Monday, November 8, 2010

Ten Most Important Mountains in Poetry

As part of the Black Mountain North Symposium I presented a selection of the ten most important mountains in poetry. I wanted to get a conversation started and also thought by putting together a hand-out I could impress upon people the background on my picks. Here is the list:

Ten Most Important Mountains in Poetry

Alan Casline List October 5, 2010

1] Black Mountain

2] Cold Mountain

3] Machu Picchu

4] Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo

5] Inyan Kaga (Black Buffalo Horn) or Harney Peak

6] Mount Olympus

7] Sourdough Mountain

8] Mount Liupan

9] Fujiyama or Mount Fuji

10] Monument Mountain

Black Mountain has probably the least profile as a geological feature. Black Mountain College, Black Mountain Review and Black Mountain School of Poetry all carry the notation. There is a Black Mountain as part of the landscape in North Carolina but the actuality of stone and heighth is not as important as Black Mountain is as a place. All the mountains on the list have mythos and imaginative place as well as physical. Charles Olson in an April 1969 interview with Andrew S. Leinoff (Muthologos 2010) had this to say; Black mountain to my mind is not only not in past time but is a flag hanging out in the future which hasn't yet been, hasn't been redrawn, in a funny way.

Cold Mountain has a ancient and modern tale to tell. Han Shan the Chinese monk who legend has as the author wrote the originals and Gary Snyder provided an introduction to most of us through his translations. He famously used a language of the trails and mountains of the Pacific Northwest to shape and surprise us (scree, riprap etc.) These are poems that really place you on the mountain and helped me understand how mountain poems could be important. Also in my library the Burton Watson translation of 100 Cold Mountain poems has long held a prominent placement. For many years I had it at my desk at work.

They critcized the Old Poet of Cold Mountain
'Why write poems other people can't understand?"
"Unlike you," he offered, "I have read of the ancients,
beings not ashamed to be poor and humble..."
This caused laughter at his poem and his answer,
"How can you talk such foolishness?"
"Then carry on my friends, go as you are.
you let money be your whole life!"

Machu Picchu I selected because of Michael McClure's poems and visit to there. There was a program on the site that I saw on TV not too long ago which reinforced it's unique presence. It is in a part of the world still dangerous to travel to. McClure said "Machu Picchu is an interesting place. It can really get one into an entirely different way of feeling." He said he noticed "it's not the buildings that are interesting but where the windows look out to." He wrote the poem VILLANELL for Gary Snyder while he was at Machu Picchu. The poem is on "creating visions not solutions." When I wasn't sure about keeping Machu Picchu on the list, Gary Lawless let me know about the Pablo Neruda poetry that travels spiritually from lost jungles up the ladder of the earth to "Mother of Stone, spume of the condors./Highest reef of the human dawn./Shovel buried in the first sand." Neruda's poetry on Machu Picchu is expansive and moves the mountain city into literary significance and on to another list of mine, the list of poetry I need to spent some time studying.

Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo like Machu Picchu and further down the list Mount Fuji are significant beyond the poets who might have created lasting impressions of them. There are some mountains that are sacred to a people and culture. You can say, of course, all nature is sacred to people and cultures. Some mountains, like the Navajo peaks, are specific in importance to the mythology and religion. My visit to New Mexico in Spring 2010 placed me in Navajo lands and I joke about spending too much time there talking to the Cloud People when I should have been paying attention to heavy traffic on the interstate (inner state?). Four mountains, as I have been multi-corrected, make my list of 10 actually 13 to which I am going to add three more Navajo mountains to total 16. Think of the Navajo mountains as boundary stones as the Navajos believe they were placed on the land between four mountains by their Creator. Four is a sacred number and the four mountains represent the four cardinal directions. Song poems from the native southwest use four as repeating form and rhythmic magic.

Tsisnaasjini, dawn mountain, mountain white shell
boundary stone above San Luis Valley
over you comes the morning sun
your peak opens to the East

Tsoodzil, blue stone bead, turquoise charm
Laguna lies past your guard
arc of sun path in your sky
roads escape to the South

Doko'oosliid, mountain Abalone shell
late shadows trail dusty Flagstaff
you rise, sun passed over your head
faded light echos the distant West

Dibe Nitsaa, graze mountain sheep
high on your rock face grass grows
Cloud people gift on the La Plata mountains

North where clouds gather

If you are looking for them: Tsisnaasjini is Mount Blanca, Tsoodzil is Mount Taylor, Doko'oosliid is San Francisco Peaks and Dibe Nitsaa is La Plata Mountains. The three inner mountains added to Navajo sacred mountains are Dzil Na'oodilii or Huefano Mesa, Ch'oolii or Governador Knob and Naatsis'aan or Navajo Mountain. These three are all sites important to the mythology of the peoples. The three are known as the lungs, heart and head of Navajo country with their stories tied to the tale of Changing Woman. Now you can see why I didn't pick just one of these sacred mountains and why they make the list of the most important mountains in poetry.

