Li Po Writing Poetry

Li Po Writing Poetry

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Li Po

The vitality of a giant and the delicacy of a fairy prince. A freedom beyond most imaginations, and a rigorous artistic discipline that is, perhaps, even harder to imagine. No mere man could write so: so he is no man, but the spirit, the earthly presence, of the elemental power that is poetry.

Li Po is the god of poetry. He called himself only the god of wine, and refused on the grounds of his superiority to answer a call from his Emperor. His poetry shows us, almost always, a person who is outside the world we live in, looking even farther outward at things we can’t even imagine. He dances with the moon and his shadow, making a three that’s not a crowd. He meditates upon a mountain (p. 90) until he and the mountain are one. And yet he is the absolute master of the description of human intimacy. It seems almost impossible that the delicate picture of a young love growing into maturity in The Ballad of Ch’ang-kan” should have been written by a swashbuckling drunkard, and no less that that poet should also be in communication with Châ€u Yuan and his Fisherman. It’s more understandable to discover in Drinking with a Hermit Friend in the Mountains” that in a single excellent, immortal quatrain this man has repeated himself three times in a single line, and then stolen a line from a history book hes just been reading (or has memorized) almost word for word! There is, after all, the saying that all poets borrow, great poets steal.

WAYs – Li Po’s Jade Staircase Lament

WORDs – Li Po’s Looking in the Mirror and Writing What My Heart Finds There

1. “Go and Catch a Falling Star” - John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the devil's foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy's stinging,

Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,

Ride ten thousand days and nights,

Till age snow white hairs on thee,

Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,

All strange wonders that befell thee,

Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,

Such a pilgrimage were sweet

Yet do not, I would not go,

Though at next door we might meet

Though she were true, when you met her,

And last, till you write your letter,

False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Chinese Poetry: Li Po (701-762)

Among the top poets in Chinese history resides Li Po.

In pre-modern times, he raised poetry to levels of expressiveness and impact never before reached. Unlike other great Chinese poets such as Tu Fu, Li Po’s work gained immediate attention. The main reason for this is that Li Po was not an innovator he took the classic form, the form that was familiar, and raised it another level with an unparalleled grace and eloquence.

The main themes or characteristics of Li Po’s large body of work include playfulness, hyberbole, nature, and, something for which he is proverbial wine.

Born in Szechwan, Li Po spent his life constantly on the move. No one knows the reason why. He traveled extensively through eastern and central China. Despite his wanderlust, his poetry reveals little about the inner-workings of the poet himself. Around 742 he was appointed to a government office in the service of literature. A few years later, amidst slanderous gossip, he was exiled. Later, around 755, he came into the service of a prince, who was later accused of treason. This caused Li Po to be exiled for a second time. He was eventually pardoned and then continued on with his life of wandering.

What’s amazing is that throughout his tortuous life, Li Po’s poetry is free of anger, despair and bitterness. It presents itself as hopeful and calm. And it came from Li Po’s artistic vision, not so much his day-to-day life, of a continuous search for spiritual freedom and communion with nature.

At Autumn Cove, so many white monkeys,
bounding, leaping up like snowflakes in flight!
They coax and pull their young ones down from the branches
to drink and frolic with the water-borne moon.


My old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears in the blue-green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky.

Dousing clean a thousand old cares,
sticking it out through a hundred pots of wine,
a good night needing the best conversation,
a brilliant moon that will not let us sleep
drunk we lie down in empty hills,
heaven and earth our quilt and pillow.

Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme

Photograph by Tony Fischer

By Joe Linker

Florence showed me what she called the most famous of Chinese poems. She had made her own translation from a Chinese language newspaper clipping. The poem was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing of a man lifting up from a cot, the moon in his face and eyes, the moonlight coming through an open window and shining on the cot and a bedroom floor. Florence explained the poem to me, and wanted me to help her work on her translation of the poem into English, and we enjoyed sharing language lessons. For some time after I left the school, I kept in touch with Florence, but it’s been many years now. I used to hear from her every Christmas she would send me a long, handwritten letter in impeccable penmanship and flawless English grammar, and usage and sentence structure, and ask me to “correct” the writing for her.

