On Monday morning, January 1st of this year, I decided that I would begin a blog. I’ve been reading Ron Silliman’s blog for a long time now and I enjoy it, and I appreciate his industry in his continual writing. I need that, so the primary reason I begin this blog is to give me a habit for my work. What follows is the piece I wrote on that Monday morning, the first day of 2007. A woodpecker—my first bird of the New Year—hammered at a telephone pole in the chilly bright morning. Later that morning I happened upon this poem, # 47 of “The poems of Pickup (Shin-te)” in The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, the revised and expanded bilingual edition from Copper Canyon that was wonderfully translated and annotated by Red Pine.

The world had its know-it-alls
fools for empty prose
indifferent to the
they sow seeds of hate
seeing buddhas they don’t bow
monks makes them mad
Sin and Evil are their colleagues
the Poisons live
next door
when they die they go to hell
and see the sun no more

This collection has been my morning toilet reading on and off for the last several years or so. Two or three poems a day, sometimes more, sometimes less—for several months I put it aside, having come bored with Han Shan’s sometime preachy ways. That’s the way my poetry-reading life is.

Shin-te (Pickup) was the youngest of those three poet hermits—the most famous of course is Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and then his tall hairy friend Feng Kan (Big Stick). None of them had much truck with the monkish ways of the Kuoching Temple at the foot of Tientai Mountain which was their primary hangout when they were not happily lost in the woods. In his preface, Red Pine gives us this story about Pickup:

One day Big Stick was walking along the trail that led between Kuoching and the
nearby county seat of Tientai. Upon reaching the cinnabar-colored outcrop of
rock known as Redwall, he heard someone crying. Searching in the bushes, he
found a ten-year-old boy. The boy head had been left there by his parents, so
Big Stick picked him up and brought him back to Kuoching.
This is sort of a Moses-in-the-rushes story, huh? Much later Cold Mountain met Pickup at the temple and “the two became such close friends, their images are still used by Chinese in their homes to represent marital harmony.”

I first read Cold Mountain via the Gary Snyder translations that were in his Rip Rap book. I have a beat up and much used copy of that around here somewhere. This probably was in 1963 at the Ruth Stefan Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. I had the “beginner’s mind” about poetry. I read the New American poets over and over, especially the poets from Black Mountain Poets and the San Francisco Renaissance. For sure these three hermits—Cold Mountain, Big Stick and Pickup—were the poets Philip Whalen was thinking about when he scribbled down “Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis” which I first read in his wonderfully titled book Memoirs of an Interglacial Age:

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a
pointless joke or silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the
margin of a quick splashed picture -
bug, leaf, caricature of Teacher
paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength
brushed momentarily over it
Their world and several since
Gone to hell
in a handbasket, they knew it -
Cheered as it whizzed by -
& conked
out among the busted spring rain
cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have
saved us all.

If you know Red Pine's Cold Mountain book, then you know I’m done with this reading of it now. Pickup’s 49 poems is the book’s caboose. But this morning—New Year’s Day, 2007—was a good day to finish it, especially to find this poem by Pickup which so easily can be changed here and there to make it so completely contemporary. It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the psyche for us humans in the last 1200 years except our technologies and some of the metaphors we use (“hell” for instance) that offer us so many opportunities for violence and self-obliteration. So I wish and will work for peace in the New Year but I don’t hold out any hope. And I will continue to write my poems. It’s a good time to be a poet, I think, although the pay is very shitty.