Environment Poetry

Environment Poetry


Poems about “nature” in the broad sense


Ancient Greek:  Small farms immortalized


Here is Klito’s little shack.

Here is his little cornpatch.

Here is his tiny vineyard.

Here is his little woodlot.

Here Klito spent eighty years.

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth; in Jay 1981:102.)


Dear earth, take old Amyntichus to your heart,

Remembering how he toiled upon you once:

Fixing in olive-stocks, and slips of vine,

And corn, and channels where the water runs.

He made you rich with herbs and fruit: in turn

Lie soft on his grey head; and bloom for him.

(Anonymous epitaph, trans. Alistair Elliot, in Jay 1981:327; “corn” means “any grain” here, the possibilities being wheat and barley, not maize.) 


Spare the mother of acorns, man.  Cut down some paliurus,

old mountain pine or sea-pine, or ilex or dry arbutus.

But keep your axe out of the oak: remember our forefathers

said that once upon a time the oaks were our first mothers.

(Diodoros Zonas, ca. 100 BCE; trans. Alistair Elliot; Jay 1981:169.)


Medieval Provençal

In the late 12th century, the Provençal troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn perfectly summarized the new mood in a transcendently impulsive outburst of song:


Ca l’erba fresch’ e.lh folha par

E la flors boton’ el verjan,

E.l rossinhols autet e clar

Leva sa votz e mou so chan,

Joi ai de lui, e joi ai de la flor

E joi de me e de midons major;

Daus totas partz sui de joi claus e sens,

Mas sel es jois que totz autres jois vens.


(When fresh gass-blades and leaves appear

And flowers bud the branching plants,

And the nightingale most loud and clear

Uplifts its voice and song descants,

I joy in it, and in the flowered air

And take joy in my self and lady fair;

All round I’m wrapped with joy and girt indeed,

But this is a joy all other joys exceed.

                        Translation by Hubert Creekmore (1952:578.)



An Irish poem from the 18th century uses a dead bittern as a symbol for the poet, Cathal Buidhe MacElgun.  The bittern is more than metaphor; it is an alter ego.  This is no raffish drinking song.  The poet is destroying himself by drink and he knows it.  He is trapped in grief—for the bittern, for himself, and and for a great deal of unspecified tragedy that the bittern symbolizes. The poet drinks in a notably unsuccessful attempt to drown the sorrow.  One reason to quote this poem here is that the translator successfully approximates the complex internal rhyme and alliteration of the original, thus giving readers a sense of what Irish poetry really sounds like.


The yellow bittern that never broke out

   In a drinking-bout, might well have drunk;

His bones are thrown on a naked stone

   Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.

O yellow bittern!  I pity your lot,

   Though they say that a sot like myself is curst—

I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise

   For fear I should die in the end of thirst.


It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,

   The blackbird, the corncrake or the crane,

But for the bittern that’s shy and apart

   And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.

Oh! If I had known you were near your death,

   While my breath held out I’d have run to you,

Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird

   Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.


My darling told me to drink no more

   Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;

But I told her ‘tis drink gives me health and strength,

   And will lengthen my road by many a mile.

You see how the bird of the long smooth neck,

   Could get his death from the thirst at last-

Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,

   You’ll get no sup when your life is past.


In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls,

   A bittern calls from a wineless place,

And tells me that hither he cannot come

   Till the summer is here and the sunny days.

When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea,

   Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight—

Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,

  And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.

                        (trans. Thomas MacDonagh; Kathleen Hoagland 1947:235-236.  This is a song, sung in both Irish and English today.)


The medieval Scots were Irish.  In ancient times Scotland was inhabited by the Picts, who spoke a Briton-type Celtic language.  The Scoti, an Irish tribe, invaded and took over in the early middle ages.  So their early Gaelic poetry was thoroughly Irish in background and quality.  This has persisted, in attenuated form, and much folk material demonstrating it has been collected.  Notable is Alexander Carmichael’s huge collection of folk charms (1992).  Carmichael provides countless charms involving plants, animals, and natural phenomena, and showing close relationships with them.  The sun, plants, and the sea are addressed personally (as St. Francis of Assisi did).  Carmichael notes that a young man going hunting was consecrated, and instructed not to kill wantonly or unnecessarily, nor “to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down,…the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling,” or young animals in general (Carmichael 1992:601).

