Daily Archives: May 15, 2009

Three Poets, One Moon, and the Ancient Rites of Spring



In a recent post about Mary Oliver’s new book, Evidence, I quoted her poem, “Li Po and the Moon.” In one way, it was an unusual subject for her; in another, it was just a different approach to one of her dominant themes, nature.

So, imagine my surprise when I picked up the much anticipated (at least by me) new volume of poems by Jack Gilbert, entitled The Dance Most of All, to discover the following:


Winter In The Night Fields
I was getting water tonight
off guard when I saw the moon
in my bucket and was tempted
by those Chinese poets
and their immaculate pain.

Two poems in the same year in new books by two of my favorite poets, both alluding to the famed Chinese poet, Li Po (Li Bai).   I mentioned the famous story of Li Po’s death in the Oliver posting; as it’s told, in a drunken reverie, Li Po tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. 

I wasn’t sure what to make of this mutual admiration for the same esteemed Chinese poet: coincidence, synchronicity, collusion?  No matter.  It was enough for me to seek out Li Po and dip my big toe in the reflection that is his body of work.

Perhaps I’d even stir it up a bit to see if that moon, temporarily gone, might just reappear again.

li po selectIn The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton, Hinton confirms that “Li Po died as the legend says he died: out drunk in a boat, he fell into a river and drowned trying to embrace the moon.”  Here’s a poem by Li Po himself, which at once captures his spirit and seems to foresee his own demise:


Drinking In Moonlight

I sit with my wine jar
among flowers
blossoming trees

no one to drink with

well, there’s the moon

I raise my cup
and ask him to join me
bringing my shadow
making us three

but the moon doesn’t seem to be drinking
and my shadow just creeps around behind me.

still, we’re companions tonight
me, the moon, and the shadow
we’re observing
the rites of spring

I sing
and the moon rocks back and forth

I dance
and my shadow
weaves and tumbles with me

we celebrate for awhile
then go our own ways, drunk

may we meet again someday
in the white river of stars
Li Po
translated by David Young


Li Po was a member of a group of Chinese scholars known as “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup,” famous for, among other things, their prodigious admiration of alcohol.  Along with his friend and fellow poet, Tu Fu (Du Fu), Li Po is one of the most revered Chinese poets in history.  Over 1000  poems have been attributed to Li Po, suffused as they are with a love of nature, a Taoist philosophy,  and a romantic ennui that not only reminds the modern reader of Wordworth, Coleridge, and other Romantics, but resonates emphatically for poets as seemingly disparate as Mary Oliver and Jack Gilbert.  

Here are some collections of his work, coupled as they often are with the work of his friend, Tu Fu, and their fellow Tang era poets:


Bright Moon, Perching Bird: Poems by Li Po and Tu Fu
Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper
Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu
The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton
Three Chinese Poets: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu
I Hear My Gate Slam : Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting
Five Tang  Poets, translated by David Young          


Now that spring has grudgingly arrived in our frequently overcast hometown,  some clear evening why not experience a little moon viewing of your own, following the ancient Chinese and Japanese traditions?  But if you’re moved to try to take the moon in your arms, reach for the one in the sky and not the one reflected in any of our majestic bodies of water.

And, oh, careful with that wine, my lyrical friend!

– Don


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