Poems of Meng Jiao
For the Monastic Gentlemen
Beside autumn's rushing river,
Thundering like horses, manes flying,
Moon's immortals of lofty light are
Divine phoenices without an earthly nest.
Dark-colored clouds roil round the valley
Above the jade-white glory of a river-bound moon.
Bamboo forest reveals itself in waves and
Cloud monastery rises ever upwards.
But the mythic worm is still a caterpillar.
And a toy dragon yearns for a sharp horn.
A thousand hills are startled by the moonrise.
For a hundred miles, you can hear the cracking ice.
The military garrison bursts into new blossoms.
Grateful duke takes the minister by the hand.
For this reason, the people esteem your virtue,
Your cultivation of simplicity in these hard times.
This poem of Meng Jiao's starts out normally. But by the third verse, something weird is definitely going on. The poem is suddenly awash in family names, puns, inverted bigrams, and apparent nonsense. Skipping over the possibilities that either I have completely missed the boat here or that the poem is simply full of lost language, let me tell you what I think is going on.
The title is a bit of a hint: "To all you gentlemen in the monastery." Then we have a nice quatrain of excellent Tang poetry. The second quatrain is a bit off or over-literary or something which I believe is hiding things that will be seen when the gentlemen of the monastery go back to look -- after the trap is sprung.
In the third quatrain, the trap is sprung. We have what are obviously plays on several family names. Meng Jiao is now clearly punning on the monk's names, two to the line in some cases. And this elaborate joke, which probably relies heavily on lost vernacular meaning, continues out until the last two lines of the fourth quatrain return to a normal ending for a Tang poem.
While it is possible that my translation of lines 9 through 14 literally resemble Meng Jiao's humorous intent, they are certain to be wrong -- because they are not funny. In order to actually translate this poem, I think you would have had to be there. If you were actually in the Tang, you'd probably smile because you would more or less "get it." If you were actually in the monastery, you'd be laughing so hard your prayer beads would be rattling.