Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chai Tao (779-843)

I'm enjoying a compilation of Chia Tao's poetry edited and translated by Mike O'Connor. I had never heard of Chia Tao (or Jia Dao), but I was at a bookstore and was looking through some clearance books that were all around martial arts and spirituality and saw O'Connor's book. It's short, but with this kind of poetry you can't just flip through it quickly and get much out of it.

None of these poems are haiku, but they have an austerity in their subject matter and the way they are written that creates the impact that the best haiku should have. There's a solitude and loneliness running through his work, a quiet that recalls the archetypal image of a monk sitting alone in some forgotten mountain monastery, meditating and writing poetry, while the rest of the world continues on.

The translator notates that Tao had been a Zen monk, and this really seems to inform his work. He also comments on the sometimes cold, dry, or lean feel to Tao's poetry, and he's right. Some of the poems are downright unpoetic (perhaps sometimes due to translation and/or untranslatability of certain passages). I lean towards believing in the strength of the translations, however, because O'Connor is a poet himself if I remember correctly and I find it hard to believe any poet would take time to translate works and render them dry if they were actually rich with symbols and description. Not to say there aren't symbols, but they're more the use of a word that stands for something, without embellishment. In terms of imagery, the poetry also often calls to mind very vivid landscape images but very few words are used to do this.

However, I find the austerity of Tao's poetry to be a strength given what he's trying to do and delivering. His verse seems focused on communicating something that is very immediate and 'in the moment' - sometimes almost like a flash of kensho frozen in his lines and preserved. If he were to embellish with a lot of adjectives and imagery, he would destroy that precision and clarity to no real end. The coldness of the poems to me goes hand in hand with a detachment in the tone that conveys a sense of Zen. There were several times reading his poetry that I recalled my Pete Retreat (see other entries in the blog), and that wonderful feeling of being really alone and away by yourself. There's a kind of undemonstrative happiness that comes out of that which I can feel in Tao's poetry sometimes too. There is also a sense of contemplative regret or melancholy breathing through a lot of the pieces (many are about saying goodbye to people). However, this kind of melancholy isn't depressing or a downer; it sweet, calming, and comforting. Like sitting alone by a fire in a blanket while a snowstorm blows outside....if you've felt this you know what I mean!

O'Connor's notes are pretty good. Sometimes they illuminate certain images (his Glossary of Symbols is really useful!) or just indicate where certain physical locations are. The introduction is excellent as insight into the man who wrote these works. Overall, a great collection.

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