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Monday, February 25, 2019

Gan Yu 6 - Chen Z'iang

Gan Yu – 6

I beheld the Dragon pass
Through the Cycle of Changes
To the point of knowing
The essence of the Yang
And also traveled to
Darkest depths of the
Stone Forest and into
The Cave’s deepest recess
Of which no record remains

Such was the knowledge
Of the ancients
Who attained the Way
Through living in the realm
Of cosmic Union and Change
They attained Dark Mysteries
Beyond ordinary comprehension

Today how can we begin to fathom
Such profound darkness
When the common sort are
Constrained by plain sight
Or act as if drunk with delight
In their pursuit of the Immortal Elixir
But on Kun Lun Mountain
There is a Tree of Jasper
To calmly pluck its fruit
It takes a hero



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The Gan Yu by Chen Zi'ang is a remarkable collection of 38 poems that were written in the earliest years of the Tang period. Often overlooked even by scholars of Chinese literature, these poems have remained somewhat overshadowed by the brilliance of the later Tang poets, such as Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu, who came to prominence over the course of the ensuing years of the 7th and 8th centuries.  

A few years ago I translated most of the poems from Chen Zi'ang's Gan Yu cycle and recently I’ve had a chance to revisit the material.    In some ways these poems present a challenge to the translator and modern reader because they are steeped in Daoist wisdom and mystery, containing many references to people, places and events from China’s rich historical and spiritual past, some real, some legendary, often a mixture of both.  For instance the Kun Lun mountains mentioned in the last stanza are located in the heart of Daoist Paradise and the Stone Forest mentioned in the first stanza (shown in the photo above) is located in current day Yunnan Province.  In the world of the Gan Yu – both the mountains and the forest enjoy this remarkably complex status – being part of a landscape that is legendary, mysterious and vividly real at the same time. 

For me this is precisely how and why the Gan Yu poems come to life.  They are filled with metaphorical richness, not so much as a matter of literary or poetic technique, but as a matter of the poet’s personal beliefs.  In other words, the world as the poet encounters and describes it is everywhere rich in portent and meaning.  Daoist poetry, for that reason, cannot be fully appreciated separate and apart from Daoist cosmology.

Gan Yu, by the way, may be literally translated as “feelings encountered along the way.”  I’m not aware of any use of these two characters in the title of a Chinese poem prior to Chen Z’iang, but thereafter Gan Yu begins to appear in the work of other poets, becoming something of a sub-genre or distinctive style of poem.   Here for instance is a fine Gan Yu poem by another Tang poet – Zhang Jiu Ling, which I previously published on the blog.

The voice or style of a Gan Yu poem is both personal and contemplative – and is particularly well suited to a poet who is prone to musing in a spiritual vein.  I think John Donne is an example of an English language poet who writes Gan Yu's to great success.   Personally, I’m very fond of the Gan Yu, and I think it’s been an important influence in my own writing, having attempted a number of Gan Yu poems of my own over the years – for example my Gan Yu 24 here,  and A Poem About the Gan Yu here and another Gan Yu poem here.   

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About the Gan Yu:  

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