Sunday, January 15, 2006

Sunday Poem: Li Po

Something Said, Waking Drunk on a Spring Day

It's like boundless dream here in this
world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.

I have, therefore, been drunk all day,
a shambles of sleep on the front porch.

Coming to, I look into the courtyard.
There's a bird among the blossoms calling,

and when I ask what season this is,
an oriole's voice drifts on spring winds.

Overcome, verging on sorrow and lament,
I pour another drink. Soon, awaiting

this bright moon, I'm chanting a song.
And now it's over, I've forgotten why.

[Translated by David Hinton: Selected Poems of Li Po; New Directions.]

In China, there is a phrase that suggests Li Po more as a phenomenon than a man: "Winds of the immortals, bones of the Tao." He is often referred to as the Banished Immortal, a reference to the seeming ease of his verse, his mysticism, and his itinerant life. His lack of attachment to self and his willingness (maybe eagerness) to transcend the self through love, wine (especially wine), and nature are the foundation of his poetry. His poetry reflects the spontaneous unfolding of the ten thousand things, but it also carries the energy of that unfolding in such a way that we feel it directly through his words.

From Hinton's "Introduction" to the Selected Poems:
To live as part of the earth's process of change is to live one's most authentic self: rather than acting with self-conscious intention, one acts with selfless spontaneity. This spontaneity is wu-wei (literally: "doing nothing"), and it is an important part of Taoist and Ch'an (Zen) practice, the way to experience one's life as an organic part of tzu-jan [translates as "nature"].
Here are a few excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on Li Bai (better known as Li Po in the West).
Called the Poet Immortal, Li Bai is often regarded, along with Du Fu, as one of the two greatest poets in China's literary history. Approximately 1,100 of his poems remain today. The Western world was introduced to Li Bai's works through the very liberal translations of Japanese versions of his poems made by Ezra Pound.

Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking
Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor. Like Du Fu, he spent much of his life travelling, although in his case it was because his wealth allowed him to, rather than because his poverty forced him. He is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

Over a thousand poems are attributed to him, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain. He is best known for his
yue fu poems, which are intense and often fantastic. He is often associated with Taoism: there is a strong element of this in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone. Nevertheless, his gufeng ("ancient airs") often adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist, and many of his occasional verses are fairly conventional.

Much like the genius of Mozart there exist many legends on how effortlessly Li Bai composed his poetry; he was said to be able to compose at an astounding speed, without correction. His favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character
quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Li Bai's use of language is not as erudite as Du Fu's but impresses equally through an extravagance of imagination and a direct
correlation of his free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, and his acute observations of life inform his best poems.
Rather than expound on the greatness of this poet, who once was very influential in my own poetry, I'd rather leave today with another of his poems--one that stands as a fine example of the Taoist influence in his writing.
Ancient Song [also known as Chuang-tzu and the Butterfly]

Chuang-tzu dreams he's a butterfly,
and a butterfly becomes Chuang-tzu.

All transformation this one body,
boundless occurrence goes on and on:

it's no surprise eastern seas become
western streams shallow and clear,

or the melon-grower at Ch'ing Gate
once reigned as Duke of Tung-ling.

Are hopes and dreams any different?
We bustle around, looking for what?

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