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Poetry Classroom: Hard Road by Li Bai

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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!

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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.

Hard Road

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.

Discussion Questions

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?

Photo by Keith B. Smiley. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Brett Foster, author of The Garbage Eater.

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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.” 

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Purchase The Novelist, by L.L. Barkat now!

Your Comments

31 Comments so far

  1. Tania Runyan says:

    This poem really resonates with me. As far as decision-making, how closely Li Po speaks to the reality of my life! I am so often surrounded by rich opportunites–the “golden cup,” the “jade plate”–but feel paralyzed when it comes to crossing the river. Even the chance to dance can become an occassion for anxiety. His images relate so closely to the emotions of arriving at a crossroads. Oh, for those “right moments” of hoisting sail!

  2. What surprises me is why the speaker wants to travel at all. Why does he need the hard road when he has expensive wine and fine food? Isn’t that why most people climb the mountain or cross the river or hoist the sail in the first place? I guess there’s something to be said for the old saying, “money doesn’t by happiness,” but get a grip!

  3. L. L. Barkat says:

    I like the idea of idleness in a poem.

    Maybe we create spaces where they would be otherwise unexpected in the poem. I do this more now than I used to. I like the effect.

    Maybe we focus on a single image and do “nothing” with it. Very Asian, in its way.

  4. Brett Foster says:

    Tania and Megan, your comments make me appreciate better the sharpness of the contrast here between surroundings (which are more swank, the more I consider the cup and plate and how they are described) and a more internalized contentment. The speaker in “Hard Road” does seem to lack contentment, or maybe just the contentment that comes with a certain plan or course of action. That is, the restlessness here seems more related to his wanting answers– when will the river be crossable, when will it stop snowing,and even once I can begin my travels, which path to take? And maybe he needs to stay put for now, as that maxim-like second-to-last line suggests– “A great enterprise must find a right moment.” Maybe he’s most restless because he really doesn’t know if he should ~indulge~ his restless spirit or not!

    Looking forward to hearing from others…

    BF

    • Brett, I agree that the speaker is restless and indecisive and the second-to-last line even suggests that he should find the right moment. However, I think that he may very well know what the answer(s) is/are based on the last line. I say ‘he may’ because I think the last line could be interpreted in two ways:

      1) The time is now. You know what to do, so just do it; or
      2) Do nothing, keep dreaming, and you may find your answers.

  5. The line beginning “In idleness” is where the poem turns for me, signals the narrator’s incipient understanding that he’s standing in his own way and apt to find contentment not in a “golden cup”, “pure wine”, or “fine food” on “a jade plate” but in cultivating what’s within. Look what happens when we stop telling ourselves the road is “hard” and full of obstacles (the ice, the snow… the excuses!), when we give ourselves permission to just “drop a hook”.

    There’s wonderful humor in this poem (“Traveling is hard!” Even when it’s only conceptual!). And, I think, no little wisdom.

  6. Tania Runyan says:

    Interesting how the speaker has to take his eyes off the road and off the mountain in order to finally have the motivation to set sail.

  7. lynn says:

    I am certain that poets make time for idleness and dreaming dreams! The last delightful line surprises me… is this still his dream? We do travel places in our minds, which can appease unfulfilled wanderlust.

  8. Susan says:

    The “hard road” appears to be the path that accompanies existential unrest or “angst” and makes it impossible to be satisfied with physical comforts alone. Traveling is a way to change the mindset and may be real or metaphorical, such as dreaming.

  9. Li Bai dramatizes the work of decision-making by placing his sentiments in statements showing lamentation and vacillation, examples of which are conveyed in the following lines: “Traveling is hard! / Traveling is hard! / So many forks in the road- / which one to take?” Stating twice that traveling is hard could be interpreted as a negative affirmation, which many people do when they don’t want to face or deal with something. This plays out as someone who, in complaining, creates a mental block, which manifests in the idea that it cannot be done, so they don’t do it. They convince themselves that they are stuck and leave decision-making in limbo. The indecisiveness and being at a crossroads is evident when he indicates that there are so many forks and wonders which one to take, which could be construed as laziness. It is a deliberate attempt, utilizing complaints as excuses and conveying a feeling of being overwhelmed, to do nothing.

