Vermonter seeks true contact in a touch-screen world

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EAST CALAIS — David Hinton, according to his lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, "is the best English-language translator of classic Chinese poetry we have."

The writer is also a humble resident of the Vermont village of East Calais. And so after becoming the first Westerner in more than a century to decipher the five seminal masterworks of Chinese philosophy (I Ching, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Analects and Mencius), he appeared to be coming home with the release of his new regionally inspired book "The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape."

The 328-page Shambhala paperback opens with a quote from 19th-century New Englander Henry David Thoreau: "Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?"

When Thoreau penned that in 1848, he had just climbed into the blinding cloud cover of Maine's highest mountain. But most people today read those words on electronic screens hermetically sealed from actual experience.

"I've always thought poetry, at its deepest level, is about consciousness and landscape rather than people telling their own little stories," Hinton says in an interview.

And so the Vermonter has collected the work of 15 avant-garde American poets — from the late innovators Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and John Cage to living practitioners Michael McClure, W.S. Merwin, Jerome Rothenberg and Gary Snyder — to comment on the power of present-moment ecological thinking.

And past-millennia Eastern tradition.

"Between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago, ancient China underwent a cultural transformation very similar to that of the modern West: the transformation from a spiritualist to an empiricist worldview, which entailed a rediscovery of consciousness in its original nature as woven into the tissue of existence," he writes. "And as we will see, modern American poetry's reinvention of consciousness was a reformulation of the insights that emerged from that."

A Utah native, Hinton began forming his argument as a student who earned a master of fine arts degree from Cornell University in 1981.

"I've been thinking about this since college," he says, "and I slowly assembled the pieces over the years."

Hinton first shared his vision a decade ago in a course he has offered at Middlebury College, New York's Columbia University and the Free University of Berlin.

"I've been teaching the book without the book," he says. "I finally got around to writing it."

You don't have to be a scholar to benefit from its suggestion to unplug from electronics and ego and reconnect with direct experience — to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world for oneself.

"Contact, the primacy of the immediate: it is not such a difficult idea," he writes, "but in terms of actual experience, the stuff of life and poetry, it is a difficult lesson we must learn over and over."

And one Hinton returns to regularly. Take his 2012 meditative memoir "Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape," in which he aims to let go of "academic abstractions" and, harnessing all he has learned from Taoist masters, literally take a hike.

"At the beginning of my walk, there are the two of us — the mountain and me," Hinton writes of the central Vermont peak across the Stowe valley from Mount Mansfield, the state's highest summit. "Then I begin to notice: wind scattering leaves off field-edge trees in gusty patterns of brilliant color; a wild apple tree, trunk gnarled, fruit incandescent reds and yellows and greens shimmering with sunlit snowmelt."

And himself merging into it all, no longer differentiating "human" and "nature," "no distinction between me and the mountain, only empty consciousness mirroring the mountain's form."

Hinton followed up that work last year with a book-length essay on ancient Chinese art titled "Existence."

"We dwell in our everyday lives," he writes in it, "at the center of a dynamic cocoon of cosmic energy, an all-encompassing generative present, but we are rarely aware of this wondrous fact"

Cue "The Wilds of Poetry" and its call for "inhabiting the world at a wild depth and primal immediacy."

"I'm shifting my interest to writing more and more," the translator says. "This new book is just another version of what I think about all the time."

Hinton is set to read at Montpelier's Bear Pond Books Tuesday at 7 p.m. and teach at Massachusetts' UU Rowe Camp and Conference Center an hour south of Brattleboro, Sept. 22-24. He's not one for long publicity tours or, when asked about his spiritual affiliation, labels.

"I don't depend on any belief or dogma," he says. "It's just open your eyes and look."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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