I knew the Chinese poet, Li Po, who wrote the original poem. The poem has been variously translated to describe the speaker awake at night, or awakening, thinking, far from home, or perhaps far from the past, thus perhaps rethinking the past, or what we call remembering, or reflecting. The poem might suggest a bittersweet homesickness a longing. Usually, in translations, there’s moonlight and frost, one mistaken for the other in the night, and a mountain and a moon, a confused awakening at night with thoughts of home. Just as the moonlight is mistaken for frost, the setting is mistaken for home. Or perhaps there is no mistake. The speaker awakes, and then drops back to sleep and dreams of home. Florence said that most Chinese of her generation would recognize the poem. She invited me over to her place. She wanted to present me with a few books. The books were old and travelled. One was titled Chinese Phrase Book, published by the War Department and dated “December 10, 1943.” Another was titled Chinese Military Dictionary, also published by the War Department and dated “26 May 1944.” They were military vocabulary manuals, small enough for a foot soldier to carry in a pocket. The word poem was not included in either one.

I first met Li Po in a Chinese literature in translation class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. One of our texts was the first Evergreen edition (1967) of the 1965 Grove Press Anthology of Chinese Literature: from early times to the fourteenth century, edited by Cyril Birch. I still have this book, but Li Po’s poem about the moonlight and frost and thoughts of home is not included. It is included in Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (1947). The translation Payne includes of the Li Po poem is the only one I’m aware of that mentions a “couch,” and the speaker’s thoughts are of the “earth,” not explicitly of home. It’s possible to read that the speaker is sleeping outdoors.

Florence inspired me to begin writing a series of variations on the theme of Li Po’s poem. I called them “improvisations,” to give a more clear idea of the method of composition, and to suggest my interest in jazz and John Cage. I started the variations, or improvisations, after I left my full-time position at the school where I had met Florence for what the Chinese poet Han Shan called the “red dust” of business (see Gary Snyder, below). And during my red dust years, I worked the Li Po theme into over 100 variations, adding to and reworking the lot of them several times over the years. Florence was very interested at the time in my decision to leave teaching. More, she was concerned. She rode the bus over to my place to visit.

Business jobs often take would be poets on the road, on one-night- or long stays in motels, where the travelling businessperson might learn something new about night thoughts and remembrance.

I do not speak or read Chinese, but I remember a few of the insights Florence gave me into the character of Chinese writing. Poetry should be an everyday occurrence, not necessarily a scholarly effort or something for a classroom, but a habit of mind, like a simple melody one might hum to oneself while pulling weeds in the garden, or like random thoughts while drifting off to sleep, the kind that turn into dreams, where memory is mixed with the present, and ordinary happenings, like a blanket slipping off the bed, assume momentous images, like running up a beach to escape a giant wave.

This poetry as a habit of mind might resemble the kind of poetry the Chinese lived with when writing and reading poetry was commonplace. Poems were written, we learn from Gary Snyder’s translation of the Lu-ch’iu Yin preface to the poems of Han-shan, “…on bamboo, wood, stones and cliffs…on the walls of people’s houses.” Li Po is not included in either of Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese books. Rexroth seems to have preferred Tu Fu. The Li Po poem Florence taught me is included in Arthur Cooper’s Penguin Li Po and Tu Fu (1973). I also have in my library the Seaton and Cryer Li Po and Tu Fu: Bright Moon, Perching Bird (1987), which includes the Li Po poem Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992), which includes the poem under the name Li Bai, which may more closely approximate the Chinese pronunciation of Li Po’s name (and Seth’s is the only translation I’ve seen to use the word “hoarfrost”) and Eliot Weinberger’s The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003), which includes two translations of the Li Po poem, one by David Hinton and one by Ezra Pound.

Florence used the newspaper drawing to help explain Li Po’s poem to me, but it seemed that she read the drawing in almost the same way that she read the poem written in Chinese that appeared in the newspaper next to the drawing. The drawing may have been a kind of prose paraphrase of the poem’s Chinese characters. How many poems do we know whose essence can be depicted in a drawing? In any case, Li Po’s poem is clear and concise enough that most of the translations vary from one another only slightly and with little contradiction. This is not true of, for example, the Tu Fu poem also about night thoughts. Rexroth gives us, “My poems have made me famous…” Hinton, “…How will poems bring honor?” and Seth, the seemingly contradictory, “Letters have brought no fame.” But if we had only the drawing depicting the Li Po poem, our interpretation would be limited, a different kind of reading experience.