Early Welsh poetry known to us is largely battle verse, rather thin on natural images, but in the high middle ages Welsh nature poetry explodes in pyrotechnic variety and virtuosity.  Usually, nature is merely a backdrop for light love.  However, wisdom literature, teaching texts, passages in long narratives, and sharp images in historical sources all indicate that Wales must not have been very different from Ireland in its early concern with forests and waters.  We have several early poems indicating this quite strongly (Jackson 1935).

            In the meantime, there is one medieval Galician poem that sums it all up.  Galician (Gallego) is a language very close to Portuguese.  The word“Galician” is, however, cognate with Gaul, Gallic, Gaelic, and Galatian.  The language resulted from Celts learning proto-Spanish; it carries over Spanish innovations like borrowing the German plural –s from the Visigoths in place of Latin plurals.  But Galician and Portuguese maintained the Celtic fondness for complex vowel systems and for nasalization.  Also, they maintained a number of Celtic words, many of which—specifically tree names—migrated into Spanish.  A great deal of beautiful romantic poetry was written in Galician, which in fact became the language for romantic songs throughout the Iberian Peninsula.  Richard Zenith (1995) has given us a study of this phenomenon, with translations.  The one that captures the spirit of Celtic poetry best, for me, is a brief, simple song (alas, we have lost the melody) titled “Song about a Girl’s Beloved Who Hunts.”  Most readers of the present work will be familiar enough with one or another Romance language to appreciate the wonderful prosody and rhyme of this work.  Since, alas, Gaelic poetry is impossible to read or sound out without some knowledge of the language, this is probably the reader’s best chance to get some sense of  Celtic word-music.  The poem is by Fernand’ Esquio, around 1300.


Vayamos, hirmana, vayamos dormir

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi

A las aves, meu amigo.


Vaiamos, hirmana, vaiamos folgar

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar

A las aves, meu amigo.


E nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi,

Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

A las aves, meu amigo.


E nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar,

Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

A las aves, meu amigo.


Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

E las que cantavan leixa las guarir,

A las aves, meu amigo.


Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

E las que cantavan non nas quer matar, a las aves, meu amigo.


(Come with me, sister, and we’ll go sit

Alongside the lake where I have seen

My beloved hunting for birds.


Come with me, sister, and we will walk

Alongside the lake where I have watched

My beloved hunting for birds.


Alongside the lake where I have seen

His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

My beloved hunting for birds.


His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

But he never aims at birds that sing,

My beloved hunting for birds.


His arrows shooting birds on the water,

But he never aims at birds that warble,

My beloved hunting for birds.

            Tr. Richard Zenith, 1995:234-235.)

This poem perfectly captures, in very short space, three pillars of medieval Celtic life:  love, hunting, and song.  The focus on love and nature, the love of hunting, and the implied equation of all three, is pure Celt.  The equation of birds and young women is a standard Celtic and Germanic linguistic trope, seen in “bride”—originally the same word as “bird”—and of course in the endless slang uses of “bird” and “chick.”  Hunting for birds is still a metaphor in English.  The lover’s sparing of songbirds is also very Celtic.    The Irish and other medieval poems speak of hunting deer and other game, but never of killing a songbird. By contrast, many European peoples hunted songbirds assiduously.  Mediterranean people still do.  North Europeans such as the French and English did also, in the middle ages, and indeed until quite recently.


Poems by Edward Thomas (Welsh poet, early 20th century, died on the battlefield in WWI)




Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because on afternoon

Of heat the express train drew up there

Unwontedly.  It was late June.


The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.  What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name


And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.


And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

                        (Note, for rhyme, the last word is pronounced “glostershur”)



The Ashgrove


Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made

Little more than the dead ones made of shade.

If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:

But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.


Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval—

Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles—but nothing at all,

Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,

Could climb down in to molest me over the wall


That I passed through at either end without noticing.

And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring

The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost

With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing


The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,

And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,

But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die

And I had what most I desered, without search or desert or cost.



Old Man

(The plant is southernwood,  Artemisia)


Old Man, or Lad’s-love: in the name there’s nothing

To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,

The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,

Growing with rosemary and lavender.

Even to one that knows it well, the names

Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:

At least, what that is clings not to the names

In spite of time.  And yet I like the names.


