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About Tu Fu -- Li Po

This week's theme: the Silk Road.
(Poem #504) About Tu Fu
 I met Tu Fu on a mountaintop
 in August when the sun was hot.

 Under the shade of his big straw hat
 his face was sad --

 in the years since we last parted,
 he'd grown wan, exhausted.

 Poor old Tu Fu, I thought then,
 he must be agonizing over poetry again.
-- Li Po
tr. Hamil.

The pinyin form of the poet's name is Li Bo, while the Wade-Giles anglicized
form is Li T'ai-Po. I've chosen to retain the name by which he's most widely
known (in the West, at least).

Tu Fu was another famous Chinese poet and contemporary of Li Po's; the pinyin
form of his nawe is Du Fu.

I don't know who Hamil is; every single Li Po webpage turned up by Google said
"tr. Hamil" and left it at that, so I've done the same. I'd appreciate any
clues, though.

Anyway. Enough preliminaries, on to the poem...

Like the best Imagist poets in English [1], Li Po uses the simplest of words and
phrases to paint a verbal picture that's delicate and expressive. This in itself
is no mean achievement, but what I really like about today's poem is the way
that having set the scene, the poet surprises us with a brilliantly unexpected
(and unexpectedly brilliant) punchline. Even better, after reading it you know
that no other ending could possibly work; there's an ineffable 'rightness' about
Li Po's conclusion.

Of course, the fact that 'About Tu Fu' is, in reality, about the nature of
poetry makes it irresistible to me. And unlike some poets I could name [2], Li
Po is not pompous or pretentious about the importance of his art; rather, he's
gently sympathetic - he pokes fun at his chosen profession, yet acknowledges the
intensity and dedication that that profession demands. A wonderfully compressed
piece of beauty and insight.


[1] As I've mentioned before on the Minstrels, the Imagists (one of my favourite
schools of poetry) were heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese poets,
especially Li Po, Basho and Buson.

[2] See poem #240

[On this week's theme]

Certain times, events and places have a magic of association about them - names
like Xanadu, Samarkand, Baghdad, the Levant and Venice each conjure up a wealth
of imagination and imagery. And it's no coincidence that each of the above was a
part of the fabled Silk Road, an endless repository of wondrous stories...

James Elroy Flecker's verse drama 'The Golden Road to Samarkand' was what
prompted this particular excursion of mine. In the days to come, I'll be running
various other poems written in or about the locales of the Silk Road. As always,
your suggestions are most welcome.

[Minstrels Links]

Poems about poetry and about poets are rife on our website; see especially the
week of August 24th last year (poems 186 to 190).

'The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter' is heartbreakingly beautiful; the original
is by Li Po, but the version most commonly read is Ezra Pound's - a very free
translation, and one which says as much about Pound as it does about Po. You can
read it at poem #70

Not _quite_ a Silk Road poem, but very close, is Coleridge's masterpiece 'Kubla
Khan', at poem #30

William Turner's 'Romance' is a poem which consciously uses place-names to evoke
images of the unattainable; it's archived at poem #238

Brittanica has (as usual) no shortage of things to say:

[On the Silk Road]

... also called SILK ROUTE, ancient trade route that, linking China with the
West, carried goods and ideas between the two great civilizations of Rome and
China. Silk came westward, while wools, gold, and silver went east. China also
received Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism (from India) via the road.

Originating at Sian, the 4,000-mile (6,400-kilometre) road, actually a caravan
tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla
Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on
to the Levant; from there, the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean
Sea. Few persons travelled the entire route, and goods were handled in a
staggered progression by middlemen.

With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the rise of Arabian power
in the Levant, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe and untravelled. In the
13th and 14th centuries the route was revived under the Mongols, and at that
time Marco Polo used the road to travel to Cathay (China).

[On Li Po]

  b. 701, Szechwan province, China
  d. 762, Tang-t'u, Anhwei province

Li Po liked to regard himself as belonging to the imperial family, but he
actually belonged to a less-exalted family of the same surname. At 19 he left
home and lived with a Taoist recluse. After a period of wandering, he married
and lived with his wife's family, north of Han-chou. He had already begun to
write poetry and showed some of it to various officials, in the vain hope of
becoming employed as a secretary. A visit to a friend in northeast China in 734
began another period of wandering, and in 742 he arrived at Ch'ang-an, the
capital, no doubt hoping to be given a post at court. No official post was
forthcoming, but he was accepted into a group of distinguished court poets. In
the autumn of 744 he began his wanderings again.

