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World Poetry Days in Mongolia
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Wisdom and skillful means: THE PROMOTION OF MONGOL POETRY

There is relatively little research carried outtoday on Mongol poetry. The main focus of tis poetry, over the many centures of its history, has been a magical and gentle melody, which manifests as a deep reverence for, and an abiding love of, the natural world and the animals which inhabit it.
The Mongol people have, from the earliest times, used language to develop a communicative and respectful relationship, both with their livestock and with the wild animals, and have written, as a people, a huge number of propitiative invitations and prayers to the natural world, seen in the form of intelligent spirits and genii loci, manifest in the surrounding hills and rivers and trees and springs and stones. Human conversation reaches the spirits of these hills and rivers and trees and springs and stones, and since we believe that not only are such words preserved in the mind but that actions result from them, the figurative expression of this interaction through the rhythm and sound of poetry is regarded as an important and precious aspect of Mongol nomadic culture.
 
Prayer
Among the treasury of Mongol oral and written literature, the prayer occupies a place of honor. Prayer is intended to stimulate success and positive activity in future times. We use the ritual of prayer to bring blessings and happiness when we first cut a baby's hair, to mark old age, when we erect a new ger, and when we get married. Moreover, we offer prayer for practical work too, such as when we round up the mares for summer milking, when the mares produce their foals,when we distill airag or when we make felt. For instance, when we first cut a baby's hair, we say:
 
Oh, we open the blades of the golden scissors
and so insure your physical life,
and we open the blades of the silver scissors
and so insure your eternal life

We cut from the spring on the western steppe,
so the lotus flower blooms,
we cut from the spring on the eastern steppe
so the rays of knowledge will shine.
 
Or when we distill airag:
Oh...warmed by the sun's heat,
washed in fine rain,
nourished by leaves and vegetation,
washed by rain from the clouds,
nourished by the cattle,
this food is the result.
 
And when we distill the goodness in milk for airag we recite this poem:
Arhi by name, pure by nature.
Wine by name, fiery by nature,
with a golden mouth, with a silver lining,
this cup of precious sandalwood,

I offer it up, filled...
 
Prayer then, while being one part of the daily life and daily activities of Mongol nomads is also a poetic safeguarding of wisdom and respect for ancestral practise, so as to ensure success in life.
There are many stories about the poet Yeröölch Gelegbalsan, who lived in the area of the Gobi towards the end of the nineteenth century. Gelegbalsan was known for his poems (the name Yeröölch means someone who composes prayers), and people gathered from all over the surrounding area to hear him recite. Gelegbalsan adapted his poetry according to the requirements of the patron who had invited him. At the end of the 1890s, at the time of a great drought, he wrote "Prayer to Request Rain from Heaven" in consultation with a local official named Tsedensambuu. Many people came together at the head of a spring on a local hill, spread out bolts of white felt and called out to the gods. Even today the people of the Gobi tell of how a rain cloud appeared then in the broad expanse of the sky and ended the drought. One, when Gelegbalsan lost a wager at the palace of the Bogd Haan, he took out credit from a local shop and thus rn up an unfeasibly large debt. At taht time, Sain Noyon Haan said to him, "I'll pay your debt. You must come and work as my advisor," and he set up a ger on a hill for Gelegbalsan and appointed a cook for him. The local chief became aware of this and demanded Gelegbalsan from Sain Noyon Haan. A prayer having been offered, that Sain Noyon would pay his debt to the local chief, the Haan sent Gelegbalsan back to say that he would pay off Gelegbalsan's debt with many silver ingots and an enclosure full of camels. So we can see how this singer of prayers Gelegbalsan was of great benefit in many difficult situations.
Prayer has its origins in Mongol cultural wisdom and, as well as creating music from the rhythm of words and the magic which preoccupies the mind and develops focus, the understanding and skill with words and with melody entrances the listeners and thus exerts a powerful influence upon the society.
 