The herb itself I like not, but for certain

I love it, as some day the child will love it

Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush

Whenever she goes in or out of the house.

Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling

The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps

Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs

Her fingers and runs off.  The bush is still

But half as tall as she, though it is as old;

So well she clips it.  Not a word she says;

And I can only wonder how much hereafter

She will remember, with that bitter scent,

Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees

Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,

A low thick bush beside the door, and me

Forbidding her to pick. 

                        As for myself,

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,

Sniff them and thin and sniff again and try

Once more to think what it is I am remembering,

Always in vain.  I cannot like the scent,

yet I would rather give up others more sweet,

With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray

And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;

Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait

For what I should, yet never can, remember:

No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush of lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,

Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

                        These poems are from The Works of Edward Thomas.  This particular poem is intensely personal for me; I have the same responses to the plant, and my daughters had the same early experiences with it as Thomas’ daughter—because I planted it by our door in honor of the poem.




Robinson Jeffers:  with Thomas my favorite 20th century poet


Hooded Night [at his house at the tip of Monterey Peninsula]


At night, toward dawn, all the lights of the shore have died,

And a wind moves.  Moves in the dark

The sleeping power of the ocean, no more beastlike than manlike,

Not to be compared; itself and itself.

Its breath blown shoreward huddles the world with a fog; no stars

Dance in heaven; no ship’s light glances.

I see the heavy granite bodies of the rocks of the headland,

That were ancient here before Egypt had pyramids,

Bulk on the gray of the sky, and beyond them the jets of the young trees

I planted the year of the Versailles peace.

Bnut here is the final unridiculous peace. B efore the first man

Here were the stones, the ocean, the cypresses,

And the pallid region in the stone-rough dome of fog where the mooon

Falls on the west. Here is reality.

The other is a spectral episode; after the inquisitive animal’s

Amusements are quiet:  the dark glory.


It is worth quoting one more poem, by Jeffers, because he not only reaches the old unbarriered clear sight of the world, he also knows it is something quite different from ordinary experience, and he can describe the difference far better than I can.  He is writing of a camping trip in the coast range of northern Monterey County, California:

            We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.

The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,

Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts

Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.

                                                                        We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.

Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves

On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again.  The revived flame

Lighted my sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall

Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen:  it was the rock wall

That fascinated my eyes and mind.  Nothing strange:  light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,

Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fer nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were

Seeing rock for the first timde.  As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily

And living rock.  Nothing strange…I cannot

Tell you how strange:  the silent passionk the deep nobility and childlike loveliness:  this fate going on

Outside our fates.  It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child.  I shall die, and my boys

Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,

And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive:  the energies

That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:  and I, many packed centuries ago,

Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.


                                    (Jeffers 1937:124-125.)

Jeffers, Robinson.  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.



Chinese Poetry

Probably most of the landscape and environment poetry in the world is in Chinese.


From the Book of Songs (ca 500 BCE):

The brown-pepper plant’s fruits

            Spread and go out so far;

            That gentleman over there,

            He is great without equal.

                                    (Karlgren 1950:75, 76, again retranslated; the brown-pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like miniature male genitalia, and were a standard euphemism for same in old China.  This type of gently erotic poetry, using natural symbols, is extremely common in Chinese tradition, far more so than the very proper translated anthologies suggest!)

On the Book of Songs: See Karlgren 1950 for scholarship and literal but hard-to-read translations.  It is worth explaining the actual title, Shi Jing.  “Shi” means a short lyric poem that is sung or chanted.  “Jing” means a basic text; the root meaning of the word is the warp of a fabric.  “Warp” books were the foundational classics in a given area of literature.  “Weft” books were commentaries and secondary literature.


Tao Yuanming on Nature (ca 400 CE)


I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,

Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.

  Would you know how that is possible?

A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.

I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,

Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.

The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;

The flying birds two by two return.

In these things there lies a deep meaning;

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.  (Waley 1961:105)


Literal translation: I built my hut     among people’s dwellings,

Yet lack     horse coach sounds.

You ask    how can this be?

My heart is distanced     from the world.

I pick chrysanthemums    under the east fence,

Look far     to the south mountain.

Mountain air     freshens with evening,

Flying birds     together come home.

In this     lie thoughts of truth;

Want speak   Can’t remember words.


