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Private Poet Mary Oliver

Maria Shriver: Mary, you’ve told me that for you, poetry is and always was a calling. How do you know when something is a calling?
Mary Oliver: When you can’t help but go there. We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy. I spent a great deal of time in my younger years just writing and reading, walking around the woods in Ohio, where I grew up. I often say if you could lay out all the writing I did in those years, it would go to the moon and back. It was bad, it was derivative. But when you love what you’re doing, honestly, you can get better.Maria Shriver: When you would wander in the woods and write, did people ever think you were crazy?
Mary Oliver: My parents didn’t care very much what I did, and that was probably a blessing. But in Provincetown now, there’s a little story that is sweet. They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk.Maria Shriver: Because you always walk with a notepad.
Mary Oliver: Yes, always. It’s very important to write things down instantly, or you can lose the way you were thinking out a line. I have a rule that if I wake up at 3 in the morning and think of something, I write it down. I can’t wait until morning—it’ll be gone.

Maria Shriver: What does it mean to you to be a poet?
Mary Oliver: I consider myself kind of a reporter—one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography. I never think of myself as a poet; I just get up and write. For most of my life, I haven’t had the structure of an actual job. When I was very young and decided I wanted to try to write as well as I could, I made a great list of all the things I would never have.

Maria Shriver: Wouldn’t have?
Mary Oliver: Would not have, because I thought poets never made any money. A house, a good car, I couldn’t go out and buy fancy clothes or go to good restaurants. I had the necessities. Not that I didn’t take some teaching jobs over the years—I just never took any interesting ones, because I didn’t want to get interested. That’s when I began to get up so early in the morning—you know I’m a 5 A.M. riser—so I could write for a couple of hours and then give my employer my very best second-rate energy [laughs].

Maria Shriver: Did you ever ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Should I change course and maybe try to get some of the things on that list?”
Mary Oliver: Never. I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.

Maria Shriver: So many kids and people feel “different,” and they think they’re the only ones who feel that way.
Mary Oliver: It wasn’t that I wished I could be like everybody else. I very much wished not to be noticed, and to be left alone, and I sort of succeeded.

Maria Shriver: Sort of succeeded? You’re one of the best-known writers around.
Mary Oliver: But that’s the public person. Apparently, I’ve been considered a recluse.

Maria Shriver: Yes, I was going to ask you about that.
Mary Oliver: I didn’t know I was a recluse. I mean, I know many people in Provincetown—fishermen, Portuguese people, young people. If the plumber says, “How’s your work goin’?” I’m very easy with that. But if somebody I don’t know comes to town and calls me up and says, “I love your work. I’m here for three days, could I take you to lunch?”—well, that is something I can’t do. It’s hard to meet a stranger—you give of yourself—and if I did that, I’d want to do it well. I’d have to leave my desk, or the woods, and I don’t want to.

Maria Shriver: Are you happiest sitting at the desk or walking in the woods?
Mary Oliver: Probably walking in the woods, because I do feel like I vanish and become part of the natural world, which for whatever reason has always felt safe to me. But my mind is more invested when I’m working on a poem at my desk, and that’s fun. In order to be good, you have to really love the work of it.

Maria Shriver: Why did you first turn to a creative art?
Mary Oliver: Well, I think because with words, I could build a world I could live in. I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite word?
Mary Oliver: A few [laughs]. Love, mirth, praise, constancy…Maria Shriver: What about a favorite poet?
Mary Oliver: I suppose it would have to be Whitman, unless it’s Rumi or Hafiz. And I do love Emerson’s poetry. And of course I named my dog Percy after Shelley. And how could anybody not love Keats.

Maria Shriver: I love Rumi.
Mary Oliver: Absolutely. And it is what I love—to contain both the spiritual life and the life in this world—that he does so beautifully.

