January 7, 2013

Zen & the Art of Reading Poetry. ~ Jackie Gorman

*elephantjournal.com received this book for free, in return for a guarantee we would review said offering. That said, we say what we want—good and bad, happy and sad.

A Review of Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih Te, and Wang Fan-chih

Popularized in the West by Beat Generation writers Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, T’ang-era rebel poet Han Shan is an icon of Chinese poetry and Zen. He and his sidekicks are known as laughing, ragged Zen minstrels who left their poetry on stones, trees, farmhouses and monastery walls, calling others to “the Cold Mountain way” of simple, honest, joyful living.

It sounds like an ancient Chinese version of guerrilla poetry—leaving poetry in unexpected places for people to find. The poems contained in this book can take the reader to unexpected places with their directness, simplicity and resonance with everyday life, even centuries later. It’s not surprising these poems stem from the spiritual practices of Zen, which rejects ritualism in favor of simplicity and constant awareness of the mind.

Poetry in this tradition emphasizes being fully present, with total awareness of the spontaneous moment, and a lack of verbal embellishment. It produces words as fragile and beautiful as some of the most delicate and wonderful Chinese flowers.

“My mind’s the autumn moon,

shining in the blue-green pool,

reflecting, glistening, clear and pure ….

There’s nothing to compare it with it,

what else can I say?”


Poems such as this are rare and delicate in their simplicity and impact. Hanshan was a legendary figure in Chinese poetry, but no one knows who he was, or when he lived and died. He is honored as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjurshi in Zen lore.

This collection is beautifully produced and edited, and it will be a welcome addition to the library of anyone who loves poetry, Zen and nature. While reading the poems, especially aloud, is an absolute joy, the longer term impact of these poems on my day was something I didn’t expect.

The poems in this collection come from another time and culture, but their resonance is universal. I found reading them to be inspirational in a simple way. They made me look at my own day—especially previously unnoticed interactions with nature—in a new way, and I literally note them down.

On my way to the post office to mail a late Christmas card to a friend in New York, I scribbled a hasty poem on the inside flap of the card before I sealed the envelope. I’m paraphrasing it below, as I posted it and didn’t write down a copy for myself. It was that fleeting and intangible.

“On my way to the post office in the rain, 

I noticed one Valerian flower growing wild up the castle walls,

I wanted to send it to you but I can’t,

I can only tell you it was there.”

Not a Cold Mountain poem by any standard—more like a rainy Irish street poem—but the spirit of these wonderful Cold Mountain poems have inspired me to read more poems, to notice the everyday and to use words to capture the most simple of moments, and to let them go.

In these poems I can see Han-shan and his laughing friends, holding hands, coming and going—mostly going—dashing into the wild carelessness of others’ reality, secure in their own. As Han-shan himself says, his Zen is not in the poems; Zen is in the mind.


Jackie Gorman is a Gemini who loves books, poetry, art, cookery, tattoos, guerrilla gardening and dancing. She is evangelical about cooking, speaking German and knitting, and nerdish about grammar, politics and jam-making.




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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Jennifer Spesia


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