Florence’s reading suggested blending image and cultural artifact. Still, the experience is limited by distance, by the exercise of translation, by the evolution of vocabulary, by forgetfulness, and by the confusion created from metaphor. There are two urging metaphors in Li Po’s poem. One likens moonlight with frost the other compares a present setting with one absent or past. The relationship of the two metaphors was important to Florence’s reading. Fall term had just begun, and it was clear Florence was thinking of home in a variety of contexts. It was clear she had experienced Li Po’s poem.

How might today’s readers experience the Li Po poem in their own lives, rather than making a study of it as an example of Chinese literature? We might discuss the idea that informs the poem, perhaps an effective and efficient way to both experience and study poetry, as Kenneth Koch suggested in his book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, written from his experience teaching what he called “great” poetry to children in New York City schools. After getting the idea of the great poem, Koch’s students then wrote their own poem versions illustrating that idea. One idea that might be found in Li Po’s poem, of an awareness that comes to one in the present time of something experienced in the past, is surely a common occurrence, which might explain the popularity and longevity of Li Po’s poem. Another idea found in Li Po’s poem is the common experience of awakening and initially forgetting that we fell asleep not in our own bed. That we live in an age where many of us have neither the time nor the inclination to be reflective merely accentuates those times when, falling asleep away from home, we are awakened by the illumination of some foreign light, but in our sleepiness, we might easily confuse the light with some other light, or our current bed with some other bed.

My original poems that were variations and improvisations on Li Po’s poem were handwritten in a pocket size, blank book. I reached one hundred handwritten variations, and I started to type them up. I went to one hundred and one. One hundred and one seems excessive, but an excess I fancy Li Po would have approved. I’ve continued to make changes, mostly minor but some major, to date. But I have kept to the order of the original little notebook. The variations do not follow a literal chronology, for the memory knows no order, at least mine doesn’t. My strategy was to write in a way that would be accessible to the general reader, and while the variations are personal, most if not all of them should be as easy to reach as Li Po’s original poem. The Chinese poets were artists in drawing as well as in writing. I have had only to write yet I hope drawings are suggested. I used the word theme because I like the idea that thesis states and theme explores, and I’m more interested in exploration than statement. And so the variations continue to explore the theme Li Po set up so long ago and that Florence gave to me, long ago, now, also.

But we live in the Late Irony Age now, and the age is collapsing upon itself, and our quiet night thoughts may begin to assume more bizarre variations in forms of remembering home. I now imagine a graphic novel, “Li Po’s Restless Night,” yet another variation. Two characters now occupy the little cot. One, lifting up in the moonlight, in the first panel, says: “Near my bed moonlight spreads silver paint across the bare fir floor. I fall back to sleep, far from the warm dunes of home.”

In the second panel, both characters are now awake, the moon throwing the bed in shadowed relief, the drawing stark, black and white contrasts: “If you had not fallen asleep so drunk, you would know the difference between moonlight on the floor and frost in the grass.”

Third panel: “I awoke with a clear mind, wind through water. This would not have happened were I in my own, sober bed. Listen, it’s the waves rising down in the cove. No! It’s the train rattling across the trestle. No, still, it’s the cold wind in the pine grove.”

Fourth panel: “Go back to sleep. It was your own stupid snoring that awoke you. Quit thinking of home. It’s all gone now.”

Fifth panel: “I’m getting up and going for a walk. It’s what Li Po would have done.”

Sixth panel: “You are not Li Po, nor do you know the first thing about Li Po. Get back into bed before you go out and slip on the ice and crack your stupid skull.”

Seventh panel: “That’s not nice, and that’s not ice! That’s moonlight on the parchment.”

It is early evening, and I hike up into the dunes above the beach that reminds me of yet another time long ago. The surf seen from the silence of the dunes curls over a few surfers still in the water in the evening glass off. What’s become of my brothers and sisters? The house is empty without them. With a flop swish, the blue waves fall below the silence of the dunes. In the back yard, a lost moon throws figures into shadows. Two figures are playing a chess game. A Ping-Pong ball clips and clops back and forth across a net. A plastic ball shuffles high up into a tree. And what of my father, cactus, and my mother, twisted cypress shadow, alone on a hill in California, the sun falling now before them? These images appear and reappear throughout the variations. Drinking beer in the golden air behind the tavern, near the dry creek bed, an old couple sits talking, in the shade of a blossoming plum tree.