Maria Shriver: Do you think it’s possible to contain the spiritual world and also be of the “real world” in 2011?
Mary Oliver: I definitely believe that. And I think if you skimp on one or the other, you’re not getting the whole show. You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about.

Maria Shriver: When you talk of the spiritual, though, you’re not talking about organized religion.
Mary Oliver: I’m not, though I do think ceremony is beautiful and powerful. But I’ve also met some people in organized religion who aren’t so hot. I’ve written before that God has “so many names.” To me, it’s all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet.

Maria Shriver: What does that mean?
Mary Oliver: That I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.

Maria Shriver: Is that the poet’s goal? Or is the goal to make people look at nature in a different way? Is it to touch their soul? Is it for them to feel delight?
Mary Oliver: All of those things. I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It’s already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we’re animals, that we need the Earth. And that can be devastating. Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, and he talks about this coming devastation a great deal. I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the “Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?”

Maria Shriver: You try to praise.
Mary Oliver: Yes, I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.

Maria Shriver: You were talking earlier about how you felt happy writing and being in nature, so you moved toward happiness. So many people think that poets are tortured souls.
Mary Oliver: Well, we went through a whole period of confessional poets. And I think a lot of people—certainly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that’s a shame. I may be wrong, but it seems like they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn’t work. I don’t usually mess around with what makes me unhappy when I’m writing. I want to write poems that will comfort, maybe amuse, enliven other people. I don’t mean that the world is all great and wonderful. But I’m careful to—I try to keep the emphasis on the good and the hopeful.

Maria Shriver: So you never wanted your poetry to be a place where you worked out your own struggles. And yet “The Journey,” my all-time favorite poem, seems to deal with darker themes.
Mary Oliver:
Well, looking back, I’m shocked to see that I wrote that. Because I was always very private about my life, and yet the poems in Dream Work [1986] are not so private as I thought. I’m glad I wrote them, and I’m doing a little more of that now—using personal material. I want to be braver and more honest about my life. When you’re sexually abused, there’s a lot of damage—that’s the first time I’ve ever said that out loud.Maria Shriver: You were sexually abused as a child?
Mary Oliver:I was very little. But I had recurring nightmares; there’s damage.

Maria Shriver: Can you tell me about that?
Mary Oliver:
Well, that’s why I wanted to be invisible, I’m sure. And it certainly made it hard to trust. But with the help of a few real good people, I finally feel healed—kind of late in life. I’ve been working with a wonderful guy for the past five years or so.Maria Shriver: A therapist in Provincetown?
Mary Oliver:

Yes. I’m now able to understand, one, that it happened, which a child fights and doesn’t want to acknowledge, and two, that it affected certain things in my behavior. It was probably the reason I left home the day after I graduated from high school—I couldn’t wait a minute. And why I was needy a great deal of my life, because I didn’t get sufficient mother-love and protection. That can make people very—well, there are millions of people walking around the world who had insufficient childhoods, and I just happen to be one of them.Maria Shriver: Why is now the time to write more personally? Has age made you braver?
Mary Oliver:

I think what’s made me braver are the forerunners who have dared to tell. At your conference, I was very moved by Eve Ensler’s courage. I now know it is a subject or theme I will not be avoiding. There will always be birds, but I’m gonna broaden out a little bit, or maybe a lot. I don’t know.Maria Shriver: Does the thought of broadening out excite you, scare you, relieve you?
Mary Oliver:

It excites me. I mean, it feels like a freedom.Maria Shriver: One line of yours I often quote is, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver:

I used up a lot of pencils.Maria Shriver: [Laughs.]
Mary Oliver:

What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn’t come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift. Those are the things.

