Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bill Porter

Bill Porter lived across the rice paddy from me on a mountaintop in Taiwan. 

After stints in the U.S. Army then college, Bill had gotten interested in Buddhism. In 1970 he moved to a monastery in Taiwan where he spent three years. I met him in 1986, after wandering around the Chinese mainland for a year. He was married to a local woman and working at the English-language radio station. Although not a poet, he had started translating ancient Chinese poets. His books were the sort few people knew; but those who knew them loved them.

After I moved back to the Bay Area, Bill stayed with me often. I drove him to his readings, which drew small but passionate audiences. Some of his followers were deeply into Buddhism. Others were deeply into Chinese poetry. I liked that he was also a regular guy, who enjoyed food and drink, laughed if he broke wind too loudly, and watched football. 

One book concerns hermits. China has a long tradition of hermits. Chinese officials insisted there were no hermits anymore. Then Bill went into the mountains and interviewed the hermits. 

Bill, whose translations bear the name Red Pine, has become famous in China. In part, his books help people get back in touch with important aspects of Chinese culture that were violently frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution. 

Bill's work highlights the close connection between Chinese government and Chinese poetry, something unimaginable here. Our political leaders do politics. Our poets are odd ducks modern society tolerates. 

But as Bill writes, “Confucius made speaking from the heart an essential part of Chinese culture. Ever since then, no one was allowed to serve in government who could not write a poem.” Government officials wrote many of the finest ancient poems. 

Our country could use a stronger connection between its head (politicians leading us) and its heart (our poets and artists). 

Old China was very democratic, theoretically: anyone could be an official, just by passing the examination. But to pass the exam, you had to be literate and know a lot of history and old poetry, and written Chinese was extraordinarily complex. Just learning to write the traditional Chinese characters (never mind acquiring books and studying them!) was a full-time job. Good luck to a tired farmer, miner, or rickshaw driver! 

Many Chinese poet-officials were intermittently exiled to some remote village for insulting the emperor or other sins. Many poems explore the tension between wanting to help the country, despite greedy politicians and bureaucracies, and wanting to live in a mountain hut and grow vegetables. Their poems are rich in vivid images, simplicity, nature, and drinking with pals.

I've just finished reading Bill's latest book, Finding Them Gone in which he visits many famous ancient poets, beginning with non-poet Confucius. He visits graves and homes. Obviously he finds the poets gone. But the searches are the point; he has adventures and finds something, and at each site he sets out offering cups of bourbon (142.6 proof George T. Stagg) and reads aloud a poem by or about the poet. 

Not for everyone, but it's a fun book. A mixture of some pretty neat Chinese poetry and travel notes. (Some of the poems had never appeared in English.) As when one hangs out with Bill, interesting details about China and poets mingle with tales of bad shoes and wrong turns. (He broke his leg, which interrupted the journey for months.)

It's an unusual book, full of stuff worth thinking about:

silence thoughts and the spirit becomes clear
contemplate emptiness and the world becomes still

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 7 August, 2016, and on the newspaper's website, and is also now up on KRWG-TV's website as well.]

[Should mention that the book is published by Copper Canyon Press up in Port Townsend.]

[The book Road to Heaven -- Encounters with Chinese Hermits, was published in 1993 by Mercury House; and Copper Canyon brought out his translation of Lao Zi's Dao De Ching in 2009.  Here's an interview with Bill on the NY Times blog.  He uses the pen name "Red Pine" when translating, but uses his birth name, Bill Porter, for nonfiction books.] 

[To the left is a photo from our visit to him in Port Townsend this spring.]

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