I came across an absolutely lovely book, The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien in a rather odd way. I first heard of T’ao Ch’ien in John D’Agata’s essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, which has a short selection of his called “Biography of Master Five-Willows.” This is only a few paragraphs long, but I fell in love with it. It’s my habit when I read an anthology selection that I love to hunt down a book by the author, so when I checked D’Agata’s “Acknowledgments” section to find out where the T’ao Ch’ien piece came from, I saw it came from his selected poems. It was strange to find a prose piece coming from a volume of selected poems, but I thought I’d buy it anyway. Why not? It turns out that the prose piece was included in the introduction to the poems. It also turns out that D’Agata’s definition of the essay is wide enough to encompass poetry as well as prose, as his anthology includes Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” one of my favorite poems ever. D’Ataga is perhaps stretching the definition of “essay” beyond recognition, but whatever. I love T’ao Ch’ien’s prose and poetry both, so I’m a happy reader.
T’ao Ch’ien is a Chinese writer who lived from 365-427 A.D. The editor of his selected poems says that T’ao was “the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” There is indeed a very natural and everyday voice that comes through the poems, the voice of a person who is wise and wryly funny at the same time.
A little bit of T’ao’s life story comes through the poems even if you know nothing else about his biography; you can tell that he at one time held a post in government service but left it to live in poverty as a farmer. His poems are frank about the poverty, but he celebrates his life on his farm, even with its hard work. When the work is done, he is free to walk in nature, to sit quietly at home with friends, and, very often, to drink wine. There is a strong Buddhist orientation to the poems (although the frequent references to wine don’t quite seem to fit); they celebrate living in the moment and enjoying what one has rather than grasping for more. The poems have a strong awareness of suffering and death, but rather than being morbid, they call for enjoyment of life while we have it.
But mostly the poems are just beautiful, in a peaceful, meditative way. The descriptions of nature are brief — none of the poems are long — but evocative, and his depiction of a quiet life lived in nature and among friends is moving. But rather than trying to describe them, let me just give you one of the poems:
In all its reckless leisure, autumn begins
its end. Cold — the dew-charged wind cold,
vines will blossom no more. Our courtyard
trees have spent themselves: they stand
empty. Dingy air washed clean, clear sky
heightens the distant borders of heaven,
and now mourning cicadas have gone silent,
geese call out beneath gossamer clouds.
The ten thousand changes follow each other
away — so why shouldn’t living be hard?
And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me
grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
A little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased
enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.