Praise songs:
Praise songs express in music the fine wisdom and skills of such things as the mountains and waters, people, the three manly sports of archery, wrstling nd horse racing, one's possessions and the five kinds of livestock (camels, goats, sheep, horses and cattle). They augment fine language in today's world and extol the virtues of our possessions and those in power over us.
Praise songs were originally composed in ancient times to honor and summon local spirits, the genii loci of mountains and rivers, and to show how happy and peaceful life was in a particular area. Here is the beginning of one such example, from the Altai mountains:
 
Its peak is adorned
by the sun and moon in the sky
its center is adorned
by the rising sun,
its base is surrounded
by the serpents of the eight aimags...
 
The song continues:

On its nose are the spring pastures,
joy in the three months of springtime.

On its fontanelle are the summer pastures,
pleasure in the three months of summer.

On its ridges are the autumn pastures,
celebration in the three months of autumn.

On ts lap are the winter pastures,
abundance in the three months of winter.

Such is my homeland of Bayan Han aimag…
The remainder of the song offers praise of the local spirits and to their trees and stones and flowers and wild beasts. In this way, the natural world, the birdsong, the soughing of the wind and the call of the wild animals are likewise praised. These praise songs each have their own particular melody, which, when focused on the various ranks of Mongol wrestlers and racehorses, hold in the words the power and constancy of the subject. For example, in praise of a wrestler, we hear:

…most clear
and fascinating,
truly mighty and
unequalled in will,
of firm conviction
in combat,
of undiminished strength,
with flapping wings like the Garuda
and utterly powerful...

The wrestler promoted to this this rank, flapping his arms like a Garuda, standing like a mammoth, is loaded, through these words, with the power to be victorious.

Epic
The Mongol epic is an extremely ancient form, which celebrates the clan chieftans, powerful heroes and ancestors of great ability and skill, and which originally came out of the tradition of worshipping the tutelary deities in the form of long-dead ancestors. Epics are composed in verses many thousands of lines in lengthwith some of them taking many days and months to declaim, through recitation and song. The Mongol epic generally deals with the desire for a stable, peaceful and prosperous life, and its poetry tells of heroic men, beautiful women, their swift horses, and their heroic battles with evil enemies such as the Mangas. In the recitation of the epic, attention is given to the richness of natural imagery, with the inclusion of hills and rivers and local spirits, the families who live among them, and their herds of horses.
One of the most striking of Mongol literary forms, epic is composed according to poetic rules and techniues. Over many thousands of years of the development of Mongol oral culture, the Mongol epic has brought together linguistic art, music, social and philosophical viewpoints and the essence of magic.
We should be aare that there are today some 280 recorded examples of the Mongol poetic epic, such as Gesar, Jangar and The Ancient Deep Darkness, to the 5000-line Hundred Thousand Jewels and to the 14,000-line The 150 Year Old Wise King of the Naga Serpents.
 
Poetry written for animals
The Mongol cultural tradition, in particular the nomadic tradition, has a particular connection with animals and livestock. I would like to say a few words about the poetry which has a direct connection with livestock herding. When a rejected young animal is returned to its mother, or an orphaned animal is put to another mother, there are poems which are recited, set to music played by transverse flute, end-blown flute or horsehead fiddle, and these awaken the animals' natural urges. And so, the musical and linguistic skill encourages the mother to behave according to her nature.
Calling the sheep with "toig toig", calling the goats with "chaig chaig", calling the cows with "öög öög", calling the wethers with "höös höös" are all musical and poetic ways of managing livestock.
 
Poem to accustom a lamb to its mother

My little pure white lsheep,
Why do you dspise your lamb?

The scent of your milk
Is on its tail.!

Hos! hos! hos! hos!
It’s spring time now,

The snows nearby are starting to melt.
There’s a dry wind coming –

What is there lying next to you?
Toig! Toig! Toig! Toig!

There’s a gentle wind coming,
The grasses are growing on the hills

Your first milk is flowing –
What is there holding on beneath you?
Toig! Toig! Toig! Toig!

It’s broad summer,
The world is growing green.

Your teats are aching –
What will suck at them?
Tog! Toig! Toig! Toig!
 
