Friday, February 01, 2008

The Plastered Poetic Genius of Li Po

The Guardian blog has an article on Li Po and his love of wine (and the great poetry he produced).

My recent discovery of a clutch of early Chinese poets has been something of a revelation, and renewed my interest in poetry in ways I hadn't thought possible. Chief among them is one of the China's most recognised poets Li Po (also known as Li Bai or Li Bo), who lived from 701 to 762 during the Tang dynasty.

Reading Li Po for the first time releases all kinds of emotions, chief among them surprise - surprise that here is a man writing poems that could have been written yesterday. You are also inclined to wonder why such easily digestible works aren't on every national curriculum or university course, given that they say as much about the human condition as anything written since. And you'll probably find yourself in awe at Li Po's fondness for drinking and at the role booze plays in his work.

If Charles Bukowski, Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan (self-described as "a drinker with a writing problem") are your idea of wonderful big-hearted bar-room bards then you should probably investigate Li Po immediately. Here is a poet whose "technique" involved climbing a mountain, getting wasted, then writing down his thoughts. The work he produced during such jollies was highly meditative, though only in the same way the drunk in the corner of your local pub is meditative, while his ability to convey the skull-crushing, fear-inducing effect of hangovers is second to none.

Li Po's work is full of the same recurring images: the mountain, the moon, a nice big jar of wine. Much of his work is imbued with that sense of warmth and oneness that comes after the first few glasses, as well as that maudlin regret that comes with the next few.

There's more -- and it's worth the read.

Here are a few poems from one of the great masters -- and I agree that Li Po should be taught a LOT more than he is now. You'll notice in these poems the theme from the article -- a good jug of wine and a little melancholy.

Alone And Drinking Under The Moon

Amongst the flowers I
am alone with my pot of wine
drinking by myself; then lifting
my cup I asked the moon
to drink with me, its reflection
and mine in the wine cup, just
the three of us; then I sigh
for the moon cannot drink,
and my shadow goes emptily along
with me never saying a word;
with no other friends here, I can
but use these two for company;
in the time of happiness, I
too must be happy with all
around me; I sit and sing
and it is as if the moon
accompanies me; then if I
dance, it is my shadow that
dances along with me; while
still not drunk, I am glad
to make the moon and my shadow
into friends, but then when
I have drunk too much, we
all part; yet these are
friends I can always count on
these who have no emotion
whatsoever; I hope that one day
we three will meet again,
deep in the Milky Way.

* * * * *

(Here is a different translation by Sam Hamill of the previous poem.)

Drinking Alone

I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.

I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.

But the moon doesn't drink,
and my shadow silently follows.

I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.

When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.

We share life's joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.

Constant friends, although we wander,
we'll meet again in the Milky Way.

* * * * *

Mountain Drinking Song

To drown the ancient sorrows,
we drank a hundred jugs of wine
there in the beautiful night.
We couldn't go to bed with the moon so bright.

The finally the wine overcame us
and we lay down on the empty mountain--
the earth for a pillow,
and a blanket made of heaven.

* * * * *

A Mountain Revelry

To wash and rinse our souls of their age-old sorrows,
We drained a hundred jugs of wine.
A splendid night it was . . . .
In the clear moonlight we were loath to go to bed,
But at last drunkenness overtook us;
And we laid ourselves down on the empty mountain,
The earth for pillow, and the great heaven for coverlet.

You can find 62 of Li Po's poems at Poem Hunter.

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