    • Oops, left out this last bit:

      Of course, there is a lot of mental work going on here.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      It’s funny, Grace, but I find that when I can say “traveling is hard!” I then find it easier. As if in the saying I have taken away some of the power of the obstacle.

      Not sure if that makes any sense.

      It’s a good reason to write a traveling-hard poem sometimes though. Or just to complain to a friend. :)

      I wonder what makes this same activity become a source of stuckness for some people?

      • Yes, it makes sense to me. You perceive it as a challenge. Although some may think it difficult, they decide it would be worth pursuing, so make that decision to move forward. However, is this the speaker’s reality? In the speaker’s mind, it is ideal, but somehow can’t bring himself to carry out his dreams, at least not right away.

        I think he may be stuck because the current position that he is in (wealth) provides the illusion of greater freedom, which freedom feels better than committing to any one path. None of the other paths could potentially be an improvement and so it seems better to remain where he is. This does not translate as a mind at ease, though. Perhaps he finds some form of contentment in ‘idling’ about it?

  10. Tony Dawson says:

    A Potential Interpretation of Hard Road

    I think this poem is, perhaps, a paean to idleness employing hyperbole to make the point. I think most of the poem recounts a dream. In his dream, Li Bai is affluent, has plenty, and lives extravagantly:

    In my golden cup, pure wine worth ten thousand a pint;
    on a jade plate, fine food worth ten thousand coins.

    Yet he is not satisfied; he wants still more and is frustrated when his plans are forestalled. The scenes quickly shift (as in dreams they do) between the dining room, the Yellow River, Mount Taihang:

    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.

    And then … the dream scene shifts to a creek and fishing – the universal symbol of active idleness:

    In idleness I drop a hook into the azure creek,
    suddenly I’m back in my boat, dreaming of distant places.

    The dream is then paused for commentary; the active life is difficult because there are too many choices, and it’s challenging to know how to choose:

    Traveling is hard!
    Traveling is hard!
    So many forks in the road–
    which one to take?

    Finally, the rest of the dream:

    A great enterprise must find the right moment;
    I hoist my sail into the clouds and cross the mighty ocean

    The fantastic imagery of the last line, linked to the prior one by the semicolon, suggests that, as he waits for “the right moment,” Li Bai is engaged in the greatest of enterprises:” idleness.

    Well, that’s enough work … now for a little idleness … ;0)

  11. Courtney G. says:

    This poem seems to juxtapose the riches of life of two different forms – that placed before a person, and that for which a person must journey, with no guarantee of reaching the end of the road.

    Traveling ensures no safety, no easy route, and no promise that pain will not limit the questing person’s uphill battle for wisdom.

    The richness of life handed on silver – or in this case, jade – platters does not satisfy as much as the memories of forging a river or climbing the looming mountain. The comforts of life tend to imprison one from experiencing the full breadth of nature, including the plummets on icy paths.

    It truly is a great enterprise to hoist sail onto the might ocean, and find that proper time. The risks involved are immense, especially if one’s surrounded by warmth and perceived happiness. Yet, as mentioned before, one must look toward the goal and avoid the distraction of happiness not nearly as satisfying. In the decision making process, the speaker has to look to the mountains, be reminded of what would be left, evidenced by glancing backwards, and then be satisfied in the former path. This connects to the dreaming aspect of the poem, but I am not quite sure how.

    I also cannot claim to understand the sense of idleness expressed in the poem, but I would love to see it more valued today. When I hike into the hills and through the valleys, I stop and smell the flowers. In my own idleness, surrounded by trees and nature, I do my best reflecting. For the speaker, this seems to be done while fishing.

