The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce

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Li Bo (701-762)
and Tu Fu (712-770)


tu-and-li-boPoets of course festoon every era in every country, kingdom, and dynasty. Consider China!  Ancient China: The Yuan Dynasty, The Ming Dynasty, The Song…Yet how amazing that the two most illustrious poets should emerge from the Tang Dynasty and were contemporaneous and even good friends. How illustrious?  Even today, over a billion folks will point you to Li Bo and Tu Fu, beloved and recited. Li Bo, the elder of the two, began wandering the country at 19, probably in search of the Taoist Way.  Years later he was accepted by a group of court poets. Legend has it that the romantic Li Bo drowned while sitting drunk in a boat and attempting to seize the moon’s reflection in the water. Yes, he was a winebibber who appreciated friendship, the passing of time, and the joys of nature.  Regular imbibers will appreciate his freshness of imagination!

Now, if Heaven didn’t love wine, there wouldn’t be a Wine Star in Heaven.

And if earth didn’t love wine, Earth shouldn’t have the town of Wine Spring.

But since Heaven and Earth love wine, loving wine is no crime with Heaven.

The light, I hear, is like a sage; the heavy, they say, is called the worthy.

If I have drunk with the sage and worthy, what need have I to search for immortals?

Three cups and I’ve mastered the Way; a jarful and I am at one with Nature.

A man can get hold of the spirit of drinking, but no point explaining to those who abstain.

 Trans. by Elling O. Eide

     The younger poet, Tu Fu, edges out Li Bo for the Best-Chinese-Poet-Ever accolade.  Here are a few reasons why:

Moonlit Night

In Fuzhou, far way, my wife is watching the moon alone tonight, and my thoughts fill

With sadness for my children, who can’t think of me here in Changan; they’re too young still.

Her cloud-soft hair is moist with fragrant mist. In the clear light her white arms sense the chill,

When will we feel the moonlight dry our tears, leaning together on our window-sill?

Trans. by Vikram Seth

 Following a traditional Confucian education, Tu Fu became a wanderer like Li Bo and even met him during his sojourn.  He experienced painful poverty and hunger along the way and yet became a master of all the poetic genres of the day.

Beautiful Woman

Who is more fair than she? She lives alone, an empty valley home.
She was from a good family, but they’re gone since discord came to Kuan;
Her brothers killed; their high estate now dearth. It is a callous world
that scorns distress! Hope gutters like a candle -her husband’s eyes have kindled
on fresh-bought jade; as morning glory curls, he sees new smiles, while old love cries unheard.

The spring was pure in its mountain pools but darkened in descent.
She waits – her maid may come from selling jewels with straw again for the roof.
She picks some flowers, no more for her hair. The pine tree’s needles fall
from her numb fingers. She forgets the cold -wearing a thin silk shawl.
She leans at sunset by a tall bamboo.

Trans. by Simon M. Hunter

In translation, of course, we cannot duplicate the nuances in tone, rhythm and racial memory, but even so, the poems are lyrical and soothing. Tu Fu’s death, they say, was due to overindulgence in food and wine after a ten day fast. That gut-wrenching demise notwithstanding, we proudly named our Pekinese Tu Fu.

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