Black Elk's Vision brought the site of his visionary trance, Inyan Kaga or Black Buffalo Horn to the list. Known as Harney's Peak in the Black Hills of Dakota, it is unfortunately named after the Military leader responsible for taking native land for US government land in the area. The Black Hills are a geologically old mountain range that have long been sacred to the native peoples. Most know the story of how gold was found and to protect the unlawful miners the US government pushed out the natives, mostly by armed intervention. Black Elk's story was told in the 1930-31 although he had his great vision at the age 9 in the year 1872. When first published in 1932, I suspect it fed the nostalgia and awakened consciousness of educated Americans. When republished in 1961, it was available for counter-cultural native lore seeking hippies and others in the sixties. I read the vision during my undergraduate college years in the early 1970's. It is a beautiful language net which you can see why Carl Jung found it interesting. In the tradition of magpie poetry there are many shiny pieces in thoughts, word phrases and images available in it. It could be a good workshop to have every poet read this text, go away for a few hours and then return to write a poem influenced by the experience. Here is a small sample of the words: "And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before--the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy: the white wing of cleansing and the healing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth."

Mount Olympus seems like a no-brainer as an important mountain in poetry. Found in the poetry of Homer, Milton and must be lots of others. When asking other poets for possible mountains for this list Mount Olympus was always among the first handful mentioned. Mount Olympus, Home of the Gods, Big head faces looking down on tiny us and pinching out a life or raising storms and sinking ships, you know the whole pop cultural thing is so ingrained. I find, however, no signature poem(s) with Mount Olympus as subject or even as primary setting. It must be my lack of a classical education. Maybe someone else can help me out. As subject matter for poetry the Greek myths are used and reused. They trace the whole of poetry's ages in art and culture, however a Mount Olympus poem, I don't know?

Sourdough Mountain doesn't have that problem. It has a poem, SOURDOUGH MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT by Phil Whalen. Sourdough has more than one poem from the days poets worked as fire tower keepers but this one by Whalen puts one on the mountain and opens space to all-seeing transformation, a verse meditation, life/death poet stuff: This rock, me,/To no purpose/I tell you anyway (as a kind of loving...) He says, I destroy myself, the universe (an egg)/And time to get an answer. Let's generalize on these mountain poems, what for to go there -- to make a climb, the metaphor like Grandfather Carp swims upriver. Whalen ends the poem, Like they say, Four times up,/Three times down." I'm still on the mountain. I recommend the book POETS on the PEAKS: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades by John Suiter published by COUNTERPOINT (2002). The story is there with quotes from poems and journals with photos historic and contemporary to the books publication.

Rooting around in the material from the time of these poets in the mountains. Poet Lew Welch I believe also was a fire tower lookout or at least he spent time in the same mountain range. Gary Snyder's poem AUGUST ON SOURDOUGH, A VISIT FROM DICK BREWER is an account of Brewer's visit when they lay in their sleeping bags "talking half the night". Gary Snyder staying and Dick Brewer hitching to New York. Snyder ends the poem "me back to my mountain and far, far west." These mountains would have nothing in the human language to say without our involvement.

Mount Liupan is the most obscure and perhaps that makes it the most personal. In July 1983 when I lived in Saratoga Springs, New York I wrote and later had published a poem ON TWO POEMS OF MAO WITH RED BANNERS. The Mao Zedong poems were Jinggang Mountain (1928) and Mount Liupan (1935). My poem was an idealistic expression of the value for the character of a person and for a political movement of not giving up on beliefs even in the most difficult situation. Mao had written these poems while on the longest march. In looking Mao's poem up for this list I found he had written a later poem, Reascending Jinggang Mountain (1965). He finds new scenes have replaced the old. "Everywhere orioles sing, swallows dart,/Streams babble/And the road mount skyward." Thirty-eight years are gone in a snap and the old soldier knows wherever men live "Flags and bannners are flying" (political strife goes on). it is not on that note the poets ends however:

We can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven
And seize turtles deep down in the Five Seas:
Nothing is hard in this world
If you dare to scale the heights.

from Reascending Jinggang Mountain (1965) by Mao Zedong

Chinese cities on the moon. We may both live to see them!

