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Gary Snyder's Cold Mountain Poems

Gary Snyder's Cold Mountain Poems

Author: Gary Snyder
Rating: 4/5
Read: 4/18, 2/19
Who Should Read: People interested in Zen, poetry, Chinese thought

Hanshan, or “Cold Mountain”, is one of my favorite Chinese poets (alongside Stonehouse). Hahshan was (supposedly) a Chinese Buddhist monk who lived in isolation in the wilderness. The poems attributed to him sparkle with a disdain for civilized life and carry a Zen and Taoist bent.

Cold Mountain Poems is a small collection poems translated by Gary Snyder, who does a wonderful job translating Hanshan’s words and feelings. Included are some of my favorite poems from this collection.

My Highlights

Gary Snyder on why he was qualified to translate Cold Mountain’s poems:

I had been a mountaineer and forestry laborer as well as a bookish scholar for several years already, and simply could draw on a wide experience of events and words and observations in finding ways to represent the Han-shan imagery. I also regularly made a practice of internalizing and visualizing the taste of the whole scene – cold, wet, rocky, lonely, or whatever was called for – to the point that I could write it out with some sense of presence. This doesn’t always work by any means, but it is exciting when it does. It reaches across time and space.

On the interest in such poetry:

At least for non–East Asians, they touch us not because of the invocation of a hermetic ideal or solitary asceticism, but because of the almost joyful rejection of materialism and the absolute pleasure in being in the great world “with a sky for a blanket,” aware of living a life apart from the value-assumptions of mainstream people.

There is a deep strain of non-ideological dubiousness about the large materialistic goals that are the official “dream” of developed-world people and certain others worldwide.

Selected Poems

Here are some of my favorite poems from this collection.

2

In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place -
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What's beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I've lived here - how many years -
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
"What's the use of all that noise and money?"

6

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: There's no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn't melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog
How did I make it?
My heart's not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You'd get it and be right here.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain Path,
The Cold Mountain Trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide cree, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain.
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
and sit with me among the white clouds?

11

Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge - the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness

16

Cold Mountain is a house
Without beams or walls.
The six doors left and right are open
The hall is blue sky.
The rooms all vacant and vague
The east wall beats on the west wall
At the center nothing.
Borrowers don't bother me
In the cold I build a little fire
When I'm hungry I boil up some greens.
I've got no use for the Kulak
With his big barn and pasture -
He just sets up a prison for himself.
Once in he can't get out.
Think it over -
You know it might happen to you.

17

If I hide out at Cold Mountain
Living off mountain plants and berries - 
All my lifetime, why worry?
One follows his karma through.
Days and months slip by like water,
Time is like sparks knocked off flint.
Go ahead and let the world change -
I'm happy to sit among these cliffs.

20

Some critic tried to put me down -
"Your poems lack the basic truth of Tao"
And I recall the old-timers
Who were poor and didn't care.
I have to laugh at him,
He misses the point entirely,
Men like that
Ought to stick to making money.

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