Maria Shriver: You have lived a very unique life, a life really individual and fearless.
Mary Oliver:
Well, it was never a temptation to be swayed from what I wanted to do and how I wanted to live. Even when Molly got ill, I knew what to do. They wanted to take her off to a nursing home, and I said, “Absolutely not.” I took her home. That kind of thing is not easy. I used to go out at night with a flashlight and sit on a little bench right outside the house to scribble poems, because I was too busy taking care of her during the day to walk in the woods.Maria Shriver: You had a 40-year relationship with Molly. How did her death change your life?
Mary Oliver:

I was very, very lonely.Maria Shriver: You’ve written in your work that you rarely spent any time apart. How did you avoid being crushed by losing her?
Mary Oliver:

I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that’s what I did. I haven’t locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself. It was a very steadfast, loving relationship, but often there is a dominant partner, and I was very quiet for 40 years, just happy doing my work. I’m different now.

Maria Shriver: You’ve come into your own more?
Mary Oliver:
Yes. Kind of late, but it has happened.Maria Shriver: You told me when we were walking that you’ve never been happier.
Mary Oliver:

It’s true.Maria Shriver: We live in a society where people think they’re too old at 55 or 60 to do anything else. And you’re 75! I find it fascinating that you’ve become happier, you’re braver, you’re more excited, you’re healed from the early trauma of sexual abuse.
Mary Oliver:

I’m also something else I never was—I’m funny! [Laughs.]

Maria Shriver: How did winning the Pulitzer [in 1984] change your life?
Mary Oliver:
Well, they say that in 1941, the question everybody was asking was, “Where’s Pearl Harbor?” After I won the Pulitzer, everyone was saying, “Who is Mary Oliver?” I’d already written my fifth book, and I don’t think I’d ever given a reading. I was washing the dishes when the phone rang [laughs].

Maria Shriver: And what did you think?
Mary Oliver:
Well, when the local TV station called and asked if they could come up, I said no. I was at that time—boy, you have really got me talking now—at the time I was shingling our house, if you can believe it. I went to the dump to gather up old shingles, my usual routine, and one fellow who saw me said, “Didn’t I see you on television last night?” I wasn’t on television myself, but they’d shown a picture of me. And then another friend came by, a painter, and she said, “Ha-ha, what are you doing, looking for your old manuscripts?” [Laughs.] That was Provincetown—it was wonderful. My life didn’t change, except that I started to get more work published, and I started to do readings.Maria Shriver: Are you ever amazed when you walk out onto the stage that there are several thousand people sitting there just to hear you read your poems?
Mary Oliver:

I think, “These people are all hoping they’re not going to be put to sleep. They hope they’re going to hear something that means something to them.”

Maria Shriver: That’s a lot of pressure! You always say, though, that poems are meant to be read.
Mary Oliver:
Oh, they are. They’re meant to be read and heard.Maria Shriver: It’s different if I hear you speak “The Journey” than if I read it.
Mary Oliver:

Yes, it is different, but not too different if I’ve done a good job with the poem, with the words I use, the line breaks. Poets these days don’t seem to know much about mechanics. Donald Hall says a poem has two lives—there is the statement that you’re making, and there is the poem’s sensual body. The words you use, the layout… I’m fascinated by that.Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite poem?
Mary Oliver:

That I wrote? Not yet. You’re supposed to love all your children [laughs]. Actually, my favorite poem is always the one I’m working on.

Maria Shriver: And what’s the one you’re working on now?
Mary Oliver:
Several. I’ve got about 15 or 18.Maria Shriver: Is there a brave one in there?
Mary Oliver:

It’s not typed up yet, but yeah, there is a brave one [laughs].


Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

I’ve loved this poem for a long time. Linda Pastan’s idea of an almanac of last things inspires me in a way that a “bucket list” does not!

The Almanac of Last Things
From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair–and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.

I know there are folks who don’t want to contemplate the end of life, or any sort of loss, before they get there. For them it drains joy from the present moment.

For me, it’s the opposite. Every reminder that there will be a last this and a last that — including a last moment — deepens my gratitude for this moment and helps me “be here now.”

