I doubt that Li Po will be a household name outside of China or among really dedicated fans of poetry. He was a poet that lived in 8th Century China during the Tang Dynasty. His exploits were legend among his peers and his verse is regarded as among the very best in China's long and glorious history. He is often ranked with his contemporary Tu Fu as the towering figures in Chinese verse. 

I discovered Li Po in an indirect manner. His name was mentioned in a poem by Charles Bukowski. I learned from the poem that Li Po was a poet who wandered China drinking and carousing. I felt that seeking out his verse could provide inspiration so I began seeking out his verse. 

Of course, this meant finding a good translation since I don't speak Chinese.  The Selected Poems of Li Po is a selection of poems translated by David Hinton. It seemed like a good place to start. It featured over a hundred of Li Po's poems and an introduction that provided biographical and historical background to this unique poet. 

Li Po was known for a fondness of drink. This does become very apparent as one reads his verse. He often writes of different situations in which he finds the opportunity to imbibe. It is written that he died while drinking on a boat at night. Allegedly, he fell off the boat trying to hug the reflection of the moon in the pond.

The moon does feature prominently in Li Po's poetry. He seems to have had a particular fondness for quaffing wine by moonlight. He has a piece titled Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon which reveals two of his greatest affections in life: 

Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon / and facing my shadow makes friends three

 The notion of drinking alone also appears in several of the poems in the volume. Li Po is also perfectly comfortable drinking alone on a bright afternoon. I came to appreciate why Bukowski liked him so much. He wrote in a direct manner even though there is a lot cultural distance. Chinese poets tend to write short verse that often leaves the reader questioning what it is supposed to mean. The lack of precise conclusions in the verse will be unsettling to some readers who need to know what everything means. If you have to have everything spelled out for you then you will probably not find much enjoyment in reading these poems. Chinese verse is largely written to induce feelings rather than have a moral or concrete meaning.  Li Po was well steeped in Taoism and Zen and this often comes through in his verse. 

Something Said, Waking Drunk on a Spring Day is one of my favorites in this volume. It is a poignant poem that is only twelve lines long. This is actually long among the Li Po canon. The poem concludes: 

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.

 It's easy to see that little moralizing takes place in Li Po's poetry. He is merely recording his misadventures in verse and leaving others to make of it what they will. It should be noted that Li Po, in spite achieving great fame during his lifetime was often considered the “bad poet of his era. Tu Fu tended to be the moralizer who followed the straight and narrow path. It was often written that they feuded although the two were reasonably close friends. Li Po mentions Tu Fu in several poems. One that is included in this volume is simply titled Teasing Tu Fu

How is it you've gotten so thin since we've part?/  Must be all those poems you've been suffering over.

The distinction that emerges is that Tu Fu was the “official” poet who followed the strict traditions while Li Po was a poet of the people. I found the verse to reveal a joy for life and a hearty attitude toward nature and other people. This book only contains about 120 pages of poems so it did leave me wanting more. I understand that Ezra Pound did some fine translations of Li Po so I will try to seek them out.

Hinton includes notes on the poems included in the book. He explains the geographical and historical references in various poems. This was  helpful to me as I’m hardly an expert on Chinese history. It helped me understand some of the poems better. Overall, though, I don't think a scholarly knowledge of Chinese history is necessary to enjoy these poems. They are the product of a gifted poet who drank up life and wine with great elan. I suggest you pour yourself a glass of wine or crack open a beer and meditate on a few poems at random. Keep repeating the process until you've covered the entire book. The poems will become their own reward.


Author's Notes/Comments: 

another of my favorite poets.  I think you'll be delighted if you check him out.  Li Po is a giant.

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allets's picture

Any Old Reason

dripped in ancient carousing, is a good reason to check out Bud Light's orange flavored beer. Oranges are moonlike and will set the mood for Li Po. - :D



georgeschaefer's picture

Li Po would approve, I

Li Po would approve, I believe.