Li Po and Tu Fu - Poems Paperback – 26 Apr 1973
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About the Author
Li Po (AD 701-62) was born in the far west of China and probably had some knowledge of Central Asian languages and cultures. But to his contemporaries his talent was almost supernatural, so that he hardly seemed of earthly origin at all; his verses seemed to originate in something other than the human consciousness, yet speak directly and simply to the human mind.Tu Fu (AD 712-70) was born near the capital, of a family distinguished for service to the state. While Li Po seems to the Chinese to be a poet of the night and of man as a solitary animal in his dreams, Tu Fu is rather a poet of the day and of man in his other nature as a social animal. Tu Fu's poems chronicle his life and times with social conscience and compassion, but also present a convincing, unselfconscious portrait of the man himself. Arthur Cooper was a scholar and translator known for the translation of Lip Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated.
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Cooper builds a narrative that involves equating the poetry of Li Po with Daoism (Cooper uses 'Tao' throughout), and 'yin' energy, whilst Tu Fu is equated with Confucianism and 'yang' energy. Cooper justifies this categorisation by explaining that the poems of Li Po often makes use of the imagery of the reflected light of the moon, whilst Tu Fu chose the Pheonix as his symbol, which represents the 'south' direction, brigtness and warmth, etc. As a consequence, Cooper informs us that the poems of Li Po have an 'escapist' quality to them, whilst those of Tu Fu show the humanity and humility expected from a Confucian scholar. Cooper does warn however, that the modern Chinese Communist regime tends to overly criticse Li Po, and attempts to drive a wedge between the two poets, even though both poets were obviously good friends who appreciated one another's creativity.
Cooper translates 26 poems each for Li Po and Tu Fu. This is a small number for each poet, as Li Po left about 1000 poems, and Tu Fu left around 1400. However, those that Cooper chooses are indicative of the distinctive style of each poet, and go someway to explaining why the two works have often been integrated into 'one' poet, known simply as 'Li-Tu'. Interestingly, the lives of both men were effected by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 - this war lasted around 8 years and devastated China. The sorrow that both these poets experienced during these years, is said to have inspired their poetry to greater heights. Li Po is believed to have been an accomplished martial artist, mastering the sword, with which it is believed that he killed several opponents in self-defence. He became involved with a local relellion against the emperor, for which he was sentenced to 'Banishment'. On his way to serve his sentence (at Yelang), and whilst an imperial pardon was on route to free him, Li Po passed away in 762 - legend has it that fell from a boat, whilst trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a river. Tu Fu passed away in 770. Although he was never militarily involved in the conflict of the rebellion, the sights he saw appear truly horrific. Near the end of his life, whilst suffering from many physical ailments, he was financially supported by a regional governor. Even when near to death and gravely ill, Tu Fu continued to write poetry.
Cooper's translation is augmented and assisted by the beautiful caligraphy of Shui Chien-tung, whom Cooper credits in his 'Acknowledgements' as 'teaching without words', a truly Daoist method of instruction, from which Cooper benefited greatly.
'No one here knows
which way you have gone:
Two, now three pines
I have leant against.'
'An old grey head
scratched at each mishap
Has dwindling hair,
does not fit its cap!'
This is an essential insight into China's traditional past. A very good book.
The book includes a thorough introduction encompassing the pronunciation of Chinese words and names, notes on the Chinese calligraphy and the introduction proper which provides information on the poets and their times, plus the backgrounds to T'ang Poetry pertaining to the Book of Odes, the Ch'u Tz'u, the ballads and the principles of Chinese syllabic metre, the approach to translation, the tones and the `Chinese Sonnet.'
The poems are elucidated with explanatory notes and with reference to Ezra Pound's translations in his book Cathay. In this regard, I found here another translation of Li Po's poem The Ballad Of Ch'ang-Kan (The Sailor's Wife) the first part of which was translated as The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter, by Pound.
I was very pleased to find the second part of this beautiful poem here. Although there is no unanimity amongst scholars that it really is by Li Po, it perfectly completes the first part and Cooper's notes here are very illuminating, especially as regards place names on the Yangtze River.
This excellent book concludes with a list of titles and an index of first lines, including poems by other poets like Liang Wu-ti, Wang Wei and Li Shang-yin that are discussed in the introduction.
The book has a very detailed 100-page introduction, almost amzingly good, that covers a large amount of historical and biographical ground; and introduces some of the formal charatceristics of Chinese poetry.
I can't comment on the fidelity of the translations to the Chinese, but they certainly read well in English. They at least give me the sense that this is poetry of importance. Li Po and Tu Fu are translated in equal amounts, and most poems are followed by a commenary (sometimes extending to two pages in length). I have found these very useful. Chinese poetry seems so different to English that I have felt unable to understand it at all when the words alone are translated (as, for example, in the old Penguin book of Chinese Verse): all that I am able to get out of these is a sense of picturesqueness. The literary background (and biographical, in Tu Fu's case) has added to my understanding and enjoyment of the poems.
I had been introduced to Chinese poetry (perhaps like many English poetry readers) by Ezra Pound's volume 'Cathay' (included in full in his Collected Shorter Poems and his Selected Poems, published by Faber), in which he poemizes translations made by Ernest Fellanosa. Two of the poems of Tu Fu's Pound includes in Cathay (what he titles as 'Jewelled Stairs Grievance' and 'The River Merchant's Wife: a Letter') are included, in Cooper's translation, here.
This book also contains reproducions of the texts of certain of the poems in the Chinese, written in different calligraphic styles.
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