Poem to accustom a mother camel to her calf:
A child is nourished

On milk of shelduck yellow
Why do you think so wrongly
Of your sweet little calf?

In the morning you rise and stand with pursed lips,
He would nourish himself on your protecting milk.
Höös höös höös höös!
Höös höös höös höös!

The child grows up sucking
The white milk he chases.
Why do you cause your dear

Baby to suffer so?

Sadly he bellows to the midday sun,
He who would nourish himself on mother’s milk.
Höös höös höös höös!
Höös höös höös höös!

A child grows up, pulling down
On milk filled with nourishment.
Why do you leave your little
scrap of a calf all alone?

When evening comes, he stares and bellows,
He who would pull down the warm milk.
Höös höös höös höös!
Höös höös höös höös!
 
The poetry of the Long Song
From the point of view of performed sung literature, the long song, an especially wonderful aspect of Mongol culture, is widely praised and listened to throughout the world. However it is not possible to separate the poetry from the long song, and – given that the poetry deals with a myriad of subjects, such as Mongol nomadic philosophy, the physical world, political ideas, respect for the natural world and for the ancestors, spirituality and religiosity, love and pleasure and compassion –I can sadly only talk a little about the research here.
We should realise that it is not the words which lead the beautiful long song melody, but rather that the melody and the words complement one anoher and so together influence the artistry. In the Mongol short song form, there are an even greater number of themes, with titles such as “The Sun Over Jambuling,” “The Horsehead Fidle” and “The Old Birds.”
In the poetry of the long song, the words are generally written in verse. The selection of Mongol poetic forms and the choice of rare and precious words can be seen as one of the main characteristics of Mongol oral literature, as much as it is of the written literature. It may well be that the many of the long songs have been composed by people of great education and knowledge. This is particularly clear from those long songs which deal with the issues of statecraft and politics. 
As for how the long song is composed, It is rare that the words of a long song are composed by one person, and the melody by another. The poetry might be worked upon over the course of a journey, with the words and the music being put together in response to the constancy of the wild steppe.
It is impossible for a long song to be written to a precomposed melody. The composer writes the song according to their own vocal capacities. Long songs are still being written today, and one of our finest musicians, L.Mördorj, is a composer of long songs. But such people as this, we should remember, have the vocal range to deal with the long song.
The poetry of the long song is one of the gems of Mongol literature. Not only do they deal with elevated poetic themes such as love and philosophy, people’s aspiration to these things is helped by the song’s melody. 
 
THE MAJESTIC SUN BLESSES THE WORLD
Indeed, my friends, does not the sun of this beautiful Universe
blossom, indestructible
over this visible world?
 
Indeed, my friends, do not we deceive ourselves,
thinking our humble lives,
like sun glinting through clouds, will last forever?
 
Indeed, my friends, is it not really hard,
when old and weak, to learn
the lessons unlearnt when young and strong?

The Poetry and Music of Danzanravjaa
The nineteenth century poet, intellectual, spiritual teacher, composer and organiser of nomadic theater the 5th Noyon Hutagt Danzanravjaa sang the poetry which he had written to his own melodies, and for those to which he had not written music, he asked the singer and horsehead fiddle player Dadishura to provide the melody It appears that some of these songs are more or less improvised. The Mongol nomads have been moving for centuries, according to the cycle of the seasons, across the mountains, deserts and steppes of their vast homeland, and the easiest way for them to listen and read poetry has been to set it to music. Dazanravjaa is said to have written what is arguably his most famous and spiritually inspiring poem, “Your Perfect Qualities” (Ülemjin Chanar), for the fmale spirits, or dakinis, found in Buddhism. The women in his retinue set the words to music and, when he grew tired, they sang it to him as an offering. Today, this song honors the men and women who serve the Buddhadharma, and it retains its original melody. This melody is ever being refined so as to convey greater blessing, and Mongols hold that one singing of it is the equivalent of a hundred readings of the Buddhist Green Tara practise. 
 
