Tuesday, October 19, 2010

California Nature Writing -- The Asian Connection

What is often overlooked about West Coast and California nature poetry is that so much of it has been inspired by contact with early Chinese poetry, in which the direct perception of nature, unsullied by cultural filtration and embedded instead in traditional yogic meditation practices, seemed perfectly adequate for poetic expression.

Perhaps it seems a bit far-fetched to compare the experience of the American West--bound up as it is with the frontier enterprise, adventurism, economic exploitation, the vanished Amerindian past, environmentalism, eco-Buddhism and recreational backpacking in the Sierras--with traditional Chinese tropes in which Sung-period literati met once a month on a specially constructed viewing platform on the night of the full-moon, or where a poet visits the ruins of a deserted Buddhist temple and, ever mindful of the impermanence of conditioned phenomena, describes its disintegration back into nature.

The Asian perception of nature seems so passive and uneventful, compared with the gung-ho, activist American approach to the Great Outdoors, or the tourist-bus, sightseeing, excursional discovery of “Nature” popular in Europe, where wilderness and frontiers have long vanished from common experience.

But there were indeed huge areas of wilderness to be observed and written about in Tang- and Song-period China, and contemporary Chinese painting and poetry reveal something totally worshipful about the encounter with nature, centuries before European Romantics turned on to it as a literary theme, motivated by the desire to escape from “society,” meaning as I like to think incipient industrial capitalism.

More locally, Kenneth Rexroth was the first poet to recognize the possibility that the Chinese poets and artists were on to something important, and to incorporate that way of thinking about and describing nature in his own writing, for example in the collection entitled The Signature of All Things (1949). The following poem entitled Winter even reveals one of Rexroth’s numerous sources:

This is not the most elegant of Kenneth's nature poems, and the word "hut" seems a bit precious, but it does show clearly how Asian poetry had a deep affect on one San Francisco writer. In a larger context, it also supports my argument that there does exist a direction in modern poetry which I've called California realism.

Su Tong Po (aka: Su Dong-po, and Su Shi) has a wiki under his name Su Shi, and there are a few interesting translations at http://www.chinese-poems.com/su.html.



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