So a “last thing” has several meanings for me. It’s among the last things I want to give up. It’s among the things I want to be holding with gratitude and grace when my last moment comes. And it’s among the things I will need to let go of at the end, so it’s important that I appreciate it fully right now.

P.S. The ocean and the full moon are in my personal Almanac of Last Things. Both of them say life in a big way to me. And both are on the long list of blessings for which I can only say a heartfelt “Thank you…”

Sitting Alone in Peace Before These Cliffs

moon before cliff

Sitting alone in peace before these cliffs
the full moon is heaven’s beacon
the ten thousand things are all reflections
the moon originally has no light
wide open, the spirit of itself is pure
hold fast to the void; realize its subtle mystery
look at the moon like this
this moon that is the heart’s pivot

Escorting the Moon
Hānshān Déqīng 1564-1623

I let my mind and body go and gained a life of freedom
my old age is taking place among ten thousand peaks
I don’t let white clouds leave the valley lightly
I escort the moon as far as my closed gate

Hǎo Suí Míngyuè

Shēn xīn fàngxia yǒuyú xián
Chuílǎo shēngyá zài mǎn shān
Bùxǔ báiyún qīng chū gǔ
Hǎo suí míngyuèhù chái guān

Translator: Red Pine-Bill Porter 赤松

cold_mountain_by_andy kunkle

Surprised by Autumn on the Fen
Su Ting 670-727

The North Wind blows white clouds
A thousand miles and across the Fen
The hopes of my heart shudder and fall
I can’t bear the sounds of autumn

Fén Shàng Jīng Qiū
Sū Tǐng 670-727

Běifēng chuī bái yún,
Wàn lǐ dù Fénhé.
Xīnxù féng yáo luò,
Qiū shēng bù kě wén.

Translator: Red Pine-Bill Porter 赤松

yandang mountains near wenzhou

The Zhongnan Mountains
Wang Wei 701-761

Taiyi isn’t far from the Heart of Heaven
Its ridges extend to the edge of the sea
White clouds form before your eyes
Blue vapors vanish in plain sight
Around its peaks the whole realm turns
In every valley the light looks different
In need of a place to spend the night
I yell to a wood cutter across the stream

Zhōngnán Shān
Wáng Wéi 701-761

Tàiyǐ jìn Tiāndū,
Lián shān dào hǎi yú.
Bái yún huí wàng hé,
Qīng ǎi rù kàn wú.
Fēn yě zhōng fēng biàn,
Yīn qíng zhòng hè shū.
Yù tóu rén chǔ sù,
Gé shuǐ wèn qiáofū.

Translator: Red Pine-Bill Porter 赤松

Hanshan (Chinese: 寒山; pinyin: Hánshān; literally: “Cold Mountain”, fl. 9th century) was a legendary figure associated with a collection of poems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the Taoist and Chan tradition. No one knows who he was, or when he lived and died. In the Buddhist tradition, Hanshan and his sidekick Shide are honored as emanations of the bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra, respectively. In Japanese and Chinese paintings, Hanshan is often depicted together with Shide or with Fenggan, another monk with legendary attributes.

In Lu Jiuyin’s (Wade–Giles: Lu Ch’iu-Yin) preface to Hanshan’s poems, he claims to have personally met both Hanshan and Shide at the kitchen of Guoqing Temple, but they responded to his salutations with laughter then fled. Afterwards, he attempted to give them clothing and provide them housing, but Lu Jiuyin writes that the pair fled into a cave which closed itself and Shide’s tracks disappeared. This led Lu Jiuyin, governor of Tai Prefecture, to collect Hanshan’s writings, “the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs — and also to collect those written on the walls of peoples’ houses.”[1] However, Burton Watson is of the opinion that Lu Jiuyin did not exist in reality and that his preface to Hanshan’s poems is nothing more than myth. In the introduction to his book, he says of Lu Jiuyin’s preface to the poems:[2]