Here are a few of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” a set of classical verses memorized by every educated Chinese, and some other Tang poems.  (The Tang Dynasty ran from 618 to 907 CE.  Westerners never realize just how widely known Chinese “elite” culture was.  I heard a semi-literate fisherman chant one of the 300 in Hong Kong in 1966, and the audience, most of them totally illiterate, recognized the poem and saw nothing unusual in the feat.)

The monk from Shu [Sichuan] with his green silk lute-case,

Walking west down O-mei Mountain,

Has brought me by one touch of the strings

The breath of pines in a thousand valleys.

I hear him in the cleansing brook,

I hear him in the icy bells,

And I feel no change thought he mountain darkens

And cloudy autumn heaps the sky.                         (Tr. Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu, 1929:57; free—“thousand” should be “myriad,” for instance—but captures the spirit better than other translations).


Liu Zongyuan:  The lonely boat


Thousand mountains     no bird flies

Ten thousand paths     no human track.

Solitary boat    old man, split-bamboo raincloak,

Fishing, alone   cold river snow.

My translation, to give some sense of the Chinese.  This poem is telegraphic and ambiguous even by classical Chinese standards, and I have tried to preserve that.  The anonymous figure (the poet?) is invisible; we see only his raincoat.  The doubled loneliness of “solitary” and “alone” is notably intense in the Chinese text. 

Liu was a great statesman, a major reformer of the Tang Dynasty.  Here is a longer poem by him, explicitly political—and the bad governance of the forest is intended to stand for the whole system:

“The official guardians’ axes have spread through a thousand hills,

At the Works Department’s order hacking rafter-beams and billets.

Of ten trunks cut in the woodlands’ depths, only one gets hauled away.

Ox-teams strain at their traces—till the paired yoke-shafts break.

Great-girthed trees of towering height lie blocking the forest tracks,

A tumbled confusion of lumber, as flames on the hillside crackle.

Not even the last remaining shrubs are safeguarded from destruction;

Where once the mountain torrents leapt—nothing but rutted gullies.

Timber, not yet seasoned or used, left immature to rot;

Proud summits and deep-sunk gorges—now brief hummocks of naked rock.” (Elvin 2004:18).


Checking on a painting


This time I think

I got it:  one pine real

As the real.


Think about it:

Search in memory, is it

Real, or not?


Guess I’ll have to go

Back up the mountain…

South past Stonebridge,

The third one on the right….

            (Ching Yun, late 9th century, tr. Jerome P. Seaton; Seaton and Maloney 1994:76).



            Life and Death


            If you want an image of life and death,

            Look to ice and water.

            Water cools, turns to ice,

            Ice melts, turns back to water.

            Whatever dies must be reborn,

            What emerges in birth must then die.

            Ice and water do each other no harm;

            Life and death are both beautiful.

                        Han Shan, 8th century; my translation. 


More Han Shan:


            The Tiantai Mountains are my home

            Mist-shrouded paths keep guests away

            Thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy

            Above a rocky ledge mid ten thousand streams

            With bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks

With hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks

Once you see through transience and illusion

The joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed.

                        (Tr. Bill Porter, “Red Pine”; poem 207, p. 179.)

Or, more literally (but not literally enough, because I have to add pronouns, and because I can’t catch the multiple meanings of several characters—quite deliberately invoked; for instance, “sharp” [kuai] usually means “quick” [as in kuaizi, chopsticks] and can also mean “in the future,” and probably means all of them here):

My home base is in Heaven’s Terrace;

Misty paths, foggy depths, cut short guests’ arrival.

Thousand-foot cliffs and crags, where I can hide deep inside,

Ten thousand streams and torrents, stone towers and ledges.

In bark hat and wooden clogs I walk beside brooks,

With hemp robe and pigweed staff, I go round the mountain and return.

Once you see through floating reality, illusion and change in all,

The sharp joys of roaming the Way are truly marvelous indeed.


 Zhuang Zi mentioned the pigweed staff—a walking stick made from a pigweed stalk—as a symbol of poverty and noble rustic life; it was, inevitably, picked up and replayed as a symbol, not only by Han Shan but by Du Fu and others, and even by Bashō in Japan.  Of course I had to make one, and I have it by me right now.  I have tied a Mongolian blue silk scarf around it for reverence.)


