Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Long Ago Flares Into Colors of Autumn": The Poetry of Li Po

It's always a good day when I find someone new and interesting to read and read about.

I'm working on the literature of Central Asia for a course I'm designing, and I spent the morning reading the poetry of Li Po, the "Banished Immortal." (All of the citations that follow are from The Selected Poems of Li Po, tr. David Hinton, New Directions Press, 1996).

Li Po was born in 701 A.D. in northern Kyrgyztan, and died in 762 (according to some sources, he fell into the Yangtze and drowned while attempting to embrace the moon). 

His poetry has been enormously influential, both in Asia and in the West--the modernist poet Ezra Pound translated several of his works.

Li Po's poetry is really beautiful and interesting, even in translation.  His use of imagery and his celebration of tzu-jan or "spontaneity," make his poems both strikingly immediate, as well as intellectually and emotionally complex.
Flowers bloom in spring wind.  They never refuse.
And trees never resent leaf-fall in autumn skies.
No one could whip the turning seasons along so fast:
the ten thousand things rise and fall of themselves.
Li Po frequently celebrates drunkenness as an essential component of poetic spontaneity and, in an era marked by numerous invasions and political turmoil, it is perhaps not surprising that his poetry strives to embody the idea of wu-wei, or the ability to live with earthly change as part of self-spontaneity.
...slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief... 
His poems often address the effects of wandering, exile and travel, and he is known for his innovation in the forms of yueh-fu (folk-song) and t'zu (a popular form of song originating in Central Asia), both of which enabled him to employ the figure of the lower-class speaker as a means of reflecting political discontent.  
...Spring now green, you lie in empty woods,
still sound asleep under a midday sun,

your robes growing lucid in pine winds,
rocky streams rinsing ear and heart clean.

No noise, no confusion--all I want is
this life pillowed high in emerald mist.


  1. Hi thinker
    I was wondering if you know which poem is depicted in the image you have posted. I found it a while ago and would love to know what it says.

  2. Hello!

    Actually, there's a good website that discusses the history of the scroll and translates the poem, at

    Going Up To Sun Terrace

    Mountains high,
    waters flowing, long and long—

    the ten thousand solid things,
    a myriad of reflected images.

    Even with a fine old brush—
    and the hand to wield it—

    how could all this clear and strong—
    this spring and autumn turning—be exhausted?


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."