  12. Brett Foster says:

    That appreciation of nature, Courtney– spoken like a true geologist. Nice! :-) I am especially interested in one interpretation you offer– that far from an angst-filled scenario, with existential feeling and impatience at physical obstacles, the scene in Li Bai’s poem features a speaker trying to set out on a higher road not from a place of despondency or disenchantment, but from a well-appointed place, thus making the right decision harder, even if it’s known to be right. (Maybe that’s why those clouds are there in the last line. I love how it’s both a precise seeing– the sky behind the mast– but also so suggestive of flight, or dream. And speaking of dreams, I’m now pleasantly reconsidering two emphases by L. L. and Tony above. Like L.L., I tend to give a lot of attention to that “In idleness” line, with that return of a present-tense action, that “suddenly” that follows as a result. It’s worth remembering too that “idleness” for the Chinese poet was a desirable virtue, a heightened state, and in T’ang-era poetry it often occurs in a natural setting (which brings us back to Courtney’s distinction just above). So that opening phrase, “In idleness,” I imagine jumpstarts (ah, what a metaphor to use!) the poem or at least the speaker’s mental energy here. Idleness is paraodoxically the state in which the speaker can resume activity. Conversely, Tony has me rereading the poem to think about much more of it as located in dream, following dream-logic, what have you. Thanks to everyone for these invitations for further reading and consideration!

    Brett

  13. Sam O says:

    This poem, at least from my perspective seems to show us thought for thought what the narrator is thinking. He is debating whether or not to leave the comfort and luxuries he has or to venture out and go on an adventure. But the road has so many options and the narrator does not where to go. He talks himself out of it a little bit and acknowledges the fear of the unknown. The last stanza makes a quick jump. The narrator is saying how there is a right time to start an adventure and seems like he is leaning to waiting for that time. Then in the next line he jumps in and just goes for it. The inner dialogue comes to an abrupt halt and the decision has been made to venture out into the unknown. The idleness needed to happen in this poem in order for him to reach the point to be ready to journey out.

  14. Edward Jesse Capobianco says:

    What really interests me about the poem is the slight but undeniable contrast between the speaker’s speech and actions (dream-actions or otherwise). He says that “Traveling is hard”, but he justifies this exclamation by explaining that there are “So many forks in the road”. The speaker bemoans the difficulty of choosing which road to take.
    In his dream, however, the speaker does choose the road to take, seemingly without difficulty. He tries to cross the Yellow River, but is blocked by ice. He tries to climb Mount Taihang, but is thwarted by snow. It is not indecision that torments him in travel, then, but having the paths he chooses blocked before him.
    Is the ice and snow the frost of indecision? Or is there some conflict between the speaker’s experience and explanation? If so, why?

  15. Tania Runyan says:

    I have really enjoyed reading all of these insights! (Nice to hear from you again, brilliant Wheatonites!) Every time I go back and read lines 5-6, I get the sense, more and more, that he is making excuses for not crossing the river and mountain. I don’t know much about crossing the Yellow River, but I figure plenty of people figured out how to deal with the ice. How badly does he really want it? However, I looked up some images of that mountain, and it doesn’t look too easy to navigate, snow or no snow. But still. . .he seemed pleased to all too quickly talk himself out of these journeys. He had to encounter something small, a creek, as opposed to a river, to get the courage to explore the ocean. Hm. When I go full steam ahead trying to accomplish the “big stuff” without periodically scaling back to hang with the “small” (per our recent convo, L.L), I get nowhere. Idleness is indeed spending time with the small creeks and fishhooks of our lives so we can gain the energy to hoist sail.

  16. My favorite bit of the poem is the two abrupt lines
    Traveling is hard!
    Traveling is hard!
    One of the thing that has characterized the Tang poems – and part of this may be muddled or distorted in translation – is the abrupt lines of exclamation or clarity that bring the reader out of the dreamlike quality and into humanity. These moments are like small tantrum bursts into the peaceful enjoyment of idleness (“The monkeys are mournfully howling above my head” from Ezra Pound’s translation of the River Merchant’s Wife comes to mind). Even all these years later, with no experience of swords or golden cups, I understand the poem because of those two lines.

  17. Brett Foster says:

    Good morning, fellow Li Bai readers. It’s the end of a busy week here, and I’m reading some of the recent comments in our Poetry Classroom, and appreciating better not only “Hard Road,” but also what kind of “best expression” we read for or the ideal kind of writing we’re aiming for. That is, what is it that we typically, unthinkingly feel that poems should say, or do? I would be tempted to say “something beautiful” or “something true” or “something situationally or emotionally recognizable.” I love how some of the focuses in recent messages are on speech acts that are not necessarily lucid or pretty, but that are certainly dramatic and true to how most of us operate at times. And so, Sam perceptively talks about Li Bai’s speaker “talking himself out of something. Is that a case of exalted “magical thinking,” or something more delusional, maybe pathetic even? Jesse similarly focuses on the differences between the poem’s speeches and its actions or dream-actions. Tania talks about her increasing sense that the speaker is making an excuse for his predicament. We should all challenge ourself to write a good excuse poem– maybe one that persuades even ourselves! And Torunn’s comment about tantrum or outburst is really suggestive, too. That’s where language in its elegance and decorousness falls away, when speech becomes more raw, primal, forceful. It’s surprising to hear, but I think I understand Torunn’s saying that it’s the lines “Traveling is hard!” that helps her to comprehend the emotional life of this poem, all of these centuries later. So thank you everyone! I’m eager to hear and learn more…