Eighth panel: “Why a moon, anyway? And why just one?” Why not two, as I lie awake thinking of Li Po and Tu Fu, of Florence, Son House, and misconstrue.

About the Author:

Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.

The Selected Poems of Li Po

I don’t read a lot of poetry because I mostly don’t really get it, but occasionally something catches me. In this case, a quote in Civilization VI, when you receive the Great Writer Li Bai, an 8th century Chinese poet:

Flowers surround me, alone with my drink,
I pour for myself, no companion to join me.
I raise my glass and toast the full moon,
Who shall with my shadow make us three.

I liked it partly because Civ VI is narrated by Sean Bean and I could listen to him read anything, and partly I liked the simplicity, and partly that Li Bai mostly seems to write about wine. As a result I bought The Selected Poems of Li Po (the westernized name of Li Bai). They are beautiful. Simple and profound. And probably much deeper and more complex than I’m capable of appreciating.

As it happens, neither of the poems quoted in Civ VI were actually in this collection. This is from my favourite, On Hsieh T’iao’s Tower in Hsüan-Chou: A Farewell Dinner for Shu Yün:

But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.


II. 7. Ku Fēng , No. 6

III. 1. The Distant Parting

Long ago there were two queens [18] called Huang and Ying. And they stood on the shores of the Hsiao-hsiang, to the south of Lake Tung-t’ing. Their sorrow was deep as the waters of the Lake that go straight down a thousand miles. Dark clouds blackened the sun. Shōjō [19] howled in the mist and ghosts whistled in the rain. The queens said, “Though we speak of it we cannot mend it. High Heaven is secretly afraid to shine on our loyalty. [13] But the thunder crashes and bellows its anger, that while Yao and Shun are here they should also be crowning Yü. When a prince loses his servants, the dragon turns into a minnow. When power goes to slaves, mice change to tigers.

“Some say that Yao is shackled and hidden away, and that Shun has died in the fields.

“But the Nine Hills of Deceit stand there in a row, each like each and which of them covers the lonely bones of the Double-eyed One, our Master?”

So the royal ladies wept, standing amid yellow clouds. Their tears followed the winds and waves, that never return. And while they wept, they looked out into the distance and saw the deep mountain of Tsang-wu.

“The mountain of Tsang-wu shall fall and the waters of the Hsiang shall cease, sooner than the marks of our tears shall fade from these bamboo-leaves.”

[Of this poem and the “Szechwan Road” a critic has said: “You could recite them all day without growing tired of them.”]

III. 4. The Szechwan Road

Eheu! How dangerous, how high! It would be easier to climb to Heaven than to walk the Szechwan Road.

Since Ts’an Ts’ung and Yü Fu ruled the land, forty-eight thousand years had gone by and still no human foot had passed from Shu to the frontiers of Ch’in. To the west across T’ai-po Shan there was a bird-track, by which one could cross to the ridge of O-mi. But the earth of the hill crumbled and heroes [20] perished.

So afterwards they made sky ladders and hanging bridges. Above, high beacons of rock that turn back the chariot of the sun. Below, whirling eddies that meet the waves of the current and drive them away. Even the wings of the [14] yellow cranes cannot carry them across, and the monkeys grow weary of such climbing.

How the road curls in the pass of Green Mud!

With nine turns in a hundred steps it twists up the hills.

Clutching at Orion, passing the Well Star, I look up and gasp. Then beating my breast sit and groan aloud.

I fear I shall never return from my westward wandering the way is steep and the rocks cannot be climbed.

Sometimes the voice of a bird calls among the ancient trees&mdasha male calling to its wife, up and down through the woods. Sometimes a nightingale sings to the moon, weary of empty hills.

It would be easier to climb to Heaven than to walk the Szechwan Road and those who hear the tale of it turn pale with fear.

Between the hill-tops and the sky there is not a cubit’s space. Withered pine-trees hang leaning over precipitous walls.

Flying waterfalls and rolling torrents mingle their din. Beating the cliffs and circling the rocks, they thunder in a thousand valleys.

Alas! O traveller, why did you come to so fearful a place? The Sword Gate is high and jagged. If one man stood in the Pass, he could hold it against ten thousand.

The guardian of the Pass leaps like a wolf on all who are not his kinsmen.

In the daytime one hides from ravening tigers and in the night from long serpents, that sharpen their fangs and lick blood, slaying men like grass.

