What is the Source of the Best Poems


Yogi C. M. Chen

I. Mad Verse, Sad Verse, Glad Verse and Bad Verse

Are these four "D's" mentioned by Poet John Taylor (1580-1654) the sources of the best poems? "Certainly Not!"

Before I talk about the true sources, I should give some reasonable argument about my negative answer, or I will be criticized for being arbitrary!

Robert Browning (1812-1889) also treated these "D's" as sweet principles when he said:

How mad and sad and bad it was !
But then how sweet it was!

Nevertheless, these four adjectives were misused. They were not able to point out the exact source which should be directly sought after by the poet. Let me deal with these four "D's" one by one as follows.

A. Mad: "All poets are mad!" said Robert Burton (1577-1640) and "mad man" seems to be a synonym of "poet." That is why Horace (65- 8 B.C.) dared to say, "The man is mad, or else he is writing verse!" In our modern age, many youths do confess themselves to be crazy poets--another term in place of "mad man". They are proud and haughty to have such an appellation. Through additional use of such drugs as L.S.D. and S.T.P. they even want to be more mad. Long hair, long beards, unwashed faces, dirty clothes, and ragged trousers are all to show their fashion as modern poets. They repeat their own free verse while passing along noisy streets such as Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. In their inward thoughts, they think of themselves "We are saintlike poets as Han Shan (Cold Mountain). You vulgar people don't know what is meant by a mad poet!" This kind of madness is not really madness nor are they really saint-poets. Han Shan lived on a mountain, he was scarcely living with his wife at home or living with his religious friends in a monastery. He never passed by beautiful stores as modern youths do with their girl friends.

If they are really mad and can't even write prose, how can they write good poems?

This way of thinking is due to the fact that the average common and vulgar person runs madly to bars, night clubs, dancing places, horse races, golf courses, bull fights and massage houses; when they accidentally meet some person who likes solitude, admires meditation alone, talks little with others, has no girl friend, no official job, no business and even no certain food, such as Han Shan and Milarepa, they call such persons "mad men." Actually the common person himself is mad. That is why Horace did exclaim, "You yourself are mad and so are all fools." Our age is an age of upside-downness; the man of awakeness is called mad, while the really mad man is never aware of his madness. It is just like the lowest rooms are in the highest buildings, while the highest rooms are in the lowest buildings in the village, as is witnessed in my poem:

Who knows all rooms in highest building are low.
When the tallest person comes, his head must bow!
This is not like small hut in mountain village,
High and wide with fresh air passing through bamboo!

Those who work in an office in such a high building and pursue all worldly desires are really running mad. Those who like to live in the mountains where they may meet natural poems are not really mad!

B. Sad: A Chinese proverb runs "No Sadness, No Poem." Homer (circa 1000 B.C.) did admit of what "Sinks my sad soul to the grave." Aubrey de Vere's song on "When I was Young" proves that sadness was always with him:

When I was young I said to sorrow
"Come, I will play with thee."
He is near with me all day.
And at night returns to say:
"I will come again tomorrow,
I will come to stay with thee."

From looking at many poetry books, we can find that 99% of the poems seem to describe sadness. The poet's pen seems always to couch the worldlings more with sadness than with delight. Many titles of T'ang Poems include the word "sadness", such as "The Sadness of Court Ladies" or "The Sadness of the War". Such poems brought tears to my eyes when I was young. My own poems which were published in Hong Kong also have brought tears to my readers' eyes. Nevertheless, I am a man of happiness and not of sadness. When I came to the U.S. I often met strangers on the street who would stop and ask me "Why are you so happy?" Never did a person ask me, "Why are you so sad?"

In general, poets are joyful but they play with others' emotions, sometimes making fun of readers, at other times making people sad! Just as Malherbe (1555-1628) described: "Our days and nights have sorrows woven with delight." Yet neither sadness nor delight can alone be the source of the best poems!

During the Second World War, I guided my family to escape an occupied area. We sometimes were separated from one another, and at other times managed to meet together. Once we met at a relative's house. I told my family, "Today I want you all to weep!", and then read my poem:

Running in dust and sand was my big son.
My wife had returned to her own home.
Daughter was left with kinsman alone,
Parted these four, yet family one!!!

Really they all wept! But I at the same time laughed at them with tears not of sadness but rather of joy. I never wept for my house that was destroyed in the war, yet some of my poems seem to be built on that sadness:

My burnt house is close to the wasteland.
Spring signs still grow up on the willow!
The old nest, of course, has the same end!
But no address to tell the swallow!

