Most American readers of Chinese poetry come to it through classic translations by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, and a few others. With some notable exceptions, those translations have tended to focus on the poetic triumvirate of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE): Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Wang Wei. The literary context in which those three Tang poets are placed—in China as well as the U.S.—is part of a long, ascendant tradition in Chinese letters, beginning to certain degree with the early anthology that Confucius assembled: the Shijing, better known in English as the Book of Odes or the Book of Songs (Pound translated it as Shih-Ching: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius). The poems of the Shijing, which often seem little more than folk ditties, span seven centuries during the fabled Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE)—the time, according to Confucius in his Analects, when politics and society were ordered as they should be. In China, the Zhou and Tang periods are acknowledged as two golden ages, exemplars of what is best in the Chinese tradition. A trajectory of one to the other is easily assumed.
But poetry from the period is as little in imitation of the Shijing as the politics of the Tang were a repetition of Zhou politics. In reality, it was much more varied. While writers like Du Fu held official posts and were widely recognized for mastery of formal poetic conventions, Li Bai, though he enjoyed a certain amount of prestige and reputation, was nevertheless a bit of a “poet’s poet” who didn’t observe convention well, and at times veered close to what would be considered free verse. There’s a reason he is called a “banished immortal.”
But whether or not a major Tang poet like Li Bai really falls in line with that trajectory is, of course, a question for interpreters. The Book of Odes was heavily edited again and again through the ages in order to best illustrate what Confucians considered desirable moral qualities; memorizing the poetry in the book was thought to bring those moral qualities out in a person. But that Li Bai—the son of a foreigner, a drifter and a drinker who possibly killed a man—is often considered a descendent of that tradition should raise eyebrows.
There was another tradition that might have suited Li Bai better, one more readily associated with the later Tang dynasty—as opposed to the High Tang that the canonical poets belong to. The later Tang was not so great: following the catastrophic An Lushan rebellion during the High Tang, it witnessed multiple natural disasters, endless military interventions that sapped public funds and trust, foreign invasions and domestic fragmentation, and the dissolution of an increasingly frustrated bureaucracy, as well as the pluralism that had until then marked the times; the mood, quite simply, darkened.
At the origin of this other tradition of letters was Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), a formative voice in the other anthology of ancient Chinese poetry, the Chu Ci. A government minister, Qu Yuan was unjustly exiled by his sovereign and committed suicide after the capital of the state he served, Chu, had been captured by a rival power. In exile, Qu Yuan wrote poetry and collected folk songs, all imbued with the dark spirit of his times, and with the shamanism present in Chu culture. Unlike the poems in the Book of Songs—limpid verses recited in order to demonstrate moral uprightness as much as literary refinement—the two major pieces attributed to Qu Yuan, Nine Songs and Encountering Sorrow, are filled with weird images of dragons and smoke, incantations which are genuinely hard to make sense of, and a wholly different literary sensibility: not adornments to Confucian teachings, but something more like conjurings of a hallucinatory world.
Enter Li Shangyin and Li He (no relation, despite sharing the surname Li, and no relation to Li Bai either). These later-Tang dynasty poets sit even more uncomfortably within the Confucian tradition than Li Bai. Both flaunted their dissipation, and their work calls to mind Ashbery-like discontinuities of image that seem to utterly lack the edifications of orthodox, Confucian letters. If we consider that one of the key Confucian tenets was zhengming, the fixing of qualities or relationships in language in order to demonstrate the Confucian worldview (i.e., a lord has the “lordly” attribute of benevolence, whereas a lord who is malicious cannot be recognized as one; a poem was a means to education, whereas a poetry that disregarded pedagogy could not be called poetry, but only be regarded as nonsense), then Li He and Li Shangyin were then obviously bad guys who disregarded order, proper behavior, and other concerns of literary orthodoxy. Their nonconformism was strong enough for Li He to be omitted from the classic anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems, and for Li Shangyin, though still anthologized, to be classed as only a distant cousin of the three greats: Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Today, their literary legacies are explored primarily by edgy scholars and poets, so the existence of these recent English-language editions is fairly remarkable.
Li He (c. 790–817 CE), translated here by J. D. Frodsham (in a new edition of his 1970 translation), worked low-level administrative jobs, let his fingernails grow long,wrote about frequentingprostitutes, and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six. English-language readers will know him from A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang, which includes him alongside Li Shangyin and others. His poetry stood out there, and continues to stand out for its dense language and evocative images.
Although many of the poems have been read, interpreted, and critically reconstructed, no amount of explanation really conveys how odd they can be, especially when held up against what can be called premodern China’s official verse culture. As Frodsham says in his introduction, “there is a wild, exotic air about He’s poetry which the Chinese mind finds distasteful,” an air which—generalizations about “the Chinese mind” aside—English-language readers should find exhilarating. His poem “Song of the Magic Strings”:
As the sun sets in the western hills
The eastern hills grow dark,
A whirlwind blows the horses along,
Steeds trampling the clouds.
Painted zithers and plain flutes
Play soft, weird tunes,
To the rustle of embroidered skirts
She treads the autumn dust.
Cassia leaves stripped by the wind,
Cassia seeds fall,
Blue raccoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The Rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
Frodsham writes of Li He’s sobriquet, “the demon poet,” and compares him to Keats and Baudelaire. He bears resemblance to Verlaine and even Mallarmé as well. Yet not all his poetry is a howl to the unnatural. He also deals with the stock topics of the tradition: parting, jade, dead soldiers, the immortals, the pleasures of wealth, and plenty of “dancing girls.” Li He can be framed as an outsider bucking the Confucian tradition, but he also speaks to the times he lived in, and to what many could not say, or could not say well. Although the lonely poet to this day remains a trope in Chinese writing, Li He taps that vein more directly. Consider his poem “The Capital”:
Out of my gate I galloped, full of hope—
But now my heart is lonely in Chang’an.
