Li Po has been the best known Chinese poet in Asia for about the last thousand years. He was a huge influence on the haiku poets — and is credited with being the seminal influence in the language of Tanka and Haiku. He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. He was so great a poet that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:
Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.
are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po. His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.
One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty. The greatist artistic attainments of this age were poetry. There were no plawrights or novelists; only poets; and there were poets up the wazoo. As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output. That one was Japanese and one Chinese and separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.
My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name. She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and ennunciates the second syllable as if it were two. Those who revere Chinese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, I get it. It is a cultural treasure; one largely forgotten and one that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about anymore. It’s a shame. There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu:”
And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
The beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.
Li Po liked a good time. After writing a letter in which this verse appears, he “sends it a thousand miles, and years, remembering.” It is lines like this that make me feel alive.