Mongolia Monday- Poetry Special, Part 1

The Steppe, western Mongolia
The Steppe, western Mongolia

As promised on Friday, here is Simon Wickham-Smith’s essay-by-request on Mongolian literature. Following are three examples of Mongolian poetry, accompanied by images that I have photographed in Mongolia. Next Monday in Part 2, Simon will talk about how he came to be involved in things Mongolian and some of the challenges that await the translator. I have sent a email to the Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture about importing and making available at least two of the books. When I have news, I’ll post it here. So, without further ado:

MONGOLIAN LITERATURE IN TODAY’S MONGOLIA

As with any literature, Mongolian literature is special simply because it is the expression of a society’s experience, values, tradition and culture.  That Mongolia is, as a society, almost totally unknown in the western world, makes their literature even more valuable to us, in that it opens to us a new way of understanding the world.

Over the past century, Mongolia has gone from an almost completely nomadic and herding society, through a period of Soviet-inspired communism, into a contemporary experience in which free-market capitalism dwells at peace within a traditional nomadic culture shaped by a renewed interest in Buddhism and Shamanism.

So this is a true melting-pot, then, full of diverse influences, full of individuals feeling themselves pulled in a number of very different directions at the same time.  And when we look at the literature, we find a similarly vibrant and confused picture.

During the communist period (1924-1990) , of course, writers were strongly discouraged from addressing religious or spiritual topics.  But Mongolians had at their disposal their shamanic tradition of animism, and so writers created a literature which celebrated the land, and which honored the ancestors in the form of the grasses and the hills and the trees.

As for the Buddha – for Vajrayana Buddhism had spread from Tibet to Mongolia during the latter half of the sixteenth century – writers used the word for the sky (tenger), which had traditionally also meant “god,” which in itself meant once more that religion could be discussed by means of the natural world.

Altar in main temple, Museum of the Chojin Lama, Ulaanbaatar
Altar in main temple, Museum of the Chojin Lama, Ulaanbaatar

It is interesting to see how the ideas of Buddhism are beginning to come back into the literature.  Young poets such as T Erdenetsogt and Ts Bavuudorj are writing explicitly spiritual works, the former even incorporating Tibetan prayers into his poetry.  Older writers, such as G Mend-Ooyo and D Urianhai, coming from a period of samizdat literature and religious secrecy, approach the subject more indirectly.
Religious writing and writing about the natural world notwithstanding, Mongolian literature has a strong tradition of love poems.  Indeed, the most famous poet of the nineteenth century, the monk Danzanravjaa (1803-1856), combined the three themes of religion, sex and vodka, to create a powerful body of work which even today is still highly influential.

The tradition of love poetry is generally a celebration of young women and their somewhat intangible and transcendent beauty.  The erotic is very subtle, however, and is generally approached from a very oblique viewpoint.  Indeed, one of the criticisms of the novelist and poet G-A Ayurzana’s (by western standards fairly tame) novel The Illusion is that it has too much sex, and this book appeared only in 2003.

To read Mongolian literature, then, is to enter into a world which is similar to ours in very many ways, but whose cultural expression is framed by the cycle of the seasons, by landscape and weather, by gods and Buddhas, by theocracy and by seventy years of political despotism.

And now, three poems:

Horses, Arburd Sands
Horses, Arburd Sands

The story of my people soar with horses,
With wings they reach the golden sun.
The wind riffs through their untrimmed manes,
And, down the skyroad of Khormast,
They return to the lakes like migrating birds,
According to the customs of the golden earth.
The poems of the elders soar with horses,
With wings they reach the vibrant stars.
From the herds of letters formed within the mouth,
We have taken these migrating steeds.
And, from the hitching posts of our poets’ horses,
We have taken off for distant roads.
My horse, fly high, oh my horse.
Fly high, into the worlds of my desire.
From our wise elders’ heights of brilliance,
I offer my song to the spacious earth.
My horse, fly high, oh my horse,
Fly high, into the worlds of my desire.

T. Ochirkhuu (1943-2001)

Proud grandmother, Arburd Sands
Proud grandmother, Arburd Sands

ANCIENT SPLENDOR

Indeed,
The ancient splendor
of this land of Mongolia
It has brought us all to birth
In the lineage of Chinggis Khaan

Indeed,
With our destiny like the sky
With our mind in five dimensions
With our peaceful and broadminded decrees
Yes, this is the way of the Sons of Heaven

Yes, it is like moonlight
Among the stars
It is like an ornamented beacon
Among many people

Yes, like high radiation
From the peak of Mount Sumeru
Spreading its glare
May the protective spirit remain firm

Yes, through our savior Chingghis Khaan
We have become the rulers of all Mongolia
Before the banner of the Khaan
May we all bow down in joy

Historians argue that Ancient Splendor, a folk long song sung still widely in today’s Mongolia, was the anthem of the Great Mongol State

Moonrise, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu
Moonrise, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu

THE HORSES NEIGH AT NIGHT UPON THE STEPPE

The brown steppe is like an ancient story,
There is no sound to be heard.
A traveller, wearied by the distant road,
Spends the night upon the steppe.

In the deep darkness, the objects of the sky
Stretch out white, like a mare’s tethering line,
He feels the nature of the peaceful steppe,
He watches the stars, as though the horse was missing.

The brown steppe is like an ancient story,
There is now sound to be heard.
Like what we sense among the stars,
The horses neigh at night upon the steppe.

D. Nyamaa (1939-)

Something Really Special for Mongolia Monday

When I was in UB, I found and purchased some anthologies of Mongolian poetry translated by one Simon Wickham-Smith. I googled his name and, lo and behold, there was a link to his Facebook page. So I wrote him a short note asking for permission to use some of the poems in my blog and to “be his friend”. Within a couple of hours I got an email back saying “Yes” to both.

I think it would be an understatement to say that Mongolian literature is not well-known in the West and yet I found the poetry that I have read beautiful, evocative and filled with compelling word images about the land and people. I’m hoping to be able to import the books and offer them for sale, but those arrangements have still to be worked out. in the meantime, Simon, at my request, has written two short essays; one on Mongolian literature and one on the story of his involvement in things Mongolian. The first essay will appear this coming Monday and the second on the following.

For more about Simon, visit his website at www.wickhamsmith.net or you can write to him at wickhamsmith@gmx.net

Here is the poem which prompted all this, which I wanted to use for the “bug” post:

Turkic gravestones near Hustai National Park
Turkic gravestones near Hustai National Park

IN THE WILDS OF AUTUMN by B. Renchin (1905-1977)

Tiring the eyes, the wild steppe ripples
Yellowish and soundless.
Grasshoppers, the world’s voice, keep silent.
In the sky above only the storks are calling.
From the withered, yellow sphere of the sky,
Comes a lively and intriguing scent.
From the foreheads of the stone men in the cemeteries,
The hoarfrost melts into pearls of sweat.