Later Chinese poetry


Passing through South Lake Again:  A Buddhist Prayer


Approaching South Lake, I already begin to dread the journey,

A place of old memories; each corner reopens a wound.

Watching plum blossoms in a small courtyard could be but a dream fulfilled;

Listening to rain in a quiet room is like entering another life.

Autumn waters are bluer for reflecting my graying temples;

The evening bells sound crisper for breaking a sorrowful heart.

Lord of Emptiness, take pity on this homeless soul—

Out of this incense smoke make me the City of Refuge.

                        Anonymous, 18th century Chinese, tr. Shirleen S. Wong



            The Woodpecker


Where is the woodpecker?

Far in the high trees.

Fragile, he works so hard;

All day I hear his sound.

He works so the woods will flourish,

No worms gnawing trees away.

Woe to the crowds of humans—

Never a heart like this bird’s.

                        Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty artist and writer)


This inspired a much more famous, but (sadly) anonymous, Korean poem:


Can tiny insects

            devour a whole great spreading pine?

Where is the long-billed

            woodpecker?  Why is he not here?

When I hear the sound of falling trees

            I cannot contain myself for sorrow.

(Trans. Richard Rutt, 1971, poem 15.  In both poems the insects are symbols of evil courtiers, the trees are the country’s welfare.  This is not just metaphor, it is ganying, resonance or homology: the insects are exactly like the courtiers in their desires and actions, the trees really are valuable)



Planting Trees


Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.   (Yuan Mei, 18th century; tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92; I planted an almond on my seventieth birthday, reciting this.)


Chan Master Whitecloud:

A fly drawn by the light bumps the window paper

Unable to pass it tastes much suffering

Suddenly it chances on the route it came by

And knows its eyes have fooled it all through life.

cited by Yuan Mei; tr Denis Mair; V. Mair et al’s 2005:571.


And by Li Xiaocun:

Garden Gone to Waste


Whose courtyard consummates its own spring? 

Moss on windowsill, dust on desk

At least the dog next door still cares

Over the fence barks at a flower thief.  – p 570

(The first line means that the garden left to celebrate itself, no one else being there)


The Song Dynasty (960-1279) produced enormous amounts of superb nature poetry, but it broadly followed Tang patterns.  Song travel literature has been beautifully described and translated by Cong Ellen Zhang (2011).  Chinese loved to travel and enjoy the scenery, and especially to visit places made famous by earlier poets, to share the experience.  Chinese officials were reassigned to new posts every three years or so, and also were subject to exile for being too outspoken.  They thus had many opportunities to travel—more than they wanted, since going to a remote and isolated post could take months and could be dangerous.  Most of our information on Song travel comes from poems and accompanying literary accounts, which gives a skewed but still revealing view. 

Interestingly, the most productive poets were also some of the greatest moral teachers in Song.  Let Su Shi, generally considered the greatest poet Song, sum it up:

            The old monk has already died, they’ve already built a new pagoda.

There is no way to see the old poem on the ruined wall.

The rough going of that past day, do you still recall?

The road was long, the people in difficulty, and the lame donkey brayed. 

(Zhang 1997, p. 97.)

The old monk’s poem is lost, the rough trail forgotten.  What remains is Su’s warm and compassionate identification with the suffering people and the suffering donkey, the latter a symbol for Su himself.  (Su’s compassion morality came from Buddhism and Confucianism, but went well beyond the usual teachings.  He may, in fact, be recording here one of his exiles for emphasizing the costs of imperial policy in terms of the sufferings of the common people.)


Vietnam also produced great environmental poetry, usually but not always in Chinese style. 


Less Chinese than most is a farmers’ folk song:

            “Some folks transplant rice for wages,

But I have other reasons.

I watch the sky, the earth, the clouds,

Observe the rain, the nights, the days,

Keep track, stand guard till my legs

Are stone, till the stone melts,

Till the sky is clear and the sea calm.

Then I feel at peace.”

                        Tr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich (1975:40).


