POEM: A WITHERED TREE
Not a twig or leaf on the old tree,
Wind and frost harm it no more.
A man could pas through a hole in its belly,
Ants crawl searching under its peeling bark.
Its only lodger, the toadstool which dies in a morning,
The birds no longer visit in the twilight.
But its wood can still spark tinder.
It does not care yet to be only the void at its heart.
By Han Yü (768-824)
From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965
Han Yü was primarily an essayist and polemicist, and initiated an ultimately successful Confucian revival at a time of Buddhist cultural dominance. When writing verse, he adopted devices traditionally confined to prose and to fu (prose poems) and sought to attend to the social and human content of poetry.
I was thinking today, after listening to someone commenting on the dangers of interpreting religious texts literally. They said that these writings were poetic. The modern mania with applying scientific rationalism to spirituality has left us with fundamentalism and, as other authors have written, a world bereft of magic.
In my professional life, I often talk to people about the importance of the standing dead tree, the snag, in an ecosystem. How wonderful to see this poetic vision of something most people see as ugly.
I agree. I like the way Chinese poets seem to combine naturalness and apparent simplicity with a magical depth.