This collection consists of twenty-four of the three-hundred-plus surviving poems by the Tang-era poet-hermit who went by the name “Cold Mountain” [i.e. Han-Shan.] This translation was produced by the Beat poet, Gary Snyder, and both the translation and the selection are informed by Snyder’s sensibilities and worldview. Snyder is known for nature-centric poetry infused with Buddhist and Native American sentiments, but, like other Beats (though far less than, say, Allen Ginsberg,) Snyder sometimes engages in social commentary. This makes Han-Shan’s body of work a fertile field because it, too, focuses heavily on the beauty and harshness of nature, is framed by Buddhist and Taoist perspectives, and occasionally interjects a societal rebuke. The poems are mostly octave (eight-line) poems which often follow the format of a “straight” sestet that sets up a “punchline” in the last couplet. [Not to suggest the poems are jokes, but they often present a clever twist or commentary at the end.]
Han-Shan’s poems focus heavily on his life as a hermit and the dichotomy of Cold Mountain (the locale) as both a harsh place to live and the only place for him. The Snyder selection focuses heavily on the appeal of nature and the living of a simple and natural life — as well as on the shunning of materialism.
Han-Shan is a mysterious figure, but what is known of him is intriguing. He is considered a mad saint by some, though most of what is known about the man comes from his surviving poems. (Some believe that the 313 known poems maybe only about half of what the hermit composed during the course of his life.)
Even if you’ve read one of the full collections (e.g. Red Pine’s,) you may find some unique insight and imagery in Snyder’s select translation. I’d highly recommend it.
This book delves into the fascinating case of Christopher Knight, a man who lived twenty-seven years in central Maine without human contact. Knight survived by stealing food and other supplies from cabins and other unoccupied buildings in the area. By his own admission, Knight conducted about forty burglaries per year for the more than a quarter of a century he lived in solitude. In addition to providing a biography of Knight, his hermit years as well as his capture, his trial, and his challenging reentry into society, the book discusses the psychology and philosophy of reclusive living in some detail.
This book was riveting to me, in part because I’m pretty deep into introverted territory and I recognize some of Knight’s personality traits in myself, and even I can’t fathom how he managed that degree of solitary living over so many years. What seems to be most difficult for people to comprehend was how he lived with only a tent-like shelter through the Maine winters, sometimes below zero Fahrenheit, while never building a campfire. (He did have a propane stove, but wouldn’t build a fire for fear that it would bring the authorities right to him.) That is astounding, but what I find even more amazing is the psychology, how Knight maintained sanity with that degree of self-imposed isolation, prisoners in solitary confinement have gone stark-raving mad with shorter and less intensely solitary stints.
Another issue that makes Knight’s story so compelling is that in so many ways he wasn’t your typical hermit. While he seems to have been uniquely wired to thrive on solitude and had the intelligence necessary to problem solve his survival, he wasn’t a spiritual seeker; he wasn’t particularly a minimalist (he accumulated lots of stuff;) and he did listen to the radio, as well as listening to television shows over his radio. While he went to great lengths to ensure he didn’t come into contact with people and that his camp wasn’t found, it’s interesting that he did stay fairly close to people [granted that might have been entirely owing to the need to steal from them, but one has to wonder if proximity didn’t have other causes as well.] Knight is an engaging character, it’s hard not to have some respect – begrudging or otherwise — for his ingenuity and unique capacity for extreme solitude, but he’s also a felon whose burglaries disturbed a lot of people’s lives.
This is one of the most captivating books I’ve read in some time, and I’d highly recommend it.