On ‘Han-shan, Nanzen-ji’

From a lofty summit
The panorama extends forever
I sit alone unknown
The lone moon lights Cold Spring
The moon isn’t in the Spring
The moon is in the sky
I sing this solitary song
But the song isn’t zen.

Han-shan, Nanzen-ji

Can I ask about this? Or rather, can I ask about it and get a reply?

I’ve never been very ‘good’ with poetry, despite having a good “Bachelors” degree in English. What am I supposed to take from the poem? That might sound like silly, naive question, considering I mentioned having graduated in this subject, and should surely know full well that one is not intended by any one to take anything from a text. But, I mean: are not at least some (I’d like to call them ‘great’) authors aware of this when writing, and so make the writing more than a stream of ego, a stream of consciousness or self-consciousness? Might not these authors construct their work with the complexity of linguistic expression in mind, and so form their work in such a way as to attempt to clarify the inherent vagueness of linguistic communication?

Seems to me that this poem does intend to cause an effect.

It opens gently, depicting a tranquil and removed scene in restrained tone, but with evocative nouns — the first action is not until the third of eight lines, a quarter of the way into the poem, and that action comes from the verb ‘sit,’ which is almost as passive as it gets. Then a distinct and attention-grabbing images:

The lone moon lights Cold Spring

The capitalisation of Cold Spring makes it read as a proper name, presumably a place name (if it were to refer to a person, it would be the introduction of a mechanism so-far unused in the poem, and would make the former imagery seem redundant). A place name composed of two descriptors: one of time, and one of feeling, both that match the imagery of the previous lines, all of which suggests this is the name of place in which the poem is set, from whose tense we can ascertain is the present moment, and whose location is either the place Cold Spring, or a place like the depicted place the reader has visited and recalls, or a cold place in the spring, which thanks to Ana happens to be there here and now for many of us.  Or a place that has the attributes listed, in the imagination of a generous, ‘open’ reader.

Then this nonsense:

The moon isn’t in the Spring

Reading this reminded me of Hakuin’s scalding commentaries on the Heart Sutra. What utter rot, to say that the moon is not in a season! But then I recall the narrator mentioned Cold Spring, so presume this lines inherent meaning is just a statement of the bleeding obvious (to use the Basil Fawlty-like vernacular): that the moon is not in the town. This irks me: the poet made work for that, and I imagine that was intentional, as my next thought, after ‘the moon is obviously not in the town’, I thought, ‘the moon is in the sky, obviously’. My feeling of being ‘irked’ was naturally somewhat mitigated by the next line, for its obviousness:

The moon is in the sky

I was at this point in my initial reading at once irked and soothed — and soothed by that which irked me. This poet is clever — though I am not sure I actually ‘like’ clever.

I sing this solitary song
But the song isn’t zen.

By the time I reached this final couplet, I felt resolved on my reading of the poem — the postulation of a thing that is and is not: just as the moon itself is not in the world, but its light is; the song is a product of that here termed ‘zen’, the singing is not itself ‘zen.’

I wonder if there is any point addressing directly the imagery?

Having written all this, I’m not sure I really want a reply — I’ve had enough of this poem. Perhaps I will come back to it, or perhaps it is as ephemeral as the moment it depicts? Still don’t like poetry.