They say the Embroidered City is a pleasant place, but I had rather be safe at home.

For it would be easier to climb to Heaven than to walk the Szechwan Road.

I turn my body and gaze longingly towards the West.

[When Li Po came to the capital and showed this poem to Ho Chih-ch’ang, Chih-ch’ang raised his eyebrows and [15] said: “Sir, you are not a man of this world. You must indeed be the genius of the star T’ai-po” (xxxiv. 36).]

III. 15. Fighting

III. 16. Drinking Song

III. 26. The Sun

IV. 19. On the Banks of Jo-yeh

IV. 24. Ch’ang-kan

VII. 4. River Song

XIII. 11. Sent to the Commissary Yüan of Ch’iao City, in Memory of Former Excursions

Do you remember how once at Lo-yang, Tung Tsao-ch’in built us a wine-tower south of the T’ien-ching Bridge?

With yellow gold and tallies of white jade we bought songs and laughter, and we were drunk month after month, with no thought of kings and princes, though among us were the wisest and bravest within the Four Seas, and men of high promotion. [33]

(But with you above all my heart was at no cross-purpose.) [34] Going round mountains and skirting lakes was as nothing to them. They poured out their hearts and minds, and held nothing back.

Then I went off to Huai-nan to pluck the laurel-branches, [35] and you stayed north of the Lo, sighing over thoughts and dreams.

We could not endure separation. We sought each other out and went on and on together, exploring the Fairy Castle. [36]

We followed the thirty-six bends of the twisting waters, and all along the streams a thousand different flowers were in bloom. We passed through ten thousand valleys, and in each we heard the voice of wind among the pines.

Then the Governor of Han-tung came out to meet us, on a silver saddle with tassels of gold that reached to the ground. And the Initiate of Tzŭ-yang [37] summoned us, blowing on his jade shēng. And Sennin music was made in the tower of Ts’an Hsia, [38] loud as the blended voices of phœnix and roc.

And the Governor of Han-tung, because his long sleeves would not keep still when the flutes called to him, rose and drunkenly danced. Then he brought his embroidered coat and covered me with it, and I slept with my head on his lap.

At the feast our spirits had soared to the Nine Heavens, but before evening we were scattered like stars or rain, flying away over hills and rivers to the frontier of Ch’u. I went back to my mountain to seek my old nest, and you, too, went home, crossing the Wei Bridge.

Then your father, who was brave as leopard or tiger, became Governor of Ping-chou [39] and put down the rebel bands. And in the fifth month he sent for me. I crossed the T’ai-hang Mountains and though it was hard going on the Sheep’s Gut Hills, I paid no heed to broken wheels.

When at last, far on into Winter, I got to the Northern Capital, [40] I was moved to see how much you cared for my reception and how little you cared for the cost&mdashamber cups and fine foods on a blue jade dish. You made me drunk and satisfied. I had no thought of returning.

Sometimes we went out towards the western corner of the City, to where waters like green jade flow round the temple of Shu Yü. [41] We launched our boat and sported on the stream, while flutes and drums sounded. The little waves were like dragon-scales, and the sedge-leaves were pale green. When it was our mood, we took girls with us [22] and gave ourselves to the moments that passed, forgetting that it would soon be over, like willow-flowers or snow. Rouged faces, flushed with drink, looked well in the sunset. Clear water a hundred feet deep reflected the faces of the singers&mdashsinging-girls delicate and graceful in the light of the young moon. And the girls sang again and again to make the gauze dresses dance. The clear wind blew the songs away into the empty sky: the sound coiled in the air like moving clouds in flight.

The pleasures of those times shall never again be met with. I went West to offer up a Ballad of Tall Willows, [42] but got no promotion at the Northern Gate and, white-headed, went back to the Eastern Hills.

Once we met at the Southern end of Wei Bridge, but scattered again to the north of the Tso Terrace.

And if you ask me how many are my regrets at this parting, I will tell you they come from me thick as the flowers that fall at Spring’s end.

But I cannot tell you all I feel I could not even if I went on talking for ever. So I call in the boy and make him kneel here and tie this up, and send it to you, a remembrance, from a thousand miles away.

XV. 2. A Dream of T’ien-mu Mountain

(Part of a Poem in Irregular Metre.)