At this point he met the other towering poet of the period, Tu Fu, then scarcely
known, while Li Po's fame was already immense. Tu Fu, it is clear, was
completely carried away by the dash and verve of the older man, who was becoming
increasingly wrapped up in Taoism and alchemical studies and at about that time
was definitely accepted as a Taoist initiate, receiving a diploma of spiritual
progress from the hands of a high Taoist dignitary.

In 756 Li Po became unofficial poet laureate to the military expedition of
Prince Lin, the emperor's 16th son. The prince was soon accused of intending to
set up an independent kingdom and was executed; Li Po was arrested and
imprisoned at Chiu-chiang. A high official, reviewing sentences passed in
connection with the troubles, looked into Li Po's case, had him released, and
made him a staff secretary. In the summer of 758 the charges against Li Po were
revived, and he was banished to Yeh-lang. Before he arrived, he benefited by a
general amnesty; he returned to eastern China, where he died in a relative's
house, though popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat,
he tried to seize the moon's reflection in the water.

Li Po was a romantic in his view of life and in his verse. One of the most
famous wine drinkers in China's long tradition of imbibers, Li Po frequently
celebrated the joy of drinking. He also wrote of friendship, solitude, the
passage of time, and the joys of nature. Popularly referred to as a "banished
Immortal," he wrote with brilliance and great freshness of imagination.

[On Tu Fu]

 b. 712, Hsiang-yang, now in Honan province, China
 d. 770, Hunan

Born into a scholarly family, Tu Fu received a traditional Confucian education
but failed in the imperial examinations of 736. As a result, he spent much of
his youth traveling, during which he won renown as a poet and met the other
poets of the period, including the great Li Po. After a brief flirtation with
Taoism while traveling with Li Po, Tu Fu returned to the capital and the
conventional Confucianism of his youth. He never again met Li Po, despite his
strong admiration for is older, freewheeling contemporary.

        -- the above three sections from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica


I've only just noticed that the poem (or at least, this particular translation
thereof) actually rhymes... a very elegant and unobtrusive touch.


Li, bo, po and tai are all acceptable Scrabble words; Tu, fu and du are not.

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

vikram doctor said...

Have you read Peter Hopkirk's book 'Foreign Devils On
The Silk Road'? Its about the rediscovery of the lost
cities of the Silk Route in the Gobi and Taklamakan
deserts in the last century by people like Aurel
Stein. Along with the cities they uncovered huge
amounts of book and art treasures, principally in the
Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. The book is totally
fascianting and a complete page turner. Hopkirk has
written a series of good books on Central Asia, but
this is the one I enjoyed the most.


--- Abraham Thomas wrote:
> This week's theme: the Silk Road.

MotduSage said...

Just as a note (considering that I have just now come across this website and
do not know how old it is), "tr." means "translated by", so "tr. Hamil" means
it was translated by someone named Hamil.

Sean Carey said...

Hamil is actually supposed to have another l-- it's Sam Hamill, who's published several volumes of translated poems.

John Tranter said...

John Tranter

Notes from the Late T'ang

for Jeremy Prynne

On the mountain of (heaped snow, boiled rice)
I met Tu Fu wearing a straw hat against the midday sun
distant bridge, restless parting, rain (in, on) the woods
[line missing]

willows among white clouds (shirt, chemise, ghost)
(to take the long view) parting
away moving, mobile telephone handset
[Bob: perhaps that's 'grief at parting']

my humble (borrowed, not inherited)
cottage (pig-sty) perspective
there is a misty view (of, from?) bridge
the storm took three layers of thatch, so

rain through the roof, porcine lucubrations
(something?) pig oil study
[Bob: 'pig oil' can't be right]
burning the midnight oil in my study

phantom liberty, ghost freedom view
great ancient poet wrote for radio
(would have written) had he known
(subjunctive) radio receiver, milkmaid attitude

silkscreen pastoral, pants metaphor
looking back, sorrow (shopping) lady
parting (hair) long voyage
light and green woods, little pig woman

[Bob: I think that's 'young swineherd girl']
she questions (annoys) the lonely traveller
unfortunate view (of, from)
pig liquid telephone handset

From: _Borrowed Voices_, Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1BS, UK. November 2002. Twenty-four pages. A dozen reinterpretations of poems by other (French, German, Chilean, Ancient Greek, Chinese, and English) poets. ISBN 1-899549-74-9


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