Li Bo (a.k.a. Li Bai), was a Chinese poet who lived in the 700s, during the Tang Dynasty. Spanning the years 618-907 A.D, the Tang Dynasty is known as the Golden Age of Chinese culture. During this era, poetry flourished; Tang poets are among the most revered figures of Chinese literature.
I don’t know about you, but when I read terms like “Golden Age of Poetry,” “Tang Dynasty,” and so forth, it all sounds rather stuffy and forbidding, like starched silk (if there is such a thing). I assumed the poetry would be highly formal and concerned with paying the proper respects to one’s elders and correctly using chopsticks at the dinner table.
Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how fresh and modern Li Bo’s poems seem to me. (One reason they seem modern is because they influenced Anglo-American literary modernism via Ezra Pound, but that’s another story.)
Far from being a stuffed-shirt, Li Bo was known as a free-spirit who wrote poems in praise of wine and nudity. He reminds me a little bit of Walt Whitman in his free-spiritedness, although his style is much more imagistic and controlled.
Li Bo played up his “fun party guy” image because it helped him professionally. According to Stephen Owen, a specialist in Chinese literature, the powerful people of the Tang Dynasty liked having a few free-spirited poetic types around to liven up their parties. Owen notes that “It was considered sort of nice to have one [a wild and free poet]. They entertained you.” Asian Topics: An Online Resource for Asian History and Culture.
Who knew a person could make a living cavorting drunkenly in front of the moon for the ruling class? I wonder if Obama would hire me for such a position….
In any case, here are a few of Li Bo’s poems for you to enjoy. Let me know what you think!
Poems by Li Bo (aka Li Bai)
Summer Day in the Mountains
Lazily waving a fan of white feathers,
stripped naked here in the green woods.
I take off my headband hang it on a cliff
my bare head splattered by winds through pines.
Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright.
Fallen leaves gather and scatter,
The jackdaw perches and starts anew.
We think of each other- when will we meet?
This hour, this night, my feelings are hard.
Drinking Alone under the Moon
Among the flowers, a single jug of wine;
I drink alone. No one close to me.
I raise my cup, invite the bright moon;
facing my shadow, together we make three.
The moon doesn’t know how to drink;
and my shadow can only follow my body.
But for a time I make moon and shadow my companions;
taking one’s pleasure must last until spring.
I sing — the moon wavers back and forth.
I dance — my shadow flickers and scatters.
When I’m sober we take pleasure together.
When I’m drunk, we each go our own ways.
I make an oath to journey forever free of feelings,
making an appointment with them to meet in the Milky Way afar.
[Translation by Paul Rouzer]