It seemed to really come from my sadness, yet I have tried to move it to the swallow, from which I tried to influence my readers and let them have the idea of impermanence! Hence it was not the sadness of common emotion. How could sadness really be the source of the best poems?

On the contrary, poverty without sadness can make the best poems. My poem below may be mentioned as an example:

Poverty without sadness makes a good poem!
Pleasure shows the Chan which has nothing wrong!
Riches do not come from the loving kindness.
My best song seems to the ancients belong!!

Nevertheless, "gladness" is also not a source of great poetry. Let me deal with this in the next paragraph.

C. Glad: Opposite to sadness, gladness is suggested as another source of the best poems as the ancients have said. But to the really good poet who never holds vulgar emotions, there is no differentiation between sadness and gladness. During my family's escape in the Second World War, I passed many rivers, mountains and villages. I caught the natural poem of the landscape and sung out without writing:

On the hill top, those farmers start their fire,
Near the river mouth, fisherman sets his net;
Though they are the scenes of common desire,
Yet the running one feels them very quiet!!

Whether my mind was sad or glad, I couldn't say which. ln fact, sadness is for the common person who reads it with sympathy. But the gladness of feeling the quiet is really belonging to myself. It may be hoped that all my readers will share this. A poem of Shakespeare can be a witness to my idea. It reads:

I have, as when the sun does light a storm,
Buried this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.
But sorrow that is couched in seeing gladness,
Is like that mirth fate turns to sudden sadness!

Tears seem to belong to sadness, but on some occasions, they may come from gladness. For example, when a son or daughter returns home and meets his or her mother after being parted for a very long time, tears come from both the son or daughter and the mother. Actually both are happy and smiling, so how can we say tears belong only to sadness.

Many poems I have written on the subject of remembering my mother. One of them can be quoted to show that tears and smiles go together:

During my childhood I did make her no rest!
When grown up, I left her for East or West!
With tears and smiles, when she saw me coming back,
And often treated her own son as a new guest!!

Wonderful is the mind to modify that which has no certain objective. Most wonderful is the mind of a poet which focuses on the unspeakable or inconceivable and is more profound than that of the common person.

How to gain gladness, how to keep it and how to prolong and enrich it--this is a problem for all human beings, at all times, on all occasions. Most poets have not yet found out the source of gladness; they may sometimes accidentally have some gladness but most of the time they fall into sadness as a common pessimist. Some common people may find out the source of gladness in a wrong way or of worldly things. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) found his gladness only in three worldly things: a good bank account, a good cook, and good digestion. Nevertheless, many Chinese ancient poets completely lacked such things. Here I would like to introduce below one T'ao poem from my Booklet New No. 39:

Poor but happy--guarding humility,
Chien Lou's best examples were set in ancient.
Offered high rank, he would not accept it,
Offered rich gifts, he would not receive it.
Till the day his span of life was exhausted,
His old clothes were the same ones worn-out.
He did know what would be the extremity,
He did not mind, as worldly things shouldn't count.
Since he lived ago nigh on a thousand years,
Still his like has never been told to my ears.
Living in each day he had love and faith,
Dying at night without greed but with cheer!

If one takes away the pleasure obtained by being rich, the pleasure obtained by taste, the pleasure caused by delicious food, the pleasure which comes from listening to music, the charm derived by the eyes from the sight of figures in movement, or other pleasures produced by sex or of any other sense of the whole man or woman, there is no gladness; he is not a poet at all!

D. Bad: This word "bad" ends in the same letter of the English alphabet as the last three terms I have dealt with and has also been used in an unusual way in relation to poetry. This does not mean as is usually said "Bad produces evil." A good poet should not cause either himself or others to do evil. Emerson (1803-1882) said "Poets should be law-givers, that is, the boldest lyric inspiration should not chide and insult, but should announce and lead the civil code and the days work." More than this, Horace emphasized that poets should be the first instructors of mankind. How can a poet be bad? But I'm sad to say some young American poets' characteristics are not so good. To lure readers to his poetry book, some poet adds a photo of his wife taken right after the delivery of their child, while another poet emphasizes homosexual intercourse and frankly writes a poem with debauched sentences. This is really bad poetry. Once I was given a book of poetry containing a woman's poems, one of which read, "Touch, Touch, Touch again some I like it, some I do not like it. . ." Such meaningless sentences were arranged line by line filling two pages. I would never think they are poems! Poems such as these fall in the category of those criticized by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790):

What are our poets, take them as they fall.
Good, bad, rich, poor, much read, not read at all.
Them, and their works in the same class, you'll find,--
They are the mere wastepaper of mankind!

If a poem book can add an obscene picture, why not call the business of adult cinema as poetry. Are those adult pictures not attractive, charming, colorful and vivid as your adult poetry book?

Furthermore, some of those young and modern poets who on the one hand admire Han-Shan's poetry, and on the other hand also like the poetry of the robber. Actually the robber is known to every Chinese person as a robber and can never be called a poet. Han-Shan who was really a poet, had the characteristics of a Buddhist sage; he always lived in the mountains alone, neither went to town nor stayed in a monastery. Chan and nature and his poverty were three-in-one, and from this oneness he got many of his best poems. The robber, on the contrary, emphasizes  power, struggle and cruelty as a tyrant; this is the three-in-one which is the robber's Trinity and from which he may sometimes write some rancid poems. A poet should not be like a dog--sometimes taking meat (Han-Shan's poems) and other times taking stool(the robber's poems). This kind of modern poet is really bad.

To literally explain the word "bad" in the poetic sense, it can mean raw and innocent without flattery; honest, frank without hypocrisy; and straight-forward without craftiness or megalomania. It does not mean, in the common sense, the bad which produces the evil. "A poet's soul should contain the perfect shape of all things good, wise, and just, his body must be spotless and without blemish, his life pure, his thoughts high, his study intense" as Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) said.

II. Three Principles of a Chinese Poem

Besides these four "D's" there are three principles in China emphasized by the Chinese classical poets. These are: Passions, Views, and Ideas.

These three principles are the materials of a poem, but not the source of the best poetry. Passion is a powerful spring, yet a bad regulator. To Buddhists, passion is like one's own inner enemy. Although most of T'ang poems were full of passion, they had their distinguished par excellence speciosity which was different from the emotions of a vulgar person. Confucius says "The Kwan Tsu (a classical poem) is expressive of enjoyment without being excessive." Regarding the measurement of this kind of subtle mental degrees of passion, no one can put out the exact mark which differentiates the lustful evils from the reasonable love. Passion itself cannot be trusted by its own master, as Thomas A. Kempies (1380-1471) said, "Trust not to thy passion, for whatever it be now, it will quickly be changed into another thing." Sir Roger L'Estrange also said, "It is with our passion, as with fire and water, they are good servants but a bad master!" How a poet masters his passion is a difficult problem. There might be a special source to be the master of the poet's passion.

As for "View" or "Landscape", such as wind, flower, snow and moon, these always come into poetry, yet they are just like the background or scenery for stages of a drama. Poetry is not the Paris prostitute who spends her time on her often-used cosmetics, such as powder, perfume, oil, rouge and lipstick. A good poem is rather like the teenage village girl possession only her natural, graceful prettiness. As salt and spices are not the main thing in a delicious dish, so the views of a poem are not its source.

The profound Idea is said to be the bone of a poem which supports the poem philosophically and meaningfully. Nevertheless, it is still a secondary condition which needs something special to produce it.

Too many ideas seem to make the poem too dry or lean, but too much passion or ornamentation of words seems to make the poem too wet or fat. Hence, all these three principles are only elements but not the source.

III. Six Definitions of a Chinese Poem

Besides the above discussed three principles, in an ancient Chinese poem book six definitions of poetry are mentioned:

  1. Ballads by people concerning social customs.
  2. Odes by scholars dealing with the political.
  3. Hymns by officials with praise to the leaders and can be used in a dance.
  4. Narrations to describe plainly.
  5. Parables written as comparisons.
  6. vocation to start a poem with some closed motivation.

These six are the methods to write a poem. They are all not the real source of a best poem.

IV. What is the Best Poem?

From the last pages, we might know the negative--what is not the sourse. We also know what is not the best poem. When the negative is recognized, the positive is easily learned. Let me first introduce what the best poem is.

  1. A best poem is made by the sage of learned scholars with his or her central thought which is never changed by himself or herself. That person who has no central thought, today he says someone is a robber and tomorrow says that one is a poet, will never make a best poem.
  2. The best poems should more or less contain some morals or ethics which can change the evil person's mind into a good one. But a poem would never guide the bad person to become worse and worse.
  3. The best poem should say nothing against the truth, either of Hinayana, such as renunciation and impermanence, or of Mahayana, such as the two-folds of non-egoism, six kinds of paramitas or of Vajrayana, such as Vajra love, Mahamudra and the Great Perfection.
  4. The most perfect and best poems should imply the great compassion without violence, terrorism, and ideology; and the deep wisdom without skepticism, hylozoism, and materialism. A poet always puts his or her pen to paper with these two principles--compassion and wisdom, in order to change the human mind with Buddha's mind.
  5. In short, the best poems should completely identify with the essential Chan which is the final truth.

Hence my positive answer to the problem of what is the real source of the best poem is Chan! It is the full enlightenment of Buddhism. It is the harmonization of great compassion and deep wisdom which has the function to make this world peaceful.

The T'ang Dynasty emphasized the identification of poetry and Chan. T'ang was the golden age of both poetry and Chan. Chan is the real truth of Buddhism. It is, it was, it will be. It has no limitation of space and time. This kind of sourse has no beginning yet is ever classic; made yet full of humanity and loving kindness; not vulgar yet with enough sympathy; with nothing hidden yet profound; non-curious yet specific; not many words yet we taste its endlessness of introspection; not material yet pervading all matter, even able to make stones dance, iron fly, corpses talk, fish jump up and demons worship.

It has been said that to throw a poem down on the ground makes a sound of gold.

Those best poems were, are and will be always in the Chan, in the Truth; the poet just discovers them, or reveals them or meets them without writing with a pen. The truth seems to borrow the poet's mouth to pass through. Before a poet is born in this world, the poem is already in the truth.

Some of my poems have described this idea:

It is said within eight steps one might quickly make a poem.
For changing one word, part of ancient's beards have been torn down.
But to me, they all wasted their time, as it's not man-made,
When Chan appears, it passes through my mouth, a natural song!

* * * * * *

I laughed at the ancient who used to find the poem.
Without thinking or writing my poems themselves come!
My mind returns to its nature like white paper,
On which the Chan appears itself a sweet song!

* * * * * *

When I get the Chan and poem at the same time,
It has the natural rhythm and sweet rhyme.
I never be the slave to serve my poem,
I do drive it to Buddha's church chime.

* * * * * *

Not like scholars grinding with ink-stick!
Chan and poem and pleasure meet so quick!
Last night I dreamt of Milarepa,
Sung a lot in the cave like a chick!

* * * * * *

The macrocosm is a great poem without doubt,
Naturally passes through my mouth without thought!
Everywhere is the poem with endless rhyme,
But the scholar-like poet has never been taught!

* * * * * *

In past lives I might have some good conditions won,
Gods do like me to meditate in peak or town!
Hence all places wherever I have set my Chan rush--mat,
There is a beautiful scene as a ready-made Poem!

* * * * * *

The best poet seems to be conservative and to have left behind the worldlings for many thousands of years, yet his best poems are everlasting without end. He also seems to be fashionable and ever-new, yet his best poems have nothing contradictory to the truth which is more ancient than human beings.

When the poet is indulgently drinking the Chan spring, every kind of voice becomes his poem: dog yaps, cat mews, cows moos, chick clucks, crow caws, lion roars, breezes blow and streams flow, all are in a natural poem. One of my poems does describe this idea:

Universe is an endless classic ballad.
I write it but not alone, I am so glad!
The natural echoes sounding in the sky,
Cowboy's flute and farmer's song, we have had!

The three styles of ballad, ode and hymn, and the three writing methods of narration, parable and evocation are superfluous and useless to the excellent poet. Of the three principles, passion he has turned over to his great compassion, view or landscape, he has altogether digested into his nature, and ideas, he has dissolved into his deep wisdom.

He is ever glad but has no selfishness to keep it; he seems to be mad but only is different from the common man's vulgarism and customs. He sometimes seems sad but only for the sake of others. He seems bad but is extraordinarily good to overwhelm the bad into the excellency of Truth.

Besides the best poems which we have described above, there are good poems which possess only the skin of Chan, containing only the three styles, the three methods and the three principles.

There are better poems than these which contain the Chan Bone and may possess the four "D's" rightly. That is why I do emphasize that it is only the best poem which really has the Chan essential as its source. May all poets have the accomplishment of Chan, through which they may discover many more best poems than those which were made in the T'ang Dynasty of China.

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