LI PO AND TU FU : Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Arthur Cooper. Chinese Calligraphy by Shui Chien-tung. (Penguin Classics). 249 pp. Penguin 1973, and Reissued.
This is a valuable book in many ways. Besides giving a selection of enjoyable translations of China's two greatest poets - Li Po (+ 701-762, 25 poems) and Tu Fu (+ 712-770, 18 poems), it also includes a remarkably full and informative Introduction of almost 100 pages which not only serves to introduce beginners to the subject of Chinese poetry, and to the work of Li Po and Tu Fu in particular, but which could also be read with profit by others.
Each of the 43 poems is followed by an explanatory comment, which can range in length from paragraph to essay form. The book also includes a Guide to the Pronunciation of Chinese Words and Names, and, since twelve of the poems are accompanied by the Chinese text in the striking calligraphy of Shui Chien-tung, a Note on Chinese Calligraphy has been provided by the artist for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the nature and history of this fascinating art form.
Shui Chien-tung has "adopted a manner influenced by Chinese bronze inscriptions [and] has also followed various styles of writing to suit the different poems" (pp.13-14). The result is a clear style which in most cases will cause no problems for anyone who may be studying Chinese characters, since the structure of even the more complex characters can easily be discerned.
Here, as an example of Cooper's style (with my obliques added to indicate line breaks), is the first of two 'sonnets' of Tu Fu's 'At an Evening Picnic, with Young Bucks and Beauties' :
"Sunset's the time to take the boat out / When a light breeze raises slow ripples, / Bamboo-hidden is the picnic place / And lotus-fresh in the evening cool; // But while the bucks are mixing iced drinks / And beauties snow a lotus salad, / A slip of cloud comes black overhead : / Before it rains my sonnet must end !" (p.163)
Cooper's reading nicely evokes the lighthearted amusements of spoiled and wealthy youth, out on the cool water with a party of singing girls for an evening of companionship and pleasure after the heat of the day.
Cooper's anthology has an excellent Introduction, is of manageable size, well-translated, helpfully annotated, uniquely illustrated with Shui Chien-tung's calligraphy, and has other useful features. It would make a good introduction for anyone new to Chinese poetry, and it can also be read with interest by anyone wishing to extend their knowledge of Li Po and Tu Fu.
Those who, after reading it, would like to explore further and learn about some of China's other great writers, might take a look at the excellent anthology by Cyril Birch, another book I can strongly recommend:
ANTHOLOGY OF CHINESE LITERATURE : From early times to the fourteenth century. Compiled and edited by Cyril Birch. Associate editor Donald Keene. 492 pp. New York : Grove Press, 1965, and Reissued.