My forthcoming book, The Poetry Demon: Song-dynasty Monks on Verse and the Way (University of Hawai’i Press, 2021), offers a nuanced and textured history of genre knowledge, manuscript and book-making practices, the literary sociality of monasteries, as well as chapter-length analyses of parting poetry and mourning verse. These arguments rest on my original annotated translations of roughly 80 poems as well as 80 pieces of prose about poetry, most previously untranslated.
The eras of the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279) were watersheds in the history of Chinese Buddhism and literature. Still very little is known of the roughly 30,000 extant verse written by Song dynasty monks. Scholarship has often focused on gong’an (Jap. kōan), often called Zen riddles, and we have either overlooked or misunderstood the remainder of this corpora of poetic literature produced by monks.
My goal in this book is to uncover the historical discourse surrounding monks’ poetry and to illustrate its manifestations in individual poems and social practices. The title is derived from poems about “the poetry demon,” a minion of the Buddhist demon Māra found only in China. These poems self-referentially depict the pleasures of composing poetry as Māra’s temptation and as a distraction from the Buddhist path. My book dedicates a chapter to overturning widespread modern and scholarly assumptions associated with the historical phrase “lettered Chan” or “literary Zen” (wenzi chan 文字禪), which erroneously has been understood as a movement of monks who wrote poetry to achieve awakening. To the contrary, I show that “lettered Chan” was originally a term of self-effacement to describe the inability to give up a desire to write more poetry. Here and elsewhere throughout the book, I argue that a tension between ideals of worldly aesthetics and ascetic monasticism animated literary strategies devised to resolve it. I hope this work will illustrate new and creative ways to study Chinese Buddhist monks’ poetry as well as contribute to the broader study of religion and literature.
Some other speculative literary theoretical assertions appeared in my doctoral dissertation, “Buddhist monks and Chinese poems: song dynasty monastic literary culture” (Stanford 2016).