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Nature as Teacher and Guide: Two Interlocking Poetry Writing Exercises

Step Four: A Journey into Nature toward a Mentor

With student junior high age and older, I often use next another exercise in writing nature poems, one that builds on the same attitude toward nature as the Circle Poem exercise. This second exercise is based on a poem by the Chinese poet Tu Fu (712-770). To introduce Chinese poetry, I sometimes show students landscapes by Chinese artists and point out the relation between the huge mountains and the tiny human figures. I also mention the Chinese reverence for philosophers and poets who withdrew from business to contemplate nature, to partake of a tea ceremony, to play meditative games like chess, or to write poems. Such pursuits were available to the educated elite, it is true, but many Chinese landscapes also convey an appreciation and knowledge of crows, say, or plum trees, which were available to all observers, regardless of education or status.

I began by summarizing Tu Fu’s life. Tu Fu served at the court of the emperor Ming Huang, the Bright Emperor, but in the struggle to bring the “associated peoples of the inner Asian frontiers to a share of power and a measure of autonomy,” he went to live in the remote province of Szechuan. Tu Fu’s son died of starvation (or disease), and he himself perished on a houseboat on which he lived in his final years. Tu Fu had adequate means to survive, but sometime just barely. The reverence for life in his poetry also suggests that he enjoyed his years of retirement from the glitter and intrigue of the court.

Tu Fu’s method of presenting images—essentially one to a line—had had an enormous impact on contemporary American Poets like James Wright and Robert Bly, as has the fluid manner in which Tu Fu moves us through a landscape or experience to what is often a startling conclusion. Because of this influence—and Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful translations—Tu Fu’s poetry strikes us as having a contemporary sound. It seems to belong to our age.
The Tu Fu poem I use with students is “Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage.” The students and I pause to discuss the meaning of hermit and hermitage, then I read the poem:

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
in the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
you can see the aura of gold
and silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
as the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
away, I become like you,
an empty boat, floating, adrift.

First, I ask the students what season it is in the poem. After they answer, “Spring,” I ask, “Early, middle, or late spring, almost summer?” This question sends us to the first six lines, with their specific details of early spring: ” icy streams, snow on the trail, the sound of shopping that suggests firewood needed to heat cold houses.

Next we discuss what Chang teaches the speaker. “What qualities doe it take to tame a mountain deer?” I ask. Students answer: patience, attention to the deer’s habits and needs, and willingness to blend into the natural world and to follow its rhythms. I also ask them to explain what the lines “You can see the aura of gold / and silver ore all around you” suggest about Chang. We consider if mining is going on in the mountains or if “aura” suggests rather human greed which Chang sees but has put aside.

Finally we consider the final three lines, the hardest lines in the poem. Not only is there a shift in focus—from season and mountain in lines 1-8, to Chang and his life in lines 9-13, and then to the concluding effect of this visit on the speaker—but there is also the first obvious use of a comparison in the poem: “I become like you, / An empty boat, floating, adrift.” (“forgotten, hidden away”) create a sense of ambivalence: Has the speaker forgotten the way back on purpose, or has he been so changed that he can’t find it? Does “hidden away” suggest he can’t go back the same way, because he’s been changed? And what about the comparison?

I ask the students, “If I said to you, ‘My life has become like an empty boat, floating, adrift,’ what would you think I meant?” The answers are always interesting: “That you’ve lost direction, are drifting with the current.” Or “You’re lonely and afraid.” I admit such interpretations are possible, but I also suggest that there’s a freedom in letting one’s life into the current, empty of expectations and goals, willing to go where the river takes you. However we interpret the speaker’s attitude at the end, we all agree that the visit to Chang’s hermitage has changes him. And that Chang himself exemplifies many qualities of respect and attention to the natural world that are found in Scott Momaday’s “Delight Song.” Both poems indicate how to “stand in good relation” to the natural world.