            The Vietnamese were freed from the archaic, long-forgotten ancient pronunciations of Chinese.  Writing in Vietnamese, women could revive rhyme and tone schemes that actually sounded as they were supposed to sound, and they created world-class poetry.  Thus Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng in the early 19th century:

Dung cheo trong ra canh hat hiu

Du’o’ng di thien theo quan cheo leo

Lo’p leu mai co gianh xo xac

X ke keo tre dot khang khiu

Ba gac cay xanh hinh uon eo

Mot giong nu’o’c biec co leo teo

Thu vui quen ca niem lo cu

Kia cai dieu ai gio lon leo.


Leaning out, I look down on the valley,

path winding to a deserted inn,

thatch roof tattered and decayed.

Bamboo poles on gnarled pilings

bridge the green stream uncurling

little tufts in the wavering current. Happy, I forget old worries.

Someone’s kite is struggling up.

            (Tr. John Balaban, 2000, 40-41)

            Tone marks are left out here, because they are simply too confusing to a non-Vietnamese-speaker, but tone patterning was as complex and effective as the rhyme and alliteration visible in the transcription above.       

Ho Xuan Hong, after her husband died, was supposedly reduced to being a high-class courtesan for a while, and seems to have taken to the role.  The double meaning of this poem should be easily penetrated (if you get my drift).  Again the tones carry half the beauty of the sound-poem, especially in the spectacular sound-cascade of the last line, but sadly must be ignored here.

Mot deo, mot deo, lai mot deo,

Khen ai kheo tac canh cheo leo.

Ccua son do loet tum hum noc,

Hon da xanh ri lun phun reu.

Lat leo canh thong con gio thoc,

Dam dia la leiu giot suong gieo.

Hien nhan, quan tu ai ma chang…

Moi goi, cho chan van muon treo.


A cliff face.  Another.  And still a third.

Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

The cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,

The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,

Showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary

And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

                        (Tr. John Balaban, 2000:46-47.  I do not know Vietnamese, but the poem is in Chinese characters, and I might respectfully suggest that the second line could read “Who could be so skilled as to delineate this craggy scene?”)


A Vietnamese Love Poem:


In our next life, we will take care to be born again as male and female,

But we will be two wildgeese flying high in heaven.

The blinding snow, the seas and waters, the mountains and clouds, the dust of the world

We will see from afar, but we will never fall.

Nguyen Khac Hieu   (early 20th C; from  My trans. of Huard and Durand’s French trans.  My second favorite love poem in the world, after the one below.)



Japan followed Chinese conventions in much of its poetry, but from the beginning there was a split between Chinese poetry—written in Chinese and imitating Tang styles—and Japanese poetry, often in much less regular patterns.  The Japanese developed an even more direct, fresh, intense way of viewing nature than the Chinese usually achieved.  Contemporary with the Song poets of China, Saigyö, hearing a cricket when he was in a sad mood, combined Japanese love of insects with recognition of the brevity of life:

“At that time

on my pillow

under roots of mugwort

then too may these insects

cheer me with friendly notes”

(tr. Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 129).  This poem requires some ecological unpacking; medieval Japanese would have known that mugwort is edible but intensely bitter, and that it grows on ground that has been disturbed and then abandoned—such as neglected graves.

However, ossification occurred in Japan as in China.  Tanka, haiku and other poetic forms became so forced into conventional modes that they could be, and were, endlessly generated by formulas like those of modern computer-generated music.  The cherry blossoms signal spring, the hawk-cuckoo cries for sorrow.  Bush-clover, miscanthus grass and spring rain are even commoner in haiku than in reality.  Possibly the greatest haiku writer, Matsuō Bashō, wrote in 1686:  “Like a rootless plant without flower or fruit, [poetry] today is merely vulgar banter and sporting with words” (Bashō 2005:103).  He was able to bring real originality to it, but even his work sometimes gives us layer on layer of references to older poets and shopworn images.  Still, his genius in turning a cliché into a spark for a striking new image revived poetry for another century.  The old Chinese proverb, “a bird in a whole forest can perch on only one branch,” inspired him:

“Wren on a single branch:

fragrance of its apricot flowers

throughout the world” 

(Bashō 2005:101, tr. David Barnhill, slightly corrected).

Landscape art and poetry came together in paintings with poems inscribed on them, and here the philosophy of Buddhism, nature mysticism, and nature appreciation was combined.  A Japanese example in the Los Angeles Museum of Art shows a Chinese Buddhist sage meditating in mountains, with the verse (in Chinese, though by a Japanese author): “Deep in the emerald cloud of Meng Peak

The recluse Raisan dwells alone.

