For the past eight months or so I have been near obsessed with Chinese poetry. Last November, I was speaking with a coworker who was very much into Chinese calligraphy when we talked briefly about Chinese poetry and a name kept coming up: Li Bai. I poked around and found a very good biography done about his life, little did I know that Li Bai, the wandering poet, would set me on an adventure that would take up most of my quarantine in 2020.
Li Bai (or Li Po) was a poet who in his search for greatness became greatness himself, a friend to many, a drunkard who exchanged poems for wine, became something ephemeral that I identified with, a man without a home, a soul constantly searching for peace as he chased greatness in service to his country only to be banished for choosing the wrong royal to back.
He is considered one of the greats, if not greatest poet in China, which is at odds with the Chinese “work hard and stay in line” tradition that is exerted over its’ people. He writes in such a way that it makes you remember things that you have forgotten, and the short poems give you some kind of wistfulness of a time that you did not experience. In his poem: Inscribed at the Wall at Summit Top Temple
Staying the night at Summit-Top Temple,
you can reach out and touch the stars.
I venture no more than a low whisper,
afraid I will wake the people of heaven.
This of course, is always the beauty of Tang dynasty poetry. In few words you are given so much atmosphere. I’ve moved from just translations to hanzi in the past few months, half of my Chinese language lessons have devolved into studying poetry. It takes only a few characters to build an entire world, idyllic (as common with Mountain and River poems)
You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains.
I smile, my mind itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.
Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery here,
another heaven and earth, nowhere people know.
I was never one for the comfort of poetry before, we have all read Robert Frost, but I began to turn to the poems for some kind of comfort in times where I was facing supreme discomfort.
During a business trip to Portland I picked up a small unassuming book about the poet(s) Han Shan, and I think this book was pivotal for me to start becoming deeply involved in Chinese poetry. At the beginning, you believe it is yet another book of mountains and river poetry.
If you are climbing the Cold Mountain Way,
Could Mountain Road grows inexhaustible:
long canyons opening across fields of talus,
broad creeks tumbling down mists of grass.
Moss is impossibly slick even without rain,
but this far up, pines need no wind to sing.
Who can leave the world’s tangles behind
and sit with me among these white clouds?
However, HanShan poets were often scathing in their critiques of others and of society, a world they chose to abandon to live amongst the clouds. In all their poems they mock the rich or the false enlightened who try to hide amongst their trees.
If pleasure comes, enjoy it.
Time’s never. an arrow to let miss the mark…
We talk like we’ll live to a hundred,
but who will ever even get close?
Living in this world: just grasp a handful…
And money? That’s a word the autumn crickets choke on.
In the final chapter of the Classic of Dutiful Children,
we all learn the proprieties of burying our elders.
There is some strange comfort in knowing that all your struggles that you face now were struggles even then. When the virus hit I began with The Book of Songs (600BC) some of the oldest written poetry and worked my way to 1200AD six months later.
Watching poets, emperors, exiled intellectuals, and shunned concubines all weave their way in and out, giving a comfort in that the problems I faced in that they are timeless, never ceasing, and still we as a culture soldiered on for almost 2,600 years from the first poet I read. It helped me stay grounded even as the world tossed and turned around me.
The unfamiliar and strange became soothingly familiar, as all of humanity has faced, and will continue to face the same problems in cycles. I had friends in ancient China, poets upset with people who would do nothing in the face of injustice, anger at the inequality of others and the blindness of the rich, judgmental, petty friendship cliques that would write each other love letters and spit on the emperor in the same few lines.
I picked a few:
I live here in this busy village without
all that racket that horse and carts stir up.
and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
going home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.
Tao Chi’en (365 – 427AD), considered the grandfather of Chinese Poetry
People call shepherd’s-purse food of poverty,
think it’s shameful, but I call it a rare treat.
I’ve watched families gather shepherd’s-purse.
They start at the National Gate and head south:
carrying lean iron knives, blades rust-eaten,
frost battered baskets of azure-green bamboo,
they go plodding out, deep into the frozen land,
and scrape around there for roots and leaves.
Hands so raw, they can’t feed themselves, they
live in hunger and you’re ashamed to eat it?
Dining on juicy lamb and red-tailed fish,
fine fragrant meats– that, that’s what poverty is.
Mei Yao-Ch’en (1002-1060) – Shepherd’s Purse
Don’t read books,
don’t chant poems:
read books and your eyes wither until they see bones,
chant poems and every word’s vomited from the heart.
People say it’s delightful to read books,
they say it’s wondrous to chant poems,
but it means lips hissing on and on like autumn insects,
and makes you thin and frail, ravages you with old age.
Thin and frail, ravaged with age- that may not be much,
but it’s pretty annoying for anyone close enough to hear.
It’s nothing like closing your eyes and sitting in a study:
lower the blinds, and sweep away dust, light some incense,
then listen to the wind, listen to the rain: they have such flavors.
When you are strong, walk. And when you are tired, sleep.
Yang Wan-li (1127 – 1206AD) Don’t Read Books
If you are interested in Chinese poetry, I would pick up some easy to read Mountain and River ( 山水诗 ) poetry of the Tang dynasty. Wang Wei (a contemporary of Li Bai) is a good introduction to it, this gentle style will guide you further and further into the tradition, and then wade into Li Bai’s biography, which in itself is a good read.
All poetry is translated by the great David Hinton, taken from his incredibly detailed Classical Chinese Poetry that has brought me much comfort in during isolation.