It’s been too long since I’ve presented any Mongol poetry. It’s another aspect of their culture that is almost unknown to westerners, even though examples survive from over 800 years ago.
If you would like to learn about and read more poetry, visit previous posts here and here and here.
This one has a subject dear to the heart of pretty much every Mongol…horses:
The stories 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 lake 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 month, 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.
By Ochirkhuu (1943-2001), translated by Simon Wickham-Smith
For Part 2 of this special post, here is Simon Wickham-Smith sharing how he became involved in things Mongolian, along with a little information on translating literature from one language into another. His comment about the number of precise words that exist in Mongolian for some parts of their world and culture reminds me of hearing that the Inuit have 37 names for snow, but no generic term as occurs in English.
Simon Wickham-Smith: My own involvement with Mongolian literature started when I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Scotland during the 1990s. I became interested – obsessed might be a better word – with the life and writings of the 6th Dalai Lama and, during my research, came across a reference to Danzanravjaa, a nineteenth century nationalist, scholar, poet and Buddhist monk.
I had already studied Mongolian for some time during the early nineties, and now I started to read and translate Danzanravjaa’s collected works. When I finally finished this work, in 2005, I felt that, really as a matter of courtesy, I should write to someone in Mongolia and let them know what I had done.
Thus it was that I came into contact with Gombojavin Mend-Ooyo, one of Mongolia’s most famous literary figures, who invited me to Ulaanbaatar the following year and for whose Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture (www.poetry-culture.mn) I have now translated ten books, with at least four more in the pipeline.
The act of translation from any language is a subtle and nuanced negotiation, but when dealing with a source culture which is so very different from the target culture, a number of problems appear. And so it is with Mongolian.
The number of words used to describe the natural landscape, animals and animal products, and the movement of the heavens are so detailed and precise as to be effectively untranslatable into English, short of adding phrases or entire sentences to the mix. This, together with the morphology and structure of the language, means that simply recording what is said in the original becomes a restructuring of thought and a reinterpretation of culture. Once these concerns are settled, then the literary work can begin, and the rhythm, sound and development of the text finessed.
Over the next five years, the Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture intends to publish more translations and to encourage scholarship in both Mongolian and English. As for me, I am soon to embark upon postgraduate work at the University of Washington’s Jackson School, with an emphasis on Mongolian literature. Moreover, I am also co-director of the Center for Central Asian Literatures in Translation at UW (www.depts.washington.edu/ccalt), which is hoping to increase the profile of literature from across Central Asia.
I’d like to thank Susan for letting me benignly invade her blog. I hope that the work that she and I, along with many others, are doing, will encourage people to investigate Mongolian culture and, in particular, its literature.
You’re very welcome Simon! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you participate here. The following poems are a little on the longer side, but I think that they really show a side of the Mongol people that Westerners, raised on the idea of Chinggis Khan and his Horde cutting a path of destruction across a large chunk of the world, don’t realize exists. If nothing else, it demonstrates our common humanity across time and space. Not a bad thing these days.
A DELUDED ASCENT OF MOUNT CHUN SHAN
Khubilai Khann (1215-1294) (Yes, that Kublai Khan)
One a day blessed by good fortune,
I climbed up a blue bluff.
I stepped carefully on the ground,
So as not to destroy the landscape.
The flowers glowed red,
A beryllium light glistened like mist or smoke or blue haze.
The bamboos along the streams grew green from rain fall and spring water.
The wind blew through the mountain pines with a wonderful fluting melody.
I paid my respects
At the sacred temples,
And returned with the aid of Indra.
And controlled the dragons.
LOVE ONE ANOTHER, MY PEOPLE
Love one another, my people, while you are alive.
Don’t keep from others whatever you find beautiful.
Don’t wound my heart with heedless barbs, and
don’t push anyone into a dark hole.
Don’t mock someone who has gotten drunk,
think how it could even be your own father.
And, if you manage to become famous,
open the door to happiness to others!
They should also not forget your kindness.
To someone who is lacking a single word of kindness,
you should search for it and speak it out.
Whether outside the sun or at home when it’s mild,
don’t spend one moment at rest.
Don’t use harsh words to complain, you women,
about the young man you remember.
Speak lovingly of those who loved you!
Let them remember you as a good lover.
Our lives are similar,
our words constrict our throats the same way,
our tears drop onto our cheeks the same way-
things are much the same as we go along the road.
Wipe away a halt woman’s tears without a word,
talk your lover up when she’s tripped and fallen!
Today you’re smiling, tomorrow you’ll be crying.
Another day you’re sad, and the next you’ll be singing.
We all pass from the cradle to the grave-
if for no other reason , love one another!
People must not lack love on this wide earth!
I grasp happiness with the fire of my human mind,
the golden shines lovingly upon us all the same, and
so I think that loving others is the path of life,
I understand that to be loved is a great joy.
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.
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:
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)
The ancient splendor
of this land of Mongolia
It has brought us all to birth
In the lineage of Chinggis Khaan
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
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-)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is the poem which prompted all this, which I wanted to use for the “bug” post:
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.
I probably should have run this post last week before Hallowe’en, but, in any case, here’s a variety of the insects that I’ve seen in Mongolia. Not all that many and I don’t know what the species are. Field guides are kind of thin on the ground for Mongolian wildlife. So if anyone can ID these critters, let me know and I’ll update this post.
The photos were shot on my 2006 and 2008 trips. I used a Nikon D70 with a Tamron 28-300mm lens in 2006 and a Nikon D80 with a Promaster (made by Tamron) 28-300 in 2008.
Saw this one in the Gobi. It was big- close to 3″ long.
Saw this one at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. There were specimens at the Natural History Museum in UB but, unfortunately, the labels were all in cyrillic Mongolian, which I can’t read. Yet. They are related to grasshoppers, but aren’t. That much I was able to find out.
Grasshopper at the ger camp, Hustai National Park
Another grasshopper photographed at Hustai.
Large, almost 3″ grasshopper photographed near Dungenee Ger Camp, Gobi Desert.
Photographed same location as above. This one really matched the rocks.
Only spider I’ve seen in three trips to Mongolia. Photographed same time as the two grasshoppers above.
Beetle at Ikh Nart. The challenge was waiting until it scurried out into the sun so I could catch the deep blue color.
This was really one of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles I’ve seen in Mongolia. The beetle had pounced on the brownish insect and the battle was on, with the latter trying to escape from the former. The beetle inexorably manuevered the brown one around for what we thought was the death grip in which they were head to head. Then, suddenly, the brown one broke free and got away. It went on for minutes. I took quite a few pictures, but this one seemed to show the situation with the most clarity.