魂. So perhaps he means "our own dark spirit holds in its mouth the scattered peaks" which is a more literal translation.
This verse, in its last couplet, confirms what I thought of the ninth verse. This poem is set in the heart of ancient Zhou which is more or less in the middle of the Zhou period states, perhaps a bit northerly. It is north of Chu and south of Jin. And Meng Jiao is telling us to go further north while hastening to the south. Go into the rough north of the present in your poems but bring to them the beauty of the ancient south.