Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Wine Soaked Wanderings of Li Po

Li Po was a Chinese poet, who lived and wrote during the Tang period (AD 712– 760). When we discovered that two of our favorite poets, Charles Bukowski and Jim Harrison – both absurd men in their own ways – paid him tribute, we decided to check him out for ourselves.

Li Po loves his wine. He is a sort of Chinese Dylan Thomas. It seems he is drinking or drunk in about a quarter of his poems. Titles include “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” “Drinking in the Mountains with a Recluse” “Drunk on Tunk-Kuan Mountain” “Drinking with Shih Lang-Chung” and more of same… He often refers to himself as being drunk: “I have been drunk all day… It’s like a boundless dream here in this world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.”

This is not an accident, for the ancient Chinese were fond of drinking to forget self, to seek a clarity they couldn’t find sober…

As translator David Hinton writes: “Usually in Chinese poetry, the practice of wine involves drinking just enough so the ego fades and perception is clarified. Tao Chien called this state “idleness” (hsien): wu-wei as stillness. But although Li Po certainly cultivates such stillness, he usually ends up thoroughly drunk, a state in which he is released fully into his most authentic and enlightened self.”

As contemporary Tu Fu wrote of Li Po: “For Li Po, it’s a hundred poems per gallon of wine / then sleep in the winehouses of Ch’ang-an markets.”

Li Po has a powerful absurdist streak. His poems are rooted in the physical world – in the moon, the mountains, his food and drink, the cool air, the sun… He always writes beautifully of these things: “Mountains set apart over the river / two peaks face each other. Reflecting / chill colors of shoreline pine, waves / shatter apart into rock-torn bloom.” Or this:

“Two rivers inscribing a lit inlay of mirror,
a pair of fallen rainbows for bridges
kitchen-smoke veins cold orange groves,
and autumn stain ancient wu-tung trees.”

Li Po tries hard to free himself of himself. As he writes in an absurd passage:

“Once I’m drunk, all heaven and earth vanish, leaving me suddenly alone in bed, forgetting the person I am even exists. Of all our joys, this must be the deepest.”

He is often carefree, aware of his mortality and celebrating that fact, another absurdist trait. “You never get what you want in this life,” he writes, “so why not shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?” He often did things other eminent poets of his day would never do, such as mix with “low lifes” at inns and winehouses in rural China. “My life a blaze of spent abundance,” he writes near the end of his life…

Much about his life is shrouded in mystery and myth. We know he was quite a wanderer. And there are many entertaining legends about him. One of my favorites: When introduced to an important governor in China, Li Po did not make a satisfactory sign of deference and was scolded for his show of disrespect. He supposedly quipped: “Wine makes its own manners.”

And, as legend has it, he died falling off a boat while drunk, trying to embrace the moon. Absurd man to the last.

1 comment:

  1. Your comment with respect to Li Po's failing to show deference to an established authority reminds me of one of my favorite absurdists, Diogenes, and his response to (I believe) Alexander the Great: "You are too powerful to need me, and I am too self-sufficient to need you."

    Nice post--