BOOK> Protass, "The Poetry Demon: Song-Dynasty Monks on Verse and the Way"

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Dear Colleagues,

I am delighted to share that a paperback edition of my book, The Poetry Demon: Song Dynasty Monks on Verse and the Way (2021), is now available from the University of Hawai‘i Press website:



  When Medieval Chinese Buddhist monks wrote poems about their passion for poetry, they sometimes cast their uncontrollable urges of inspiration as mental afflictions, obstacles to focused Buddhist practice, or the activity of Māra. “The poetry demon” (shimo 詩魔) was one of their names for this tension between the ascetic form of life and the aesthetic pleasures of poeticizing. Taking that tension as its starting point, The Poetry Demon: Song Dynasty Monks on Verse and the Way includes analyses and translation of 80+ poems by Chan and Tiantai monks as well as poet-monks, as well as 80+ other texts about Buddhism and poetry. I present Song-era norms and practices by reading widely in Song-era sources, and as a result my interpretations are grounded in monks’ social lives, rituals, and education, in addition to doctrine. 

  Section I “A Poetry of their Own” is about Chan masters, who were highly literate and often wrote poems they called “gāthā” (jisong 偈頌). Ch. 1 reviews the history of gāthā in China; the broader contexts of Chinese poetry, and Buddhist genres of verse; concluding with how Song dynasty Buddhist communities created poetic gāthā. Ch 2 uses Chinese manuscripts preserved in Japan (often called bokuseki 墨跡) to consider the materiality of monks’ poetry; and how poems circulated and possessed social capital. I also review overlooked evidence revealing how disciples compiled such manuscripts into edited texts, often culminating in woodblock editions of a master’s “recorded sayings” (yulu 語錄). 

  Section II “Poetry and the Way” begins with the chapter “Poetry is Not the Way.” Ch. 3 is about the concept “literary / lettered chan” (wenzi chan 文字禪) in its Song context. I diverge from most modern scholars who, I argue, take one re-interpretation of this concept from a Ming dynasty debate and anachronistically project it back onto the Song. I show that this term in Juefan Huihong’s own usage operated as part of his rhetoric of humility and not as a banner for a path to liberation. Ch. 4 “Poetry as Outer Learning” reviews doctrinal explanations and legal regulations of poetry, and traces them through widely circulated Song dynasty texts. These normative texts claim, on the one hand, that poetry may serve as expedient means, but, on the other hand, that the intrinsic pleasures of poetry are dangerous for the ascetic path. I connect these canonical ideas to specific Song dynasty poetic topoi, and conclude that normative rhetoric did shape poetic practices. 

  Section III “Monks and Literary Sociality” draws together insights from earlier chapters to do interpretation and suggests future directions of inquiry. Each chapter focuses on one mode of monks’ poetry. Ch. 5 is about parting poems (songbie 送別); and Ch. 6 types of mourning poetry written by monks, contrasting formal funeral ritual with personal poems such as wange 挽歌. These are all emotion-laden genres. Monks used poetic strategies to express or deny their emotions, depending on what role they thought emotions should have in monastic life. These chapters include many poems in translation, and compare the differing poetics of Chan and Tiantai monks. 

  Overall, the book bridges the fields of Buddhist studies and Chinese literature in order to examine the place of poetry in the lives of Song monks, and offers a historically-informed model for the study of Buddhism and literature. 


Best wishes, 
Jason Protass 
Brown University

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