Tag Archives: Li Po

Best Poetry Books of 2012: a Baker’s Dozen

Turns out, 2012 was a fine year for poetry.  The following is a selection of 13 (my lucky number) books that deserve consideration if you find yourself hankering after something a tad more lyrical than prose and a bit less weighty than Kierkegaard. Consider any of the following: they won’t do you wrong.


Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert – Gilbert, who was born in Pittsburgh, PA, attended Peabody High School and worked, among other jobs, as a steelworker, died in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s. He was one of the finest American poets of the last 50 years and this volume contains all his published collections, in addition to some previously unpublished poems. There is a lyrical ennui to his work unsurpassed in recent years.


Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds – Sharon Olds is another prominent poet with a Pittsburgh connection (her early volume, Satan Says, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Stag’s Leap is getting lots of positive buzz, hence the occasional wait for her books. Olds digs deeply into the events of everyday, and what she comes back with is always unflinchingly honest and emotionally fired.


The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton Lucille Clifton, who passed away in 2010, finally gets her due with this voluminous collection of her life’s work.  A leading poet of her generation, her poetry addresses issues such as her African American heritage and women’s rights. She was a master of concision, straightforward, and direct, as few modern poets are.


New Collected Poems by Wendell BerryLike Lucille Clifton, the work of Wendell Berry serves as a moral compass for the American experience, if from a different perspective. This is yet another outstanding career-spanning collection (I told you it was a good year). My partner reads everything by the man: essays, poetrynon-fictionlectures, and luminescent fiction.


Thrall: Poems by Natasha TretheweyA brand new volume by the brand new Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, Thrall is an exploration the poet’s mixed heritage as seen in the greater arc of all of American history. This volume is a must for all those interested in modern American poetry and the all-important subject of race in America.


A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver – There are many things that have been said about Mary Oliver, some of them not so pleasant, particularly within the ‘poetry community.’ In the real world, however, the work of Mary Oliver might best be described in one word: transcendent. Her new collection, A Thousand Mornings, is her best in years, and that is saying something. Do yourself a favor – don’t know where to start with poetry but want to give it a go? Start here.


Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins – Here’s a title I bet you didn’t expect to see on this list: Alien vs. Predator, by poet Michael Robbins.  Jordan Davis, in his Nation review, gives you a good idea what to expect: “These poems are bad for you, the way alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, bacon, carbohydrates, television and the internet are bad for you.” And, of course, by bad, like any incisive critic, he means good.


Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral – A new selection in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets, Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral is a winner in more ways than one.  Selected by Carl Phillips for the series, he observes that “Corral’s point is that language, like sex, is fluid and dangerous and thrilling, now a cage, now a window out. In Corral’s refusal to think in reductive terms lies his great authority. His refusal to entirely trust authority wins my trust as a reader.”


Place by Jorie Graham – A new volume of work, in this case entitled Place, by Jorie Graham is always a welcome event.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and oft cited as one of the most celebrated post-war American poets, she has been compared to both Rilke and Yeats in her philosophical and political scope by James Longenbach. Find out why in the pages of this acclaimed new collection.


Poems: 1962-2012 by Louise Glück – Many of my favorite poets appear on this list, not the least of whom is Louise Glück. To describe her work as strange and wonderful and accomplished just doesn’t begin to glean the depths spanned in this comprehensive 50 year collection. Though I prefer her early work, the appeal of a collection of this type, as with the volumes by Gilbert and Clifton above, is that you can dip leisurely and at random throughout, picking and choosing and heading off in myriad directions, sparking connections that perhaps might astonish even the poet.

Engine-EmpireEngine Empire by Cathy Park Hong – Cathy Park Hong has been about the business of poetry for 10 plus years, her innovative novel told in poems, Dance Dance Revolution, in 2007 bringing her work to wider attention. Slate Magazine called Engine Empire “a remarkable book of poetry about the speed at which we’re rushing toward the future.” Rumpus.net observed that “underlying the narrative is strong poetic style and an eagle eye for searingly memorable imagery.” That’s what others think. To find out what Park Hong thinks, read this Paris Review interview with her specifically about Engine Empire

bestBest American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty – Maybe this is just all too much – so many poets, which do I choose? Well, there is another solution – the annual publication of the series entitled Best American Poetry, the 2012 edition. Each volume over the years has a general series editor (David Lehman currently) and a different specific editor for each year. What this means is the general editor assembles a boatload of work considered the best of the year and the annual editor then whittles it down to a standard book size selection. Each editor has their quirks – if you don’t like one year, another may do the trick. You’ll find a list of all the guest editors, from 1986 through 2012, here.

