Wednesday, April 25, 2012

NPM: Li Po, jars of wine, moonlit nights

Li Po (701 - 762) is a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty period whom I know next to nothing about. I won't say much else than that.

Today, as National Poetry Month enters its final stretch, we'll be looking at some of his poetry (as translated into English by Shigeyoshi Obata), but we'll begin with another snippet from our favorite fascistic literary critic:

To go back to the beginning of history, you probably know that there is spoken language and written language, and that there are two kinds of written language, one based on sound and the other on sight.

You speak to an animal with a few simple noises and gestures. Lévy-Bruhl's account of primitive languages in Africa records languages that are still bound up with mimicry and gesture.

The Egyptians finally used abbreviated pictures to represent sounds, but the Chinese still use abbreviated pictures AS pictures, that is to say, Chinese ideogram does not try to be the picture of a sound, or to be a written sign recalling a sound, but it is still a picture of a thing; of a thing in a given position or relation, or of a combination of things. It means the thing or the action or the situation, or quality germane to the several things that it pictures.

Gaudier Brzeska, who was accustomed to looking at the real shape of things, could read a certain amount of Chinese writing without ANY STUDY. He said, 'Of course, you can see it's a horse' (or a wing or whatever).

In tables showing primitive Chinese characters in one column and the present 'conventionalized' signs in another, anyone can see how the ideogram for man or tree or sunrise developed, or 'was simplified from', or was reduced to the essentials of the first picture of man, tree or sunrise.


But when the Chinaman wanted to make a picture of something more complicated, like a general idea, how did he go about it?

He is to define red. How can he do it in a picture that isn't painted in red paint?

He puts (or his ancestor put) together the abbreviated pictures of

ROSE            CHERRY


....The Chinese 'word' or ideogram for red is based on something everyone KNOWS.

....Fenollosa was telling how and why a language written in this way simply HAD TO STAY POETIC; simply couldn't help being and staying poetic in a way that a column of English type might very well not stay poetic.

One of Li Po's most famous poems in the West (so I'm told) is the one about the himself, the moon, and his shadow. Here is how the poet himself wrote it out:

And just below is how it looks after bring put through the wringer of Obata's English translation. See if you can go between them and interpret the meaning of the characters like Brzeska! (Hint: you'll scan it in columns from top to bottom, right to left. The column on the far right contains the title and Li-Po's signature.) Or if you would like an easier exercise, count the number of characters in one and the number of words in the other, compare them, and meditate a few moments on the difference.

Three with the Moon and His Shadow

With a jar of wine I sit by the flowering trees.
I drink alone, and where are my friends?
Ah, the moon above looks down on me;
I call and lift my cup to his brightness.
And see, there goes my shadow before me.
Hoo!  We're a party of three, I say,
Though the poor moon can't drink,
And my shadow but dances around me,
We're all friends to-night,
The drinker, the moon, and the shadow.
Let our revelry be meet for the spring time!

I sing, the wild moon wanders the sky.
I dance, my shadow goes tumbling about.
While we're awake, let us join in carousal;
Only sweet drunkenness shall ever part us.
Let us pledge a friendship no mortals know,
And often hail each other at evening
Far across the vast and vaporous space!

While Journeying

The delicious wine of Lan-ling is of golden hue and flavorous.
Come, fill my precious glass, and let it glow in amber!
If you can only make me drunk, mine host, it is enough;
No longer shall I know the sorrow of a strange land.

On a Quiet Night

I saw the moonlight before my couch,
And wondered if it were not the frost on the ground.
I raised my head and looked out on the mountain moon;
I bowed my head and thought of my far-off home.

Awakening from Sleep on a Spring Day

Life is an immense dream.  Why toil?
All day long I drowse with wine,
And lie by the post at the front door.
Awakening, I gaze upon the garden trees,
And, hark, a bird is singing among the flowers.
Pray, what season may this be?
Ah, the songster's a mango-bird,
Singing to the passing wind of spring.
I muse and muse myself to sadness,
Once more I pour my wine, singing aloud,
Await the bright moonrise.
My song is ended
What troubled my soul?I remember not.

I am a Peach Tree

I am a peach tree blossoming in a deep pit.
Who is there I may turn to and smile?
You are the moon up in the far sky;
Passing, you looked down on me an hour; then went on

A sword with the keenest edge,
Could not cut the stream of water in twain
So that it would cease to flow.
My thought is like the stream; and flows and follows you
    on forever.

A Vindication

If heaven loved not the wine,
A Wine Star would not be in heaven;
If earth loved not the wine,
The Wine Spring would not be on the earth.
Since heaven and earth love the wine,
Need a tippling mortal be ashamed?
The transparent wine, I hear,
Has the soothing virtue of a sage,
While the turgid is rich, the say,
As the fertile mind of the wise.
Both the sage and the wise were drinkers,
Why seek for peers among gods and goblins?
Three cups open the grand door to bliss;
Take a jugful, the universe is yours.
Such is the rapture of the wine,
That the sober shall never inherit.

Addressed Humorously to Tu Fu

Here! is this you on the top of Fan-kuo Mountain,
Wearing a huge hat in the noon-day sun?
How thin, how wretchedly thin, you have grown!
You must have been suffering from poetry again.

Translator's footnote: In contrast with Li Po, who depended largely on inspiration, Tu Fu was a painstaking artist careful of the minutest details.

A Midnight Farewell

By a pale lanternunder the cold moon
We were drinking heavily together.
Frightened by our orgies, a white heron
Flaffed out of the river shallows.   It was midnight.

Huh. Something seems missing from that last one, does it not?

Pertinent: a translation of a Li Po piece by William Carlos Williams accompanied by a note (provided by Jacket 2):

Like playing a violin piece on a xylophone, no?

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