Li Po & Tu Fu

J.P. Seaton [tooltip content= “Bright Moon, Perching Birds (Wesleyan University Press, 1987)”] [source][/tooltip]

Li Po, the legend, was eight feet tall. Born in the year 701, he was, in early manhood, perhaps a knight errant, perhaps a brigand. He was initiated by a Taoist mystic, married for money, and was invited to Ch’ang-an, the capital of the world’s brightest empire in that empire’s brightest moment. He was to become its poet laureate, a laureate who drank, rode to the hunt with princes and ministers, and appeared at court, at the imperial command, to dash off masterpieces-or did not appear, instead informing the Brilliant Emperor that he, the God of Wine, could not be bothered to leave his tavern. A wild man, he suffered exile for ten years after forcing the chief imperial eunuch, among the most powerful and most corrupt men in the realm, to remove his street-soiled boots. In 757, during the unsuccessful rebellion of the Turkish gen eral An Lu-shan, Li Po supported the attempt of Prince Yung to overthrow his brother, by then the legitimate successor to the Brilliant Emperor under the title Su-tsung. In the aftermath, Li Po was reprieved from a death sentence and spent his last years in exile again. In 762, drunk, he was drowned when he tried to embrace the image of the moon in the water, or perhaps his own image in the image of the moon. Beyond facts, beyond legend, he was a man who wrote resounding heroic poems, whimsically humorous poems, and personal lyrics of a gently authentic delicacy unrivaled in his time, or any other. I-Iis was the spirit of poetry incarnate.

Tu Fu, Li Po’s junior by eleven years, sprang from a good, but not a wealthy, family. An early and lifelong student of the Classics and the classic arts, he was no mere pedant, and he bragged in several of his poems of his horsemanship and his prowess at the hunt. Though poetry was his life, official service in the imperial government-the ideal of the ethical Confucian as well as the pinnacle of worldly success in the T’ang period-attracted him strongly. He tried and tried again to pass the imperial civil service examinations. Compromising himself, he took, and passed, a second special examination, overseen by the most powerful and most corrupt official of the imperial court.

He was then appointed, certainly with gleeful irony, to a police position, which he refused. During the An Lu-shan rebellion, he spent a period of captivity among the rebels. After escaping, he finally achieved a responsible position in the new emperor’s government-in-exile, only to find himself censured and threatened with death for nothing more than honesty. I-le went into more or less self-imposed exile with the family he treasured and raised as best he could through all this turmoil. I-le found some satisfaction in retirement, and some in later service in the provincial government. Tu Fu was an earthbound man, but one who struggled to produce a body of soaring poetry, poetry of love, honesty, and suffering, pointedly written in all the most difficult poetic forms of the period. lt achieved for him, long after his death in 770, equal ranking with Li Po as China’s greatest poet.

The two poets were bound together, too, by a love of poetry and, though they express it so differently, by a monumental love of life. When their paths crossed, for less than two years in the 740s, a friendship was formed that has lasted, in the hearts of lovers of Chinese poetry, for twelve hundred years. It was a legendary friendship, immortal. It matters little that in real life the friendship may have been almost wholly one-sided. Tu Fu idolized the older poet; he drank wine, went riding, traveled, even whored with him, and passed on the story of Li Po’s prowess as a bibber even as he complimented the spontaneity of his verse: “Li Po? Give him a jugful and he’ll produce a hundred poems.” In later life, Tu Fu clearly saw Li Po as the embodiment of the spirit of poetry and the spirit of freedom itself, a bird caught in the net of the world. Li Po mocked the younger man’s seriousness, his dedication to the disciplines of form. And if, as some scholars argue, the poem in which he does so is indeed a later forgery, _it would only serve to prove the legendary nature of the friendship. These two great men, these two great spirits, did meet, and the rest of us know they must have loved one another. Li Po is in all men and women: the spirit of freedom, the genius of spontaneity, the power of creation as an imitation of God. Tu Fu, too, is in all men and women: the love of life, the love of all humankind, the passionate acceptance of the resposibility, the willing embrace of the disciplines that responsibilty requires. The man Li Po was was not always free, and the man Tu u was capable of ease, even frivolity; the legends are purer than either and more than both.

J.P. Seaton [source]


TuFu to Li P0

lord, how beautifully you Write!
l sleep with you tonight?
lllag, or when thou Wilt,
ll roll up drunken in one quilt.
ur poems, We forbear
write of kleenex or long hair*
dhow the one may fuck the other.
’re serious artists, aren’t we, brother?
our poems, oceans heave
e our stomachs, when we leave
te at night the fourteenth bar,
our meteor, you, my star.
en autumn comes, like thistledown
e’ll still be floating through the town,
ildly singing in the haze,
past saving, you, past praise.

Carolyn Kizer


A Present for Tu Fu from Li Po

Last time we met
on the mountaintop
in the noonday sun,
you in the shade of
your preposterous hat
you were much plumper
than you are now
Perhaps you were
pregnant with poems?

Carolyn Kizer

To Tu Fu from Shantang

You ask how I spend my time–
I nestle against a treetrunk
and listen to autumn winds
in the pines all night and day.

Shantung wine can’t get me drunk.
The local poets bore me.
My thoughts remain with you,

Sam Hamill

Remembering Li Po

Po in poetry is without equal;
Soaring, his thought is uncommon:
In pure freshness a Yu Kai-fu;
In surpassing excellence a Pao Ts’an-chun.
North of the Wei are spring trees;
East of the Kiang evening clouds.
When with a jar of wine may we
Again closely argue about writing.

A.R. Davis


To Li Po

Autumn, and we’re still like the will-o’-the wisp,
Not having found the elixir, like Ko Hung.
Drinking to excess, singing with abandon, idly passing the day;
Flitting here and there, flailing about, to impress whom?

Eugene Eoyang

Dreaming of Li Po

Death separation: sobs hard to swallow.
Life separation: grief daily strikes.
South of the Yangtze, land of miasma,
No news of my exiled friend!
My friend enters my dream
Knowing that of him I often think.
Is it that you are no live soul?-
Covering such distance! Immeasurable!
Soul comes: maples flicker green.
Soul goes: all the Passes darken.
You were caught in nets.
How now you come in wings?
Full moon falls upon the beam,
Suspicious light, doubtful sheen!
Deep water, high-rising waves.
Don’t let the serpent pull you in!

Wai-lim Yip

Missing Li Bai at the End of the Earth

A cold wind comes up, here at the end of the earth,
and I wonder what your intentions are-
when will my wild goose arrive at last? “
Lakes and rivers are swollen this autumn.
Literature hates the writer who does too well;
mountain goblins eagerly await the traveler.
You ought to talk with the wronged ghost of Qu Yuan,
drop him a poem-offering into the Miluo River.

David Lunde

Dreaming of Li Bai (2)

All day long clouds Hoat restlessly,
still my wanderer does not arrive.
Three nights in a row I’ve dreamed of you:
I can see the kindly concern in your mind,
but you always leave in a rush,
saying ruefully, “Coming here wasn’t easy-
the wind blows wild waves on river and lake;
I was afraid I’d lose my oars and capsize.”
You go out the door scratching your white hair
as if disappointed in your life’s dreams.
The capital city is hlled with officials-
why should this man be made so wretched?
Who says the Emperor spreads a wide net
in his search for men of talent?
Li is getting old, and still struggling to survive.
Making a name to last a thousand autumns
is a pointless post-mortem affair.

David Lunde

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.