On through the night I flew, high over the Mirror Lake. The lake-moon cast my shadow on the waves and travelled with me to the stream of Shan. The Lord Hsieh’s [43] lodging-place was still there. The blue waters rippled the cry of the apes was shrill. I shod my feet with the shoes of the Lord Hsieh and “climbed to Heaven on a ladder of dark clouds.” [44] Half-way up, I saw the unrisen [23] sun hiding behind the sea and heard the Cock of Heaven crowing in the sky. By a thousand broken paths I twisted and turned from crag to crag. My eyes grew dim. I clutched at the rocks, and all was dark.

The roaring of bears and the singing of dragons echoed amid the stones and streams. The darkness of deep woods made me afraid. I trembled at the storied cliffs.

The clouds hung dark, as though they would rain the air was dim with the spray of rushing waters.

Lightning flashed: thunder roared. Peaks and ridges tottered and broke. Suddenly the walls of the hollow where I stood sundered with a crash, and I looked down on a bottomless void of blue, where the sun and moon gleamed on a terrace of silver and gold.

A host of Beings descended&mdashCloud-spirits, whose coats were made of rainbow and the horses they rode on were the winds.

XV. 16. Parting with Friends at a Wineshop in Nanking

XV. 28. At Chiang-hsia, parting from Sung Chih-t’i

XX. 1. The White River at Nan-yang

XX. 1. The Clear Cold Spring

XX. 8. Going down Chung-nan Mountain and spending the Night drinking with the Hermit Tou-ssŭ

XXIII. 3. Drinking alone by Moonlight

XXIII. 9. In the Mountains on a Summer Day

XXIII. 10. Drinking together in the Mountains [51]

XXIII. 10. Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day

XXIII. 13. Self-Abandonment

XXV. 1. To Tan Ch’iu

XXX. 8. Clearing up at Dawn

[Many of the above poems have been translated before, in some cases by three or four different hands. But III. 4, III. 26, XV. 2, and XXIII. 9 are, so far as I know, translated for the first time.]

Blogis librorum. A blog about books. Rare books.

Unlike other literary forms that we can date to precise texts and time periods, it’s a challenge to pinpoint the earliest work of poetry. In one form or another, poetry has been around for thousands of years. However, we might think of the epic poem as the first instance of poetry, appearing as early as the 20th century B.C. Jumping hundreds of years ahead, we might turn, then, to the sonnet form and its early appearance in the 13th century. Before moving into more modern poetic forms, it’s important to consider Restoration poetry of the 17th century and the satirical verses of John Dryden and Alexander Pope.

When most of us think about poetry’s beginnings, we’re drawn to the work of notable Romantic poets or to the American fireside poets who responded to the work of those British writers, reusing old forms and creating new ones. Yet by the 20th and 21st centuries, Modernism and the waves of change brought about by world war also influenced poetry, resulting in works by poets with distinct voices who came to enjoy global circulation.

Where Does Poetry Begin? Discovering the Epic Poem

Who wrote the first work of poetry, and is it something that a collector can seek out in an antiquarian bookstore? The Epic of Gilgamesh often is cited as one of the earliest works of epic poetry, dating back to the 18th century B.C. Consisting of Sumerian poems, it’s a text that was discovered through many different Babylonian tablet versions during archaeological excavations. Other examples of early epic poems might include the Mahabarata and the Ramayana, the latter of which has become an important narrative in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology throughout regions of Asia.

A list of the most notable works of epic poetry—at least in the Western world—would have to include the Iliad and the Wouldn’t it be a crime to discuss the history of poetry without mentioning the creation of the sonnet form? While many of us simply learned to distinguish between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets in a high school or college English class, it’s important to know that these works are fundamental to the history of verse. Traditionally, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme varies depending upon whether you’re looking at an Italian or an English poem.

Petrarca, for whom the Petrarchan sonnet is named, is perhaps one of the most famous early writers of the sonnet. Following his work in the 14th century, other poets created variations of the sonnet, but it became best known as an English poetic form through the work of William Shakespeare in the 16th century. Where did the poetic form lead after the sonnet? Elizabethan poetry of the 1500s soon shifted into Restoration poetry and a marked turn away from the sonnet.

Collecting early examples of poetry might seem like a difficult challenge, but it turns out that locating different editions and translations of these works can make for an exciting challenge. In addition, the more we read poetry from the 18th century and earlier, the more likely we are to recognize those forms, themes, and images in modern and contemporary works.