Fujiyama or Mount Fuji is the Japanese sacred mountain found in poems for centuries. Like Mount Olympus a mountain included by everyone asked to help me with this list. From the haiku of Matsuo and Yosa Bunson all the way back to the poems of the Man'yoshu, the oldest exisiting collection of Japanese poetry. Still a potent symbol in the 20th Century, an anti-war poem by Mitsuharu Kaneko places us at the foot of the mountain as father and mother talk of hiding their son from the draft. Birth certificates, they ought to be burned right away./Nobody should remember my son. When night time at last ends this is the mountain he sees: The rain has let up./In the sky vacant without my son,/well, how damnably disgusting,/like a shabby worn-out bathrobe,/Fuji!. Not songs of praise and thanksgiving the Japanese poets make Fujiyama clear or obscured depending on each poems moment of insight. Here is my current collection of poems:

in the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day -
how intriguing!
-- Matsuo Basho

the wind of Mt. Fuji
I've brought on my fan!
a gift from Edo
-- Matsuo Basho

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
-- Kobayashi Lssa

Oh Mt. Fuji
Grey sky, green pine.
Soon will snow fall.
Grey will turn to white,
Will fall on pine,
Will flutter on ground.
I've got to sit down
and rest this heavy bundle
Which is making me
Black and blue.
I'll take off my tabi
and scratch my foot
which itches. Oh, Mt. Fuji!

-- Yosa Buson

pouring floods of rain
won't Mount Fuji wash away
to a muddy lake?

--Matsuo Basho

Immobile Fuji
alone unblanketed by
millions of new leaves

--Yosa Bunson

peacefulness ... today
Fujiyama stands above us

-- Matsuo Basho

to celebrate new year's
we feast newly-opened eyes on
snowy Fujiyama


Monument Mountain is not that far from my home and is one of two of the Ten Most Important Mountains in Poetry that I have climbed to the top of. The other is Harney Peak which I climbed as a teenager on a family trip to the Black Hills. Monument Mountain is not a difficult climb. It stands tall with a sharp cliff-side and is quite beautiful with large sections of white marble stone. There is a poem Monument Mountain by William Cullen Bryant that tells the story of a fair Indian maid who loved her cousin, a forbidden love which so upset the girl that she began wasting away and became "sick of life". Her friends went to the cliff edge with her and sang all day songs of love and death. And decked the poor wan victim's hair with flowers,/And prayed that safe and swift might be her way/To the calm world of sunshine, where no grief/Makes the heart heavy and the eyelids red. Kind of tribal assisted suicide on moral grounds. She jumped and they buried her upon the mountains southern slope. A pile of small stones marks the grave. This cone of stones was added to by each visitor and according to Bryant is the monument the mountain is named for. There is a lot to chew on with this poem.When hearing it, poet Tim Lake supported the notion that now centuries old social and cultural conventions could intensify emotions to the point love unrequited could physically harm and even kill (through physical neglect) the tragic lover. Monument Mountain's importance grows because on August 5, 1850 Herman Melville, the editor Evert Duckinck and Oliver Wendell Homes joined a party on the mountain that included their host, David Dudley Field Jr. and Nathaniel Hawthorn. The meeting and friendship that began between Melville and Hawthorn started on the mountain ridge where the party read Bryant's poem. The story goes when a thunderstorm arrived Holmes built an umbrella from branches and they passed around Champage in a silver mug.

Now that I have a list what about the mountains I have left off? Shelly's Mount Blac is mentioned by Gary Lawless and Stephen Baraban. Stephen Lewandowski suggested Mount Tamalpais writing Snyder, Whalen and Welch all have a poem about Tamalpais. John Roche had the most suggestions so far. He says Olympus is good, but Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses, even more essential to poets; Dante’s Mount Purgatory; Yeats’ Ben Bulben; the Hill of Tara (Red Branch Tales, etc.); Mt. Tamalpais, sacred to SF Zen Center and all those poets (Snyder, Whalen, etc.); also for Kerouac, Desolation Peak; Mt. Katahdin in Maine: “In the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin. His observations are recorded in a chapter his famous Maine Woods. Katahdin had such a profound effect on Thoreau that he was inspired to call for a creation of a national parks system.” What was John Muir’s favorite Yosemite peak? N. Scott Momaday: Rainy Mountain. Noah’s rock (Mt. Ararat); Gilgamesh’s mountain (Mountain of Nisir); On Top of Old Smokie; The Mountains of the Moon; Mt. Etna must be in a lot of poems; Everest, the Matterhorn, etc. must be in many..

Many good mountains to add but I am sticking to my list for the moment.
--- Alan Casline


  1. Mount Kearsarge by Donald Hall is a wonderful poem though I don't know the Mountain personally.

  2. ah, this field of ten, as in the ten commandments. the greens' ten key values. so western civ.

    dolores lachapelle taught the Way of the Mountain in her beloved San Juans.

    for me, lone cone is the most important mountain in my poetry, because i live Looking South to Lone Cone.

    but it's hard to come from San Francisco and not see Mt. Tamalpais as one of the most important mountains in poetry...

  3. ...if we're only going to pick ten, from an American perspective...

  4. Machu Picchu photographed from a satellite with pictures and videos of this wonderful pre-Columbian