The Selected Poems of Li Po
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Li Po (A.D., 701-762) lived in T’ang Dynasty China, but his influence has spanned the centuries: the pure lyricism of his poems has awed readers in China and Japan for over a millennium, and through Ezra Pound’s translations, Li Po became central to the modernist revolution in the West. His work is suffused with Taoism and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, but these seem not so much spiritual influences as the inborn form of his life.
There is a set-phrase in Chinese referring to the phenomenon of Li Po: “Winds of the immortals, bones of the Tao.” He moved through this world with an unearthly freedom from attachment, and at the same time belonged profoundly to the earth and its process of change. However ethereal in spirit, his poems remain grounded in the everyday experience we all share. He wrote 1200 years ago, half a world away, but in his poems we see our world transformed. Legendary friends in eighth-century T’ang China, Li Po and Tu Fu are traditionally celebrated as the two greatest poets in the Chinese canon. David Hinton’s translation of Li Po’s poems is no less an achievement than his critically acclaimed The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, also published by New Directions. By reflecting the ambiguity and density of the original, Hinton continues to create compelling English poems that alter our conception of Chinese poetry.
But for Li Po, it seems not so much a spiritual practice as the inborn form of his life, much of which was spent wandering. As this was primarily wandering on whim rather than traveling of necessity, it gives his life the very shape of spontaneity: sailing downriver hundreds of miles in a day or settling in one place for a year. Li Po’s spontaneity also takes the form of wild drinking and a gleeful disdain for decorum and authority, as in the story where he fails to pay the proper respects when
Cheng, Franois. Chinenese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of T’ang Poetry. Chinese trans. J. P. Seaton. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982. Cooper, Arthur. Li Po and Tu Fu. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973. Eide, Elling. “On Li Po.” In Perspectives on the T’ang. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973. ————. Poems by Li Po. Lexington: Anvil Press, 1984. Hamill, Sam. Banished Immortal: Visions of Li T’ai-po. Fredonia: White Pine Press, 1987. Liu Wu-chi, and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower
family (which also had Central Asian connections), a genealogy reaching back to no less a figure than the mythical Taoist philosopher Lao-tzu (whose family name was Li). Still, evidence such as descriptions of his strange and striking appearance suggest Li Po had much Central Asian blood in him. Indeed, he may not have been Chinese at all. In any case, Li Po was accepted as part of the far-flung and illustrious Li family, a “cousin” of imperial princes. Most of his relatives were officials in
feels: ten thousand miles of farewell on this boat. GAZING AT THE LU MOUNTAIN WATERFALL 1 Climbing west toward Incense-Burner Peak, I look south and see a falls of water, a cascade hanging there, three thousand feet high, then seething dozens of miles down canyons. Sudden as lightning breaking into flight, its white rainbow of mystery appears. Afraid at first the celestial Star River is falling, splitting and dissolving into cloud heavens, I look up into force churning in strength, all
build, then a perfect moon clears towering pines, opening autumn clarity into an empty valley. There’s still old snow in ravines up here, and cold streams begin among broken rock. Countless peaks deep in heaven, I climb on, gazing into them, but they’re inexhaustible. Then Tan-ch’iu calls out in these distances, and spotting me, breaks into a sudden smile. Watchful, I cross into this valley, seeing in it the ease you’ve mastered in stillness, and soon we’re lingering out ageless night,