Emperor Te-tsung [of Tang] himself addressed words to him

But the Zen master never even rose.

Imperial messengers came and urged him repeatedly;

Not once did he answer them.

His face glistening with cold tears,

His world was that of the wild yam;

Beyond that he did not seek enlightenment

Nor did he shun birth and death.

Nothing whatever bothered him,

No vexatious matter entered his ears.

There was no self and no others;

No troubles. No good.

No shouts issued form his mouth,

No blows from his fists.

He was one dark hard old man.”

(Takuan Sōhō [1573-1645], tr. apparently by the LACMA museum staff)

This is one of the best statements of the nature-mystic ideals of eastern Asia. 



Cherry blossom

Most loved when it falls

Nothing is meant in this world

To last forever

                        Medieval Japanese, from the Tales of Ise



The mountain wind


            Akikaze ya!

            Hyoro hyoro kama

            no kageboshi

            (The mountain wind!

            It shakes

            the mountain’s shadow)

                                    Issa (my favorite haiku; the image is a symbol of worldly power and what it is worth.  My translation.)



Also from Barnhill, p. 58: 

The Takekuma pine was a noble pine tree.  The monk Nōin saw it, came back to find it cut down by a boorish governor to use for bridge pilings, and wrote: 

“Pine of Takekuma:

at this time 

there is no trace of it;

have a thousand years passed

since I last came?”


It was replanted, and Kyohaku wrote, thinking of Noin:

“The Takekuma Pine:

show it to him,

late-blooming cherries”


Which caused Basho to seek it out (it had probably been replanted yet again by then):

“Since the cherries bloomed,

 I’ve longed to see this pine:  two trunks

 after three month’s passage.”


This poem exhibits fūryū, “’all art,’…an extraordinarily complex term, including associations of high culture, art in general, poetry, and music, as well as ascetic wayfaring and Daoist eccentricity.”  Barnhill, Basho’s Journey¸ 159




The Koreans adopted Chinese civilization but with a distinct and frequently cynical eye, evaluating, so that when they state Chinese goals they have thought harder and do better than the Chinese ever did; or they can be world-class skeptics about it all.  Many of the best poems are anonymous.  Remember these are really songs: they rhyme, have meter, and have beautiful tunes in the original.


            I live at the foot of the mountain;

            Even the cuckoo embarrasses me.

            It laughs at the size of my cooking pot when it peeks into my house.

            Believe me, bird,

            It’s plenty big in terms of my interest in the world.                                     Anonymous, tr. Kevin O’Rourke, The Book of Korean Shijo, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 166.


Red-necked mountain pheasant over there,

            Duck hawk perched on the branch,

            White egrets watching for the fish

            In the watered paddy field out in front,

            If you were not around my grass roof

            It wouldn’t be easy for me to pass the days.

                        Anonymous, tr. Jaihiun Kim (1994:190.)


            Night falls


            Night in a mountain village;

            A dog barks far away.

            I open the window and look:

            The moon is a bright leaf.

            Be still, stop barking at the moon

            Drifting alone over the face of the mountain.

                                    -Chungum, unknown woman poet, ca 1568; redone from several translations


Old age (a poem with a very personal ring these days….)


            Bamboo stick, the sight of you

Fills me with trust and delight.

Ah, boyhood days when you were my horse!

Stand there now

Behind the window, and when we go out,

Let me stand behind you.

                                    Kim Kwang’uk, tr. Peter Lee


And another:

            Even fools can know and do

            Is it not easy then?

            Yet even sages cannot know all.

            Is it not difficult then?

            Pondering whether it’s easy or hard

            Makes me forget I grow old.

                                    Yi Hwang (16C), tr. Richard Rutt  (What is “it”?  The Way, the Meaning, the Answer?  Or maybe just the question?  The point is the last line.)



The Koreans are almost the only people who seriously explored old age in poetry—here’s another:


            Wine, why do you redden a white face?

            Instead of reddening a white face why not blacken white hair?

            Should you really

Blacken white hair, I’ll drink and drink, I’ll never sober up again.

                        Tr. Kevin O’Rourke



Getting away from old age, here’ the world’s finest poem on tolerance:

            Is the crow black because someone dyed it?

            Is the heron white because someone washed it?