[The preface], contrary to Chinese custom, is undated. Lu-chiu Yin represents himself as a high official and prefixes his name with a very imposing title. But there is only one mention of anyone by this name to be found in other works of the period, and it refers almost certainly to another person. This fact alone is peculiar enough, if Lu-chiu Yin was in fact as high up in the bureaucracy as his title indicates. Furthermore, the style of the preface, awkward and wordy, hardly suggests the writing of an eminent official. All other sources that tell us anything about Han-shan and Shih-te appear to be later than the preface and based upon it. For all we know, therefore, the whole picture of the two recluses built up in the preface may be nothing more than literary fiction. The poems, however, remain — over three hundred of them….If the reader wishes to know the biography of Han-shan, he must deduce it from the poems themselves.

If we follow Watson and discount the preface of Lu Jiuyin, accepting only the words of the poet himself, we see that Hanshan says only that he wrote his poems on the rocks. Nowhere in the poetry does he say that he wrote them on trees or bamboo or wood or the walls of people’s houses.[citation needed]

The collection of poems attributed to Hanshan may span the entire Tang Dynasty as Edwin G. Pulleyblank asserts in his study Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Hanshan.[3][page needed] He identifies him as the monk Zhiyan (智岩, 577–654), but that has been disputed by Paul Demiéville among others. The Encyclopedia of China gives his date as around 712 and after 793. Jia Jinhua came to the conclusion, after a study of Chan phrases in some 50 of the poems, that this particular group of poems may be attributable to the Chan monk Caoshan Benji (840–901). However, the dates for both Zhiyan and Caoshan Benji contradict Hanshan, who says that he was much older than either.

The poems have often been translated, by Arthur Waley (1954), Gary Snyder (1958), and Burton Watson (1970), among others. The first complete translation to a western language was into French by Patrick Carré (fr) in 1985. There are two full English translations, by Robert G. Henricks (1990), and Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 1983, 2000). There is a collection of 130 of the poems, Encounters With Cold Mountain, by Peter Stambler.[4] And there is a collection of 96 poems, Cold Mountain Transcendental Poetry, by Wandering Poet (2005, 2012).[5]

Little is known of his work, since he was a recluse living in a remote region and his poems were written on rocks in the mountains he called home. Of the 600 poems he is thought to have written at some point before his death, 313 were collected and have survived.[6] Among the 57 poems attributed to Hanshan’s friend, Shide,[6] seven appear to be authored by Hanshan, for a total of 320.[7]

All translations here are Red Pine’s, except where noted.

Hanshan’s poetry consists of Chinese verse, in 3, 5, or 7 character lines; never shorter than 4 lines, and never longer than 34 lines. The language is marked by the use of more colloquial Medieval Vernacular Sinitic than almost any other Tang poet.[9] The poems can be seen to fall into three categories: the biographical poems about his life before he arrived at Cold Mountain; the religious and political poems, generally critical of conventional wisdom and those who embrace it; and the transcendental poems, about his sojourn at Cold Mountain.[citation needed] They are notable for their straightforwardness, which contrasts sharply with the cleverness and intricateness that marked typical Tang Dynasty poetry.

Red Pine poem 283:

Mister Wang the Graduate
laughs at my poor prosody.
I don’t know a wasp’s waist
much less a crane’s knee.
I can’t keep my flat tones straight,
all my words come helter-skelter.
I laugh at the poems he writes-
a blind man’s songs about the sun!
(All these terms refer to ways a poem could be defective according to the rigid poetic structures then prevalent.)

Thematically, Hanshan draws heavily on Buddhist and Taoist themes, often remarking on life’s short and transient nature, and the necessity of escape through some sort of transcendence. He varies and expands on this theme, sometimes speaking of Mahayana Buddhism’s ‘Great Vehicle’, and other times of Taoist ways and symbols like cranes.

The following poem begins with the imagery of the burning house and the three carts from the Parable of the Burning House found in The Lotus Sutra, then ends with typical Zen and Taoist imagery of freedom from conceptualizations.

