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The Poetry of Li Ho

[4 stars]


Li Ho (791-817), also known in the West as Li He and Li Ch'ang-chi, is in many ways an exceptional figure in classical Chinese poetry. Though he was distantly related to T'ang dynasty royalty, a silly technicality prevented him from even taking the state exams necessary for advancement through the Chinese bureaucracy. So he was condemned to low level positions unsuited to his talents and ambitions. But Li Ho had the additional misfortune of being stricken with tuberculosis, a disease called in the past consumption with very good reason, and so he declined into an early and miserable death at the age of 26.(*)


These two factors played a major role in shaping his mature poetry, a poetry of violent contrasts, full of dark moods and despair punctuated by convulsions of rebellion against his fate, exaltation and moments of ornate beauty.(**) Juxtaposition, a major tool of Chinese poetics, is taken to extremes, and the natural and supernatural exist side by side. The result was a poetry outside of the main line of classical Chinese poetry and termed "weird, astonishing, demonic" by Chinese critics of the past.(***) When one runs across passages like


Blue raccoons are weeping blood

As shivering foxes die...

Owls that have lived a hundred years,

Turned forest demons,

Find emerald fire, laughing wildly,

Leaps from their nests.


one can well understand that the adjectives "weird, astonishing, demonic" were not chosen at random. Nonetheless, the predominantly melancholy tone of Li's work is common to most mid and late T'ang dynasty poetry, and he was an important influence for a good number of later poets. 


Because Li did not care about what happened to his poems after he wrote them and, if the old stories are to be believed, a resentful relative threw a bundle of them into a privy, only some 230 poems have survived. 


The impermanence of all things is a common theme in Asian poetry, but see what Li does with it in one of his most famous poems in a translation by A.C. Graham that draws out its ornateness.


           An Arrowhead from the Ancient Battlefield of Ch'ang-p'ing


Lacquer dust and powdered bone and red cinnabar grains:

From the spurt of ancient blood the bronze has flowered.

White feathers and gilt shaft have melted away in the rain,

Leaving only this triple-cornered broken wolf's tooth.


I was searching the plain, riding with two horses,

In the stony fields east of the post-station, on a bank where

     bamboos sprouted, 

After long winds and brief daylight, beneath the dreary stars,

Damped by a black flag of cloud which hung in the empty night.


To left and right, in the air, in the earth, ghosts shrieked from

     wasted flesh.

The curds drained from my upturned jar, mutton victuals were 

     my sacrifice.

Insects settled, the wild geese swooned, the buds were

     blight-reddened on the reeds,

The whirlwind was my escort, puffing sinister fires.


In tears, seeker of ancient things, I picked up this broken barb

With snapped point and russet flaws, which once pierced

     through flesh.

In the east quarter on South Street a pedlar on horseback

Talked me into bartering the metal for a votive basket.


Torn, as always, by the necessity of choosing only two or three poems, I quote one of Li's visions. The old hare and the chilled frog live on the moon, the white-jade wheel. In other words, in this poem Li is looking at China from the Moon. (Graham's translation)


                                    A Dream of Heaven


The old hare and the chilled frog weep the sky's sheen,

Through a door ajar in a mansion of cloud the rays slant

     white on the wall.

The white-jade wheel shivers the dew into wet globes of light;

Chariot bells meet girdle pendants on cassia-scented paths.


Yellow dust and fairy water beneath the Fairy Mountains

Change places once in a thousand years which pass

     like galloping horses.

When you peer at far-off China, nine puffs of smoke:

And the single pool of the ocean has drained into a cup.


In The Poems of Li Ho (1970) J.D. Frodsham has translated all of the extant poems into English and supplied a lengthy and informative introduction. He has also written extensive supplementary notes on each poem explaining historical allusions, cultural references and, in some cases, alternative readings.


One can find selections of Li's poetry in many collections - I mention, in particular, Five Tang Poets (translated by David Young) and Poems of the Late Tang (translated by A.C. Graham) - but this book of Frodsham's seems to be the only collection available in English with a translation of all of the poems. Frodsham's book was later re-published with a revised introduction and curtailed notes under the title Goddesses, Ghosts, and Demons: The Collected Poems of Li He.



(*) And curious it is that Li is the third excellent author, after Edith Södergran and Higuchi Ichiyo, I've read in the past 6 months who was cut down in the bloom of their youth by tuberculosis.


(**) Not without reason, there exists a Ph.D. dissertation comparing Li Ho and John Keats. Other Western readers are reminded of Baudelaire because of his mixture of pessimism, sensuality and aestheticism. All true. In light of  their shared mysticism and startling visions, I would also find an analogy to William Blake. Clearly, Li Ho is a very unique poet.


(***)  They seem to be coming around, though; in fact, in Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song, published by the very official Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, Li's poetry (under the name Li He) stands alongside that of the most stellar poets of those two stellar periods in Chinese literature.