Among the top poets in Chinese history resides Li Po.
In pre-modern times, he raised poetry to levels of expressiveness and impact never before reached. Unlike other great Chinese poets such as Tu Fu, Li Po’s work gained immediate attention. The main reason for this is that Li Po was not an innovator; he took the classic form, the form that was familiar, and raised it another level with an unparalleled grace and eloquence.
The main themes or characteristics of Li Po’s large body of work include playfulness, hyberbole, nature, and, something for which he is proverbial wine.
Born in Szechwan, Li Po spent his life constantly on the move. No one knows the reason why. He traveled extensively through eastern and central China. Despite his wanderlust, his poetry reveals little about the inner-workings of the poet himself. Around 742 he was appointed to a government office in the service of literature. A few years later, amidst slanderous gossip, he was exiled. Later, around 755, he came into the service of a prince, who was later accused of treason. This caused Li Po to be exiled for a second time. He was eventually pardoned and then continued on with his life of wandering.
What’s amazing is that throughout his tortuous life, Li Po’s poetry is free of anger, despair and bitterness. It presents itself as hopeful and calm. And it came from Li Po’s artistic vision, not so much his day-to-day life, of a continuous search for spiritual freedom and communion with nature.
At Autumn Cove, so many white monkeys,
bounding, leaping up like snowflakes in flight!
They coax and pull their young ones down from the branches
to drink and frolic with the water-borne moon.
AT YELLOW CRANE TOWER TAKING LEAVE OF MENG HAO-JAN AS HE SETS OFF FOR KUANG-LING (for Meng Hao-jan, the poet)
My old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears in the blue-green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky.
A NIGHT WITH A FRIEND
Dousing clean a thousand old cares,
sticking it out through a hundred pots of wine,
a good night needing the best conversation,
a brilliant moon that will not let us sleep
drunk we lie down in empty hills,
heaven and earth our quilt and pillow.