Don’t you want to know more about how the epic poetry of Homer ultimately resulted in the new forms created by contemporary writers like T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney? Experimentation with the poetic form didn’t begin with 20th-century modernism, but rather in distinct variations on traditional forms that popped up hundreds of years prior.

Restoration Poetry and Satire

Following the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English Restoration period (from 1660-1689) saw the rise of literary elites, such as Alexander Pope, most famous for his work The Rape of the Lock (1712), carried on Dryden’s tradition of using poetry for comedic ends.

The Romantics and 19th-Century Poetry

Since we’re keeping this history brief, it’s difficult to provide any kind of full accounting of poetry in the 19th century. However, some important poets to consider include key Romantic poets such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. And naturally, if you’re familiar with American poetry in this period, you’ve come across some of the fireside poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Cullen Bryant.

In other circles, Walt Whitman revolutionized the 19th-century American spirit with his Leaves of Grass, while most of Emily Dickinson’s use of language fragments, hyphens, and em-dashes, written in the mid-to-late 1800s, were published only posthumously.

Into the 20th Century

Toward the turn of the 20th century as Whitman continued to revise his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote, “Of Modern Man I Sing,” ushering in a new period—and a variety of forms—for poetry. The newfangled, modernist language of Gertrude Stein gloriously overwhelmed American and expatriate readers who bought Tender Buttons in 1914. Those same readers were to be startled again a short time later by T.S. Eliot’s use of ancient languages and invocation of previous poetical texts in his famous poem, The Waste Land (1927).

Yet modernist poetry wasn’t limited to Americans living abroad. The seminal work of Claude McKay, an African American poet born in Jamaica who immigrated to the U.S. in 1912, carried the Caribbean region into his distinctly American poetic voice. Writing of war, racism, and memories of Jamaica, McKay authored notable poems such as “If We Must Die,” “The Lynching,” and “The Tropics in New York.”

The 20th century also witnessed a number of poets winning the Nobel Prize, from the United States to India. Rabindranath Tagore, who resisted colonial language intrusion and wrote solely in Bengali, won this esteemed award in 1913, followed by Irish poets like William Butler Yeats in 1923 and Seamus Heaney in 1995. If you’re collecting the work of some of these Nobel Laureates, you might look, for example, for Heaney’s Human Chain (2010), Electric Light (2001), or The Haw Lantern (1987). Other significant poets who won the Nobel Prize include Derek Walcott. Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hand (2000) or The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) would be interesting additions to any poetry collection.

Whether you're interested in first editions of modern and contemporary poetry signed by the authors, or earlier works in interesting new editions and translations, collecting poetry can provide you with many different text forms from various regions across the world. And reading poetry can help to expand your historical and political knowledge, too. Who knows — after reading the poetry of Kipling, Soyinka, and Walcott, you may just find yourself with a newfound appreciation for postcolonial literature and aesthetic forms of resistance.

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James Wright’s style changed dramatically in the early 1960s. He abandoned his stiffly formal verse for the stripped-down, meditative lyricism of The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968), which were more dependent on the emotional tenor of image than on metre, poetic diction, or rhyme. In books such as Figures of the Human (1964) and Rescue the Dead (1968), David Ignatow wrote brief but razor-sharp poems that made their effect through swiftness, deceptive simplicity, paradox, and personal immediacy. Another poet whose work ran the gamut from prosaic simplicity to Emersonian transcendence was A.R. Ammons. His short poems in Briefings (1971) were close to autobiographical jottings, small glimpses, and observations, but, like his longer poems, they turned the natural world into a source of vision. Like Ignatow, he made it a virtue to seem unliterary and found illumination in the pedestrian and the ordinary.

Both daily life and an exposure to French Surrealism helped inspire a group of New York poets, among them Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery. Whether O’Hara was jotting down a sequence of ordinary moments or paying tribute to film stars, his poems had a breathless immediacy that was distinctive and unique. Koch’s comic voice swung effortlessly from the trivial to the fantastic. Strongly influenced by Wallace Stevens, Ashbery’s ruminative poems can seem random, discursive, and enigmatic. Avoiding poetic colour, they do their work by suggestion and association, exploring the interface between experience and perception.

Other impressive poets of the postwar years included Elizabeth Bishop, whose precise, loving attention to objects was reminiscent of her early mentor, Marianne Moore. Though she avoided the confessional