YOUR PERFECT QUALITIES
 
Your perfect qualities,
are like colors reflected in a mirror.
I see your shining face, my dear,
and truly you have captured
my entire mind and body.
Like the cuckoo’s song,
you relieve the stress in my mind.
Your kind words are gentle, my dear,
With such kindness you sit
and offer comfort.
Your elegant body ,
borne upon the breeze,
is beyond words, my dear.
Like the scent of red sandalwood,
you more and more entrance my thoughts.
Like the taste of honey
flowing from the heart of the lotus,
joy in you, my dear,
makes me ever happier,
happier beyond belief.
In this human age,
to do what you wish
is to wish for the things of heaven.
Afloat upon the ocean of deep enjoyment,
let us be joyful together.
 
Epistolary literature
When state officials brought letters and suchlike from Chinggis haan or from other powerful rulers, these emissaries had committed the texts to memory. While, on the one hand, it was possible that some accident might have befallen the letter, there was another more important reason. The emissaries travelled with the letters composed in elegant language so that they might make an offering of their recital to whichever leader or ruler was being addressed. The Mongols were aware that the power of words could accomplish great things, and so it was that such fine epistolary composition was able to sway a ruler’s mind and so exert much political influence. 
The poetry held within the melodies of the horsehead fiddle: In the sound of the Mongol horsehead fiddle are the traditions, the behavior and even the paces of fine horses and livestock, passed down in the thoughts and ideas of the nomadic people. One could say that the horsehead fiddle is a devce for gathering together the songs of a given period. 
My father, Dugarsürengiin Gombojav, was a nomadic herder from the area of Dariganga in southeastern Mongolia. In the songs which came from his horshead fiddle, such as “Sühbaatar’s Light Bay,” “The Camel with a Nose-Peg” and “The Reedy Little Horse,” he deals with the behavior of camels and horses. My own poems and stories – such as “The Fiddle’s Horsehead” and “Quickwit the Camel” – come from some of his songs, and they serve as examples of the correlation between melody and poetry.
 
There are other literary forms, apart from these, which I cannot deal with now, such as shamanic and Buddhist recitations, and poetic repartee songs. 
The ancient traditions of Mongol verse have become somewhat obscured in today’s poetic literature. Nonetheless, as I take part in competitions and festivals in many other countries, I am heartened that foreign readers find such pleasure and musicality in Mongol poetry. While it is true that nowadays there is less reading aloud of poetry, it seems that notwithstanding that the melody seems a little like the dregs left over from something great, it comes in fact not from us today but from the verses of the ancestors. I would like to read you another poem, as an example. 
 
The Moon Rising over the Old Temple
The moon rises over the old temple,
its transfigured light gilding the finial.
An air flows from a bamboo flute, and
the heart is filled once more by distant nostalgia.
 
Wild grasses push up between the stones,
along the road where the Buddhas are gathered.
But I can’t see where the Buddhas have gone,
the light is so bright from the time beyond.
 
The moon rises over the old temple,
its transfigured light shining in every heart.
A bamboo flute carries me beyond my grief,
calls upon the Buddha’s distant light.
 
The shadow of the temple casts its meaning,
like words fading into ancient ink.
Upon the shadow of human grief,
no light is cast by the candle of mind.
 
A shining vision of Buddha,
even in the motes of finest dust.
There’s paradise in the bamboo flute’s melody,
and the moon is rising over the old temple…
 
I would like to offer a few concluding points regarding the correlation between poetry and music in Mongol culture:
1 Within the Mongol tradition, poetry is advanced through melody, the blending of words and music having developed from ancient times to the present day.
2 The correlation between poetry and melody influences the audience’s mind; the waves of verse and music awaken and draw them under their spell.
3 Melody is a singular quality of Mongol poetry, it is a way of uniting the spiritual ideas of wisdom and skillful means in prayer.
4 The research and study of the Mongol poetic heritage helps to illuminate the shadowy regions in today’s world, in which nature is regarded with disdain, and it makes a profound contribution to the softening of people’s hearts and minds.
 
23 January 2011
at Stanford University, USA
Papers & Speeches