  18. April B says:

    This is, in part, a response to Jesse’s comments about the moment of decision. Jesse said that the speaker of the poem knows exactly which roads he wants to take — though he is blocked by obstacles.

    I read the poem a bit differently: The speaker actually decides to abandon roads altogether and take to the wide “mighty ocean” instead of a narrow mountain path or a specific river crossing. This decision leads him to endless possibilities.

    Also, does anyone have any thoughts on the sword dance image in line 4? I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to make an informed comment about the actual tradition (I did find a brief explanation here: http://www.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/html/en/28Arts448.html), but I’m interested in the image of dancing as an expression of restlessness and idleness. When you dance, you’re moving with purpose without actually going anywhere. This could be an interesting image for the poem itself: The speaker goes to all of these places within his own thoughts/dreams. It has a meditative beauty that’s tied to more than just the physical act of traveling.

  19. Daniel Leonard says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but after letting the poem simmer for a few days, I feel ready to discuss. April, I agree wholeheartedly with the contrast you see between the multitudinous-yet-narrow paths on land and the freeing infinitude of the ocean. I’ll add that the turning point, as others have pointed out, is “In idleness I drop a hook.” Fishing inverts the problem of indecision: now the speaker IS a single destination (the hook) being sought by multiple travelers (fish). Perhaps more importantly, fishing is a paradoxically purposeful idleness. Brett wisely noted the connection to Taoism and Zen in the discussion questions… the speaker seems to transcend the question of paths entirely by sailing instead (in the fishing boat, then in the ocean). Note the surrealism of “I hoist my sail into the clouds”—or, as Arthur Cooper’s translation for Penguin has it, “I set a cloud for sails.” There’s a big difference between passivity (being handed expensive food to consume) and the idleness wherein one can encounter the deep inner voices that can at first overwhelm one with worries (Which path to take? When will winter end?) which, with enough imagination (so much hyperbole in this poem!) and passion, may transform into joy.

    • Lydia B says:

      I have to agree with Torunn, I find the heart of the poem to be in the two repeated lines,
      “Traveling is hard!
      Traveling is hard!”
      Although the early ennui of the speaker is relatable, it also simulates the feeling itself in its listless distraction. The reader finds herself trapped in a restless, bored state until the speaker himself breaks out of his funk. The frustration and petulance of his sudden insistence that “Traveling is hard!” is endearing, drawing the reader back into the poem. The speaker becomes interesting again. The continuation of this outburst propels him into the end of the poem, a triumphant finale in which the speaker asserts his intentions to set forth into the world.

  20. John Gideon Mottice says:

    The more I reread this poem (whic I have had ample time to do, considering how late this comment is), the more I find myself being redirected to the “idleness” Li Bai describes. As already noted, I too see it as the turn of the poem, and possibly even the answer, if there is one. The majority of the first stanza addresses an anxiety and apparent wanderlust, at the expense of the “pure wine” and the “fine food” that the speaker possesses but is “unable to eat”. Confronted by obstacles, he resigns to his boat, where he fishes idly, but still cannot keep his mind off his travel. The second stanza, beginning with the double dose of “Traveling is hard!” appears to be a reflection on this anxious decision Li Bai presents in the previous scene, and then emphasizes the fact that a decision must be made. The final two lines offer another turn as the tone significantly shifts towards a more confident, almost aphoristic sounding affirmation. I see this last statement as being directly related to the idleness in the last few lines of the first stanza, as if Li Bai is trying to tell us that when we commit ourselves to the idea of being still and patient, the right moment will be revealed and the mere act of hoisting our sail will be enough to guide us to our “great enterprise”.


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