            Are the crane’s legs long because someone pulled them out?  Are the duck’s legs short

 because someone cut them off?        

Black, white, long, short, what’s the point in endless wrangling?

                                    Tr. Kevin O’Rourke


This anonymous woman’s poem just has to be the greatest love poem in the world:


Pass where the winds pause before going over,

Pass where the clouds pause before going over,

High pass of the peak of Changsong

Where wild-born falcons and hand-reared falcons,

Peregrine falcons and yearling hawks,

All pause before going over,

If I knew my love were across the pass

I would not pause a moment before I crossed.

                        Tr. Richard Rutt


Another anonymous love poem, so understated that it’s ten times as powerful for the low key:


In this world medicine is plentiful

And sharp knives abound, they say:

But there’s no knife to cut off affection, no medicines to forget true love.

So be it:

I’ll leave my cutting and forgetting till I go to the other world.

                        Tr. Kevin O’Rourke





The Last Kamassian Poem

            The Kamassian language (distantly related to Finnish and spoken by a tiny group of reindeer herders) died out in the early 20th century.  In 1914 one old man was located who still spoke it fluently, in a tiny community of speakers in the arctic Yenisei River area of Russia.  He gave a few word lists, then sang this song and would say no more.  (The final lines refer to coverings of the traditional lodge; they curl when long abandoned.)  It is a lament not only for his language and his people, but for the entire world, as much as he knew it. 


My black mountains

Where I used to wander

Have remained behind.

The soil I walked on grew

A belt of golden grass.

My black mountains

Have remained behind,

My white mountains

Have remained behind,

Our strength

Has remained behind.

From many families

Have I remained behind.

I have gone astray from my kinsmen,

And I am left alone.

My lakes where I was wont to fish

Have remained behind.

I do not see them now.

The poles in the middle of my tent

Have gone rotten,

The birch-bark slices that were sewn together

Have all curled up.

                        Tr. Tuovo Vuorela, 1964






Balaban, John. 2000.  Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Hong.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.


Bashō, tr. David Landis Barnhill.  2005.  Bashō’s Journey.  Albany:  SUNY Press.


Bynner, Witter, and Kiang Kang-Hu.  1929.  The Jade Mountain.  New York:  Knopf.


Elvin, Mark.  2004.  The Retreat of the Elephants:  An Environmental History of China.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.


Han-shan.  2000.  The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain.  Tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter).  Revised edn.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.


Hoagland, Kathleen.  1947.  1000 Years of Irish Poetry. New York: Welcome Rain.


Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.


Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone.  1935.  Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.


—ururls  1971.  A Celtic Miscellany.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin.


Jay, Peter (ed.).  1981.  The Greek Anthology.  Rev. edn.  Harmondsworth (England):  Penguin.


Jeffers, Robinson.  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.


Karlgren, Bernhard.  1950.  The Book of Odes.  Stockholm:  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.


Kim Jaihiun.  1994.  Classical Korean Poetry.  Fremont, CA:  Asian Humanities Press.


Kinsella, Thomas.  1989.  The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


Lee, Peter.  1974.  Poems from Korea.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.


Mair, Victor; Nancy Steinhardt; Paul R. Goldin (eds.).  2005.  Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press. 


Nguyen Ngoc Bich.  1975.  A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry.  New York: Knopf.


O’Rourke, Kevin.  2002.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Rutt, Richard.  1971.  The Bamboo Grove:  An Introduction to Sijo.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.


Seaton, J. P.  1997.  I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.


Seaton, Jerome P., and Dennis Maloney.  1994.  A Drifting Boat:  Chinese Zen Poetry.  Fredonia, NY:  White Pine Press.


Thomas, Edward.  1994.  The Works of Edward Thomas.  Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions.


Vuorela, Toivo.  1964.  Finno-Ugric Peoples.  Tr. John Atkinson.  Ind. U. Res Center, Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 39. 


Waley, Arthur.  1961.  Chinese Poems.  London: George Allen and Unwin.


Wong, Shirleen (alas, lost the ref, an obscure article years ago)


Zenith, Richard.  1995.  113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems.  Manchester, England:  Carcanet is association with Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation and Instituto Camões.


Zhang, Cong Ellen.  2011.  Transformative Journals:  Travel and Culture in Song China.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press. 

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