Since I have no one to confide in
I chant a poem, alone with the autumn wind.
This collected edition is a necessary addition to the growing body of Chinese poetry in English translation, as well as a corrective to the Poundian tradition of Chinese poetry as plain-spoken and full of imagistic language and tropes. It’s unfortunate that, although a collected edition, it is not dual-language—especially since Frodsham’s translations sometimes seem a bit musty next to the few pieces done by Graham (compare Frodsham’s “Do Not Go Out of Your Gate, Sir!” to Graham’s more direct “Don’t Go Out of the Door”). Nevertheless, Li He was definitely singing a “weird tune,” one which comes through the static of the English.
Li Shangyin (c. 813–858 CE) wrote a short life of Li He that praised his individuality, for Li Shangyin saw in Li He a youthful exuberance that he himself had lost. Unlike Li He, Li Shangyin lived to the age of forty-five, and in that time worked many dispiriting jobs in unremarkable administrative positions. His writing is softer that Li He’s, but no less weird. If Li He gave himself over to the spirits, Li Shangyin gave himself over to, well, spirits. Though poems celebrating drinking are hardly unique in Chinese letters, his poetry confronts the world of the senses, and its effects can seem discombobulating at times. The new, dual-language NYRB Poets edition, edited and translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts, but including alternate translations by Lucas Klein and from A. C. Graham’s anthology as well, doesn’t ask the reader to consider the context and futurity of the author’s poetry (as Frodsham’s edition does) so much as it asks the reader to try each poem out.
Li Shangyin often wrote in elliptical fragments, capturing only a glimpse of a scene. Here is one section from his “Heyang Poem”:
Up a hundred feet,
A wind vane stands on a tiled roof.
(trans. Garcia Roberts)
When extended, this technique yields effects comparable to twentieth-century poets who used montage or collage methods. For example, Li Shangyin’s “Hibiscus: Two Poems”:
A swallow’s form is damaged
By the strength of the wind.
On the cloves, patterns
Of accumulating dew.
To weep, to smile—
The two are indistinguishable.
Rather there were no sister
Inside the moon,
Than surrounded by clouds,
Three pure spheres
And immortal islands.
What is your reason
For your exile?
At Pearl Lodge
Blazing fragrance lingers.
After combing, brushing:
A burning orchid
Serves as a candle.
Never becoming text.
What by nature
Is gracefully remote,
Transforms to bitterness
With distant gazing.
I turn my head.
I ask the winnowing gleam.
The winnowing gleam
(trans. Garcia Roberts)
Unlike the pert aesthete Li He, Li Shangyin has a jaded air about him. Like Li He, Li Shangyin kept busy in the pleasure quarters, grumbling about not getting by and not getting noticed. Not averse to traditional tropes, he nevertheless turns his world inside-out, reverses its order, and creates a calm phantasmagoria out of its appearances. How fortunate that today we have him in all his mundane weirdness. Here’s “Twists of the Drug,” one of the more obscure poems in the anthology:
North of Turmeric Hall, but east from the painted towers,
where the medicine’s bone-swapping magic works,
dew mist, darkly, links with green cassia parkland.
Wind sounds through the purple agrimony.
Sun Hao needed toilet paper for his Buddha;
sitting there Shi Chong ate the fragrant dates.
These lines come from thinking of these people and events,
so back to bed beneath kingfisher covers, behind embroidered curtains.
The NYRB Poets edition lets the reader refer to the Chinese-language original as well as compare different English-language versions. This is especially important for a poet like Li Shangyin, where so much of his writing is in soft-focus, even in the Chinese. Multiple translations offer us differing glimpses of the same poem—not only as translations, but also as parts of the kaleidoscopic world the original alludes to. For example, one poem in versions by all three translators lets the reader consider the poem’s world as it is disclosed upon our own, in a cascade of synesthetic appearances. Here is the ending.
I could wait until this feeling
Becomes a haunted memory,
Only I am at that moment,
How did these feelings become distant memory?
Even then it was some kind of trance.
Did it wait, this mood, to mature with hindsight?
In a trance from the beginning, then as now.
Despite their versions’ apparent differences, all of the translators (including Frodsham) develop the contradictory assumptions about Chinese-language poetry that have informed many previous English-language translations: namely, the belief that premodern Chinese poetry is simultaneously full of parataxis and leaps of logic, with language that is both colloquial and precise (as per the Confucian demand) as well as mystical (evoking Daoist cosmology). The poems of both Li Shangyin and Li He have a remarkable combination of these qualities, expressions of writers who had one foot in their worlds—political as well as literary—as well as one foot decisively out, or at least out of step.
As readers, whether or not we can read Chinese and regardless of our familiarity with that tradition, we might ask ourselves what worlds we want our poetry to invoke or create for us, and what we want from Chinese poetry in particular. These editions of Li He and Li Shangyin will probably thwart those assumptions, evoking worlds we are not entirely familiar with. One reason for that is not the quality of the translations, but our distance from the world of the later Tang. Another reason is that the poetry was, simply, always a bit off. It’s good to know that, sometimes, things don’t change.
Matt Turner’s collection of poetry, Not Moving, is available from Broken Sleep Books. He has published essays and reviews in Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, Hong Kong Review of Books, and Hyperallergic Weekend, and has also translated Lu Xun, Ou Ning, Yan Jun, Hu Jiujiu, and others. He lives in New York City.
Banner image: Tang dynasty funerary banner, courtesy of the British Museum.