Red Pine poem 253:

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.

This mixed influence is probably due to the high preponderance of Taoists and Buddhists in the same area. The eminent Taoist Ge Hong acclaimed Mount Tiantai as ‘the perfect place for practicing the arts of immortality,’ which is probably also why so many Buddhist temples were established in the vicinity as well.

Red Pine poem 13:

“Brothers share five districts;
father and sons three states.”
To learn where the wild ducks fly
follow the white-hare banner!
Find a magic melon in your dream!
Steal a sacred orange from the palace!
Far away from your native land
swim with fish in a stream!

Many poems display a deep concern for humanity, which in his view stubbornly refuses to look ahead, and short-sightedly indulges in all manner of vice, like eating animal flesh, piling up sins ‘high as Mount Sumeru’. But he holds out hope that people may yet be saved; ‘Just the other day/ a demon became a Bodhisattva.’

Red Pine poem 18:

I spur my horse past ruins;
ruins move a traveler’s heart.
The old parapets high and low
the ancient graves great and small,
the shuddering shadow of a tumbleweed,
the steady sound of giant trees.
But what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals.

cold mountain huangshan-pine

While Hanshan eschewed fancy techniques and obscure erudition, his poems are still highly evocative at times:

Red Pine poem 106:

The layered bloom of hills and streams
Kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds
mountain mists soak my cotton bandanna,
dew penetrates my palm-bark coat.
On my feet are traveling shoes,
my hand holds an old vine staff.
Again I gaze beyond the dusty world-
what more could I want in that land of dreams?

He is hard to pin down religiously. Chan concepts and terminology sometimes appear in his work. But he criticized the Buddhists at Tiantai, and he directed criticism at Taoists as well, having had no problem bringing Taoist scriptural quotations, and Taoist language when describing his mountains, into his poems. Yet, he does not mince words, but tells us precisely where to find the path to Heaven.

Red Pine poem 117:

I deplore this vulgar place
where demons dwell with worthies.
They say they’re the same,
but is the Tao impartial?
A fox might ape a lion’s mien
and claim the disguise is real,
but once ore enters the furnace,
we soon see if it’s gold or base.

Red Pine poem 246:

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they’d ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

cold mountain border of thailand and china

The following poem is attributed to Hanshan’s friend, Shide.

The higher the trail the steeper it grows
Ten thousand tiers of dangerous cliffs
The stone bridge is slippery with green moss
Cloud after cloud keeps flying by
Waterfalls hang like ribbons of silk
The moon shines down on a bright pool
I climb the highest peak once more
To wait where the lone crane flies

HanShan lived hermit-like on ‘Cold Mountain’ (Mount Tiantai, Zhejiang province) sometime in the 8th or 9th century CE.  Although not a monk, he was influenced by Chan Buddhism and Taoism, using much of their thematic imagery and language, writing his poems on the trees and rocks and cliff faces of his mountain retreat.  He sometimes criticized those eminent religions as well, and so his poetry speaks from a highly discrete personal conviction.  He seems simply to have been himself.

Since I came to Cold Mountain,
how many thousand years have passed?
Accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom.
No one visits the cliffs,
forever hidden by clouds.
Soft grass serves as a mattress;
my quilt is the dark blue sky;
a boulder makes a fine pillow.
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change.

                                                            tr. Red Pine

Children, I implore you:
get out of the burning house now!
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky; everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse –
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.

                                                            tr. Red Pine

The layered bloom of hills and streams
Kingfisher shades, beneath rose-colored clouds:
mountain mists soak my cotton bandanna;
dew penetrates my palm-bark coat.
On my feet are traveling shoes;
my hand holds an old vine staff.
Again I gaze beyond the dusty world-
what more could I want in that land of dreams?

                                                            tr. Red Pine

In my first thirty years of life

I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles,

walked by rivers through deep green grass,

entered cities of boiling red dust,

tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal,

read books and wrote poems on history.

Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:

I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

                                                            tr. Gary Snyder

Cold Mountain is a house

without beans or walls.

The six doors left and right are open;

the hall is sky blue.

The rooms all vacant and vague –

the east wall beats on the west wall,

at the center nothing.

Borrowers don’t bother me;

in the cold I build a little fire.

When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.

I’ve got no use for the kulak

with his big barn and pasture –

he just sets up a prison for himself.

Once in he can’t get out.

Think it over –

you know it might happen to you.

                                                            tr. Gary Snyder





water jug    I will bring a cup of water,

Here’s the best that I can offer

In the dusk of coming night,

There is evidence of light,

With the pattering of rain,

Let us bow as if in grace

Consider all the ways we heal

And how a heart can break!




Oh,  abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty,

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently.

Stay awake with me,

And we’ll listen more intently

To something wordless and remaining

Sure and ever-changing

In the quietness of now.


Let us ponder the unknown

What is hidden, what is whole,

And finally learn to travel,

At the speed of our own souls.

There is a living water,

A spirit cutting through,

Always changing, always making

All things new.

fen marsh


Oh, abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently

Stay awake with me

And we’ll listen more intently,

To something wordless and remaining,

Sure and ever changing,

in the quietness of now!


There are things I cannot prove,

But still somehow I know,

It’s like a message in a bottle

That some unseen hand has thrown.

You don’t have to be afraid,

You don’t have to walk alone,

I don’t know but I suspect

That it will feel like home!




Oh abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently

Stay awake with me

And we’ll listen more intently

To something wordless and remaining

Sure and ever-changing

In the quietness of now.


A Permeable Life is about what presses out from the heart, what comes in at a slant and what shimmers below the surface of things,” Newcomer says. “To live permeably is to be open-hearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”


A Permeable Life

I want to leave enough room in my heart
For the unexpected,
For the mistake that becomes knowing,
For knowing that becomes wonder,

For wonder that makes everything porous,
Allowing in and out
All available light.
An impermeable life is full to the edges,
But only to the edges.
It is a limited thing.
Like the pause at the center of the breath,
Neither releasing or inviting,
With no hollow spaces
For longing and possibility.
I would rather live unlocked,
And more often than not astonished,
Which is possible
If I am willing to surrender
What I already think I know.

So I will stay open
And companionably friendly,
With all that presses out from the heart
And comes in at a slant
And shimmers just below
The surface of things.



Excerpt From: “A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays.”

A Permeable Life, produced and engineered by Paul Mahern (John Mellencamp, Over the Rhine, Willie Nelson, Lily & Madeleine), will be in stores on April 1, 2014, from Available Light Records, distributed by MRI/Sony RED Music.

Newcomer is simultaneously releasing a companion book, A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays. Newcomer has attracted a devoted following with her warm voice, exquisite melodies, and an irreverent yet spiritual view of the world.   As in the work of poets Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, Newcomer’s songs are based in the ordinary, and infused with images from the natural world.

Author Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “She’s a poet, storyteller, snake-charmer, good neighbor, friend and lover, minister of the wide-eyed gospel of hope and grace.”

On April 1, 2014, Available Light Records, distributed by MRI/Sony RED Music, releases a new album of Newcomer’s music entitled A Permeable Life.  On this album, Newcomer’s signature deep voice takes on a quiet conversational tone, close and intimate.

Recording artist Carrie Newcomer’s work cuts across secular and spiritual boundaries. She has had many artistic collaborations with notable authors such as Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver, Jill Bolte Taylor, Philip Gulley, Scott Russell Sanders and Rabbi Sandy Sasso. She facilitates workshops on songwriting, creative writing, spirituality, vocation and activism. Newcomer, who tours throughout the U.S. and Europe, has also toured with Alison Krauss.















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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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December 2021



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory