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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Year of the Yielding Ear (Tang Spirit News #100)

The Yielding Ear

The title for this issue of the Tang Spirit newsletter comes from beyond my usual sources of influence – The Analects of Confucius.  For the most part I think of Confucius as representing the more hidebound elements of the classical Chinese tradition – the reverence for the state, the unquestioning devotion to custom and ritual – which, important as they have been for the preservation of Chinese culture, don’t typically provide an important inspiration for me, poetic or otherwise.  But this phrase – the Yielding Ear – comes from a wonderful passage in the Great Sage’s autobiography and it captures something very central to my current thinking.

In his autobiography the Great Sage divides life into 3 main epochs.  In the first stage, which runs from birth through the first three decades, the main task is to become educated and establish one’s place in the world.  In the second stage, which extends through your 40’s and 50’s, the task is to refine your understanding and overcome all doubt. In the third stage, attained when you reach your 60’s and 70’s, the goal shifts to achieve peace with the world and internal freedom.

This past weekend I celebrated my birthday.  By the Chinese way reckoning, I’ve just turned 60, which in the classical Chinese tradition represents something of a climacteric.  This is the point in life that Confucius refers to as the Year of the Yielding Ear.  It’s a curious phrase.  The characters in Chinese are 耳顺年, which may be rendered literally as ear obedient year.  Alternatively I’ve seen it translated as the time in life when no sound should be irritating.  Difficult though this phrase is to convey properly in English, at this point in my life I’m pretty sure I understand exactly what it is the Great Sage is talking about.  It’s a point in life when a poet learns to listen instead of insistently warbling on all the time.

Here’s my translation of a poem by Bai Juyi, written on the occasion of a friend’s sixtieth birthday, which further elucidates the Confucian ideal.  

  *  *  *  *  *

On Turning Sixty
From thirty to forty
By five lusts enthralled
From seventy to eighty
By much illness palled
Yet from fifty to sixty
No such evil besets us
And in quiet content
The heart peacefully rests

Love’s tumults already passed and
 Beyond the allure of financial gain
While frailty and dotage still far
In the future remain
Sturdy in limb
Traversing hills and streams
With a heart fully possessed
By the flute’s sweet refrain

So let’s open a fresh bottle of wine
And savor a few tasty cups
Until we’re all good and tipsy
 Reciting old poems together
But none more affectionate than
This poem for my friend Meng De
Urging him to keep his heart open
Without suspicion or fear now
That the time has come
For the Yielding Ear


三十四十五欲牵    七十八十百病缠
五十六十却不恶    恬淡清净心安然

已过爱贪声利后    犹在病羸昏耄前
未无筋力寻山水    尚有心情听管弦

闲开新酒尝数盏    醉忆旧诗吟一篇
敦诗梦得且相劝    不用嫌他耳顺年

*  *  *  *  *

Our western culture worships and idealizes youth.  This is evident in our high and low culture alike, from pop music to Hollywood movies to fine literature.  We don’t age gladly.   Awards and stipends go to the younger poets and, as no lesser a poet than W.B. Yeats lamented, “a poet, when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision, without new bitterness, new disappointment.”

But under the tutelage of Confucius and Lao Tzu, I have learned there are other ways to think about growing old.  In fact, a poet may aspire to set mask and vision aside altogether, along with the face cream and other surgical options to consider.  If so, it turns out there are some truly wonderful advantages in ageing out of the demo, at least if you’re lucky enough to still enjoy good health.  This is the time of life when the ear finally learns to yield and lo and behold it leads to the discovery that birdsong everywhere abounds.  In the end, the finest poems we are capable of may be those that require less of a compelling voice and more of a yielding ear.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you my own birthday poem written in anticipation of my 60th year.

*  *  *  *  *

Birthday Georgic

Now a younger poet
May very well read
Virgil or Thoreau and
Conclude that is all they
Need to know about
Furrowing the earth

But for me
It took nearly 60 years
To finally realize there
Is no finer posture
Than to find oneself
Supine and supplicant
In the garden

Enhancing the yield
Preferably with gloves
And a spade in order
To spare the manicure
When applying manure

And also with notebook
Nearby so as to make
A more complete record
Of such perennial bounty
And reward

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