This week we kick off the Poetry Classroom, a new feature in which a college professor and his or her students host a conversation about a poem—and the public is invited to join in!
Our first professor, Brett Foster, teaches at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His first poetry book, The Garbage Eater, was published in 2011 by Triquarterly Books / Northwestern University Press, and a forthcoming smaller collection, Fall Run Road, was recently awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2011 chapbook prize. A Renaissance scholar, Brett is also the author of Shakespeare’s Life, a volume in a “Backgrounds to Shakespeare” reference series, and he regularly speaks at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
We’ll allow Dr. Foster to introduce the poem and get us exploring. Please jump in—class is in session all week!
Hard Road by Li Bai
Li Bai (or Li Po), is generally considered, along with Du Fu, as one of China’s great poets, and a symbol of the golden poetic age of the T’ang era in the eighth century. Li Bai was born in 701 in central Asia, in what is today Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. His family moved to Szechuan in western China when he was a young boy, and he studied both classics and swordsmanship. It is easy to see this pairing as a foretelling of both his prodigious poetic talents and his flair for flamboyant behavior and oversized living.
It was widely expected that his talents would lead him to take up a government post, which was the common path for the young and exceptional, but it was not to be. He served the emperor briefly, but was dismissed from court within two years because of his exuberance and unpredictable behavior.
Wandering was a life-long habit for Li Bai, either because of his restless disposition or later because of social upheaval when the realm plunged into civil warfare. At one point he was imprisoned and almost executed. He became known as the “Banished Immortal” and one of the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.”
Li Bai, as his poems often suggest, loved both wine and friends, and fittingly, the most famous poetic friendship in Chinese literature commenced when Li Bai met the younger poet Du Fu in a out-of-the-way wine shop. Although declining in health, he continued to travel during the last years of his life. Legend has it that he drowned when he was in a boat one night, and was determined to embrace the moon that he saw reflected in the waters.
The poem featured here, “Hard Road,” is unusual insofar as it is more of a domestic scene, featuring less of the natural landscape that appears in so many of his roughly 1100 poems. (Many others were lost, and some of the ones preserved may in fact be by imitators.) This is less of a journey poem and more one that gives pause, about deciding upon a journey and dreaming of the choice ahead.
The translation here is by Geoffrey Waters, in a terrific new volume entitled 300 Tang Poems. “Hard Road” is categorized as a “seven-word old-style yuefu,” meaning that there are seven characters per line, and that the overall form derived from the Han dynasty five hundred years earlier. The specific type “yuefu,” as David Hinton explains in his excellent collection Classical Chinese Poetry, relates to folk poetry and often assumed a ballad mode of narration.
In my golden cup, pure wine worth ten thousand a pint;
on a jade plate, fine food worth ten thousand coins.
I stop drinking and put down my chopsticks, unable to eat,
draw my sword to dance, look anxiously in all directions.
I want to cross the Yellow River, but ice blocks my way;
I want to climb Mount Taihang, but snow fills the sky.
In idleness I drop a hook into the azure creek,
suddenly I’m back in my boat, dreaming of distant places.
Traveling is hard!
Traveling is hard!
So many forks in the road–
which one to take?
A great enterprise must find the right moment;
I hoist my sail into the clouds and cross the mighty ocean.
1) Li Bai and other Chinese poets influenced English and American Modernist poets in the twentieth century with their strong, clear images. In “Hard Road,” which images are most noticeable and memorable?
2) In this poem, how does Li Bai dramatize the work of decision-making, of being at a crossroads in life, as we all sometimes are?
3) How would you describe the voice of this poem? Where does its expression surprise you?
4) What does this poem have to do with dreaming? Where does dream language enter into the poem?
5) Li Bai speaks of “idleness” — hsein. It is related to the concept of wu-wei (literally “doing nothing,” associated with spontaneity). This is an important aspect of Taoism and Ch’an (Zen) belief. For readers and writers today, not writing in this tradition, how do we treat and represent idleness in contemporary poetry? In our madcap, overbooked world, would it be a good practice to celebrate idleness in poems today?
The great thing about Tweetspeak’s Poetry Classroom is there is no exam, and no grade. Join Dr. Foster in the comment section with your thoughts on these questions, or perhaps you have a question for him about Li Bai’s “Hard Road.”