The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan

David Hinton

translated from the Chinese
Archipelago Books 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
Writing in the first half of the 8th century, Meng Hao-jan was one of the earliest of the great Tang poets, but this is the first anthology of his poetry in English translation. For The Mountain Poems David Hinton has chosen sixty-five of Meng's poems in the "rivers and mountains" tradition, about the natural world and about visits to other recluses.

I'm in no position to judge the quality of the translation, but as English poetry Hinton's work achieves a quiet, simple power.

Waiting Out Rain at East Slope, Sent
in Haste to Origin-Pool Hsieh
Spring work begun for the farmers here,
everyone able was out on East Slope until
thunder exploded and roamed, filling skies,
and rain came, a dark blur beneath cloud.
Now clearing skies light a lake rainbow
and glistening river-willows begin to sway,
but I think only of fieldwork, wondering
about local lore — what to plant, and how.

The poems exhibit plenty of variety in subject, mood and approach. They are also nicely, if a little extravagantly, laid out, with just one poem per page.

There is no discussion of either the structure of the original poems or Hinton's approach to translation. The fixed number of characters per line in the Chinese appears to have been rendered with lines balanced for length on the page — that is, roughly the same number of letters per line in the English. There are no end rhymes, but there are traces of the parallel construction of key couplets. (For those interested in Tang poetry I recommend David Hawke's A Little Primer of Tu Fu.)

There are a few pages of notes at the end of the collection which provide information about allusions and references; these are not marked in the poems at all, so they don't break the flow. A four page introduction gives a brief account of Meng's life, and includes a few poems about him by later poets.

The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan offers a feel for Tang poetry, the life of a Ch'an Buddhist recluse, and the Chinese tradition of nature poetry, but it can be appreciated just as poetry in its own right.

March 2010

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%T The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan
%A Hinton, David
%M Chinese
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2004
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0972869239
%P 79pp