li poBright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, edited by J. P. Seaton – Last comes a favorite of mine – a new translation of the poems of Li Po, composed fourteen centuries ago. Li Po (aka Li Bai), along with his friend Tu Fu (aka Du Fu), are among the most renowned and celebrated poets from China’s classical golden era. This new selection, edited and translated by J. P. Seaton, continues a long line of distinguished English language renderings of the lyrical wonder of Li Po. The apocryphal story of Li Po’s death – how, drunk, while out boating, he drowned attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon – actually captures something of the romance and flavor of his poems. In closing, here’s a very brief poem from Bright Moon, White Clouds:

Jade Stairs Lament

Jade steps grow dew.
Night, late, has its way with her silken hose.
So let the crystal curtain fall . . .
In its jingling glitter, gaze on many Autumn moons.

– Don


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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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Mary Oliver: Evidence

oliver4Once again, Mary Oliver fans may take heart: a new volume of her poetry, Evidence, has just been published and it is, as always, quite good.

Though not to everyone’s taste, Oliver has however managed to become one of the two most popular American poets of the last 20 years, among both the generally non-poetry reading and poetry reading public alike. In this, she is only surpassed by the ubiquitous Billy Collins.

As such, both poets have become easy targets among both mainstream and independent-minded poetry aficionados, as if popularity alone consigned a poet’s work to the realm of Hallmark “immortality.”

A continual criticism of both poets is that they are repetitive; they seem to be constantly rewriting the same poem over and over again. In fact, the exact same criticism might be leveled at every major poet, writer, musician, or artist, from Robinson Jeffers, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Vivaldi, to Gauguin.

Within a given style or subject, variety can be nearly infinite. Think of the short 3-line Japanese form, the haiku. Think of 12 bar blues. Think of Edward Hopper’s use of light, in both urban and rural settings.


Mary Oliver is constantly exploring our place in nature, our place in the universe. This is, in fact, one of the big themes in all of literature. Oliver typically, in her own unique way, approaches this idea by direct encounter with nature itself. She ventures out, much like Frost or Thoreau or Wordsworth before her, sees something unique, something telling, and she works hard through her verse to wrap her mind around it.

As a result we, her readers, wrap our minds around it, too.

So, she might find a piece of whale bone ear on a beach, or come upon a three legged buck, or a lovely flower, or a flock of departing geese. This is the stuff she transmutes into poetry, at once elegaic, ecological, and philosophical in nature. It is what you might expect from Oliver and it is largely what you get. It is in the execution that Oliver makes the connection to her readers.

Here are two poems from Evidence that are not typical Oliver, at least on the surface. The subject of the first is, ostensibly, the ancient Chinese poet, Li Po, and the subject of the second, again apparently, is the composer, Franz Schubert.

    Li Po and the Moon

There is the story of the old Chinese poet:
at night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming
and singing

then drowned as he reached for the moon’s reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
as desperate.

Not the moon, though.


He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do

what I do not do
when, suddenly,
he throws a single note

higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,

and then, descending,
all this world’s sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.

Quite simple poems, yet they cut right to the heart of the matter in a very different way than might normally be found in Oliver’s work. Not different in essence or theme, necessarily, but different in execution and approach.

The first retells the famous story of Li Po’s death when, in a drunken reverie, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. The success of this poem rests in the delicate balance between the irony of the zen-like aphorism Oliver elicits from the scene and a very harsh underscoring of who we are and what the moon is. The moon, indeed, has never been desperate; inanimate objects rarely are. Alas, weak as we are, all people have been inflicted with desperation at one time or another. Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t exact vengenance; nature just is.

Turns out this Eastern-style maxim is in actuality another type of nature encounter, so familiar to Oliver readers, yet found here in the most unlikely of places.

With “Schubert,” we visit the land of the desperate once again, this time with the listener of a beautiful, transcendent classical piece. What the listener is reminded upon the hitting of that highest of notes, and the resultant tumble downwards, is the pure sorrow in the world, evoked perfectly by the master composer, who strikes deep in our despairing little hearts with the notion that life, that nature, that the world, is “so deadly, so beautiful.”

The poem turns deftly on its last four words, a beautiful, deadly pirouette that we might not have anticipated but that surely, knowing Mary Oliver, we should have. One only has to look to her most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” and for “deadly” and “beautiful” substitute that poem’s descriptors “harsh” and “exciting,” to realize this message isn’t so very different at all.

Yet the two poems, “Wild Geese” and “Schubert,” could hardly be less similar. In fact, in all of these poems, Oliver addresses nature and our place in it, and out of it, from three distinctly different perspectives.

If this is repetition, bring it on. I’m ready for more Mary Oliver, anytime.

– Don


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