For R. T. Smith, there was something electric in the air around Boone, North Carolina, in the early 1970s. Smith cites William Blake to underscore this point: “Great things happen when men and mountains meet; this is not done by jostling in the street” (18). While he was a graduate student at Appalachian State University, the mountains surrounding Boone were active participants in the conversations that spurred him and his cohort, which included future literary heavyweights like Charles Frazier, to start a new magazine called Cold Mountain Review.
Readers might assume that the titular Cold Mountain is the same as the one in Frazier’s novel, but the magazine’s namesake is actually far from western North Carolina. The title was inspired by the work of environmental luminary and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who in the late 1950s published a translation of Cold Mountain Poems, written by the Chinese, Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Han-shan. By naming the magazine Cold Mountain Review, Smith brought together the Appalachian Blue Ridge and the Tiantai Mountain of southeast China that Han-shan immortalized. The name Han-shan itself means Cold Mountain, highlighting the oneness of poet and landscape.
Smith asserts that the title is fitting for the magazine because of Han-shan’s “sense of fierce grace and serious mischief” (20). Cold Mountain Review has survived long after Smith’s tenure as founding editor. For fifty years, the magazine has been publishing innovative work from both emerging and established writers. It’s also now more relevant than ever, the message more pressing. Under the visionary guidance of Mark Powell and Katy Abrams, and before them Kathryn Kirkpatrick and Joseph Bathanti, Cold Mountain Review focuses on social and environmental justice, which provides a meaningful bridge back to Gary Snyder and, even further, to Han-shan.
Snyder’s poems, especially those from his debut collection Riprap (1959), which was printed in the same volume as Cold Mountain Poems, are dazzling in their sharp-eyed attention to the environment. But for many it was his translation of Han-shan that was the true revelation.
A Buddhist and Taoist, Han-shan lived sometime during the 7th, 8th, or 9th century A.D. It’s impossible to determine how many poems Han-shan wrote because he scrawled them on stones, pieces of wood, trees, cliff faces, or the sides of houses throughout remote regions in China (Snyder 37-38). They are then evanescent, of nature, disappearing sometimes with rain or flood before being seen by another set of human eyes. More than 300 of these poems survive, and Snyder translated and curated 24 of them.
Legends about Han-shan—some flattering, some not—have proliferated for centuries. To many, he is a guru, a fount of wisdom; to others, a madman deserving of derision. A cave-dwelling sage or homeless crackpot. In accounts, he often resembles a hermit with a hat of birch bark, shoes of wood, and clothes of tattered hides (Snyder 35-36). Han-shan dabbles in drugs, and laughs and dances wildly. He despises the rich, loves voluntary simplicity, and believes in reincarnation, karma, and, above all, Zen. He may even possess the ability to disappear into thin air or to flee pursuers astride a tiger.
No one knows his true identity or whether he existed at all. Some posit that the poems attributed to him have multiple authors because their themes and styles vary and because their origins potentially span longer than a single lifetime.
The 24 poems chosen for translation by Snyder, however, have coherence in style and theme. If there were multiple historical Han-shans, Snyder’s selection was clearly meant to cultivate a specific character for his mid-twentieth-century audience—a humorous, eccentric, nature-loving, society-hating tramp. According to Snyder, Han-shan and his sidekick Shih-te “became Immortals and you sometimes run onto them today in the skidrows, orchards, hobo jungles, and logging camps of America” (35). Such figures strongly appealed to the Beat and Hippie Generations. In addition to Snyder’s work, Jack Keroac’s novel The Dharma Bums (1958) includes references to Han-shan and is dedicated to the poet.
Han-shan generally wrote in “T’ang colloquial: rough and fresh,” meaning that like Walt Whitman he strove to capture everyday speech, without pretension or artifice, in a way that could be consumed by all (Snyder 35). Snyder states that this is “poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank, a dark old lurking, no fancy flavor” (66).
Early in his career as a poet, Snyder was steeped in the “coolness” of modernism with “its hard edges and resilient elitism” (65). This failed to stir in him any profound reactions. It was only after Ezra Pound introduced Snyder to classical Chinese poetry that he found a poetic form that fit his own life. Snyder then wedded Chinese poetry with his environmental experiences working for the Yosemite National Park in the 1950s. He says the resulting poetry was “my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing” (65).
Snyder defines riprap, which he took as the title of his first poetry collection, as “a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains” (1). With the poems in Riprap, he provides precisely this sort of passage through treacherous terrain and back to a more unfettered, elemental relationship with the environment. The poems, in this regard, are practical, are themselves trails and maps of trails.
Han-shan’s poetry, therefore, provided for Synder a stylistic simplicity, a welcome break from the overly cerebral and elitist work of the modernists, as well as a transcendentalist framework for the relationship between art and nature. Reading Han-shan in the 1950s, Snyder engaged in literary necromancy, casting back, while Han-shan called forward. In doing so, Snyder discovered a pilgrim similar to himself.
Han-shan was Thoreau about a thousand years before there was a Thoreau, and he out-Thoreau-ed Thoreau on all fronts—his anti-materialism and anti-consumerism, his belief in nature’s restorative powers, his insistence on shirking the confines of society and heading to the wild (or whatever passes for wild). Every generation or so America seems to produce such a figure—Thoreau at Walden Pond, Edward Abbey at Arches National Park, Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek, Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail. And long before them all, there was Han-shan at Cold Mountain, finding isolation from humans and community with birds and beasts, trees and flowers.
The meaning of Cold Mountain is slippery throughout Han-shan’s poems. It can refer to the place where he dwells, but it can also be Han-shan himself or a way of thinking he promotes.
In perhaps the most detailed autobiographical poem, Han-shan describes his “first thirty years of life,” which he spent roaming the world, trying drugs, reading books, and writing poems (50). There is a sense in this poem that in all of these endeavors, Han-shan was desperately unhappy.
He contrasts this with his habitation of Cold Mountain, where he feels both joyful and purified. “The path to Han-shan’s place is laughable,” he tells us in the first of Snyder’s translated poems (39). In another, he asserts, “Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease—/ No more tangled, hung-up mind./ I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,/ Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat” (57).
Even at Cold Mountain, however, there are moments of desperation. Cold Mountain can be “Rough and dark,” and nature itself inhospitable (47); “the wind slaps my face,” he says, and “the snow piles on my back.” As a result, Han-shan feels dejected. “I don’t see the sun,” he notes, and there is “not a sign of spring.” The way to Cold Mountain, like the way to enlightenment, Han-shan candidly reminds us, is often lonely, frustrating, and without a clear end.
Han-shan is not one to romanticize wilderness experiences. Sometimes even bird songs annoy him (51), and he must retreat from them, as from people, in order to climb the sunny side of Cold Mountain. Despite his insistence on being alone as a necessary step toward self-reflection, Han-shan, like Thoreau, was not a misanthrope. In one poem, he “call[s] on friends and family,” only to find that more than half of them have died (48). In response, he says, “I face my lone shadow,” before then bursting into tears. In the next poem, Han-shan ends with this haunting line: “Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness” (49). Even in despair, he seems to suggest, even when staring into the seeming nothingness of nature and pointlessness of life, the world still stirs with mystery and thus with hope.
When Han-shan shifts from Cold Mountain being a physical place to a purely psychological one, he is adamant that there is no discernible trail there. Rather, reaching Cold Mountain is a matter of having the right spirit: “My heart’s not the same as yours./ If your heart was like mine/ You’d get it and be right here” (44). Having a heart like Han-shan is not something that is necessarily innate, and instead it is attainable for everyone. The first step may be recalibrating the way we see the world around us. Han-shan spends his days “watching things themselves” (45), by which he means he has an unfettered experience of the world, not one mediated by other people or even by art.
Han-shan warns against human hubris and rather tells us to “Let heaven and earth go about their changes” (45). This need not be done in resignation or with a sense of powerlessness. It is instead learning to live in the world as it is, without the colonial impulse to make it what you want it to be. When Han-shan encourages us to “leap the world’s ties” and sit with him “among the white clouds,” he is indicating cultural flaws, from which we must divorce ourselves (46).
In particular, Han-shan eschews material possessions. He exhorts, “Go tell families with silverware and cars/ ‘What’s the use of all that noise and money?’” (40). For Han-shan, “Cold Mountain is a house” (54) without walls or roof, all open air and sky. He states that he has no respect for the farmer, who builds “a prison for himself” in the form of barns and pastures. Han-shan remains free because Cold Mountain provides both his physical and spiritual needs. “When I’m hungry I boil up some greens,” he asserts.
Han-shan honors the “hidden wonders” (52) and “priceless natural treasures” surrounding him (60). Writing about the moon, he says that it “sunk deep in the flesh,” meaning that it has become an indelible part of him, mind but also body. He calls the full moon “the pearl of the Buddha-nature,” and it is “boundless” and “flow[ing] through the galaxies,” “A fountain of light, into the very mind” (61).
In the final poem in Snyder’s curated collection, Han-shan notes that to most he appears crazy, stalking around the wilderness in his “rags and hides,” speaking a language few understand. Despite that, though, he declares, “All I can say to those I meet:/ ‘Try and make it to Cold Mountain’” (62).
The appeal of finding Cold Mountain—a Cold Mountain, not the Cold Mountain—is quite simple. Be it a place or state of mind, we all occasionally need to trade the big smoke, the needless hustle and bustle of town or city life, for the tranquility of the natural world. This impulse goes back to Han-shan and forward to Thoreau, Snyder, R. T. Smith, and even to the editors as they put together this 50th anniversary issue of Cold Mountain Review.
Cold Mountain has never been easy to find. But today it’s more difficult than ever due to wilderness areas shrinking to nonexistence, the omnipresent distraction of technology and consumerist culture, and the global climate spiraling out of control. And yet the search for Han-shan’s Cold Mountain and Snyder’s countercultural spirit has never been more imperative. Perhaps if we all convened at Cold Mountain, we might end up being less active participants in our own demise; we might laugh and dance, and see the moon, and boil some greens, and try some drugs, and save the world.
Smith, R. T. “Introduction: My Other Is a Fish.” Cold Mountain Review 35 (Fall 2007): 16-21.
Snyder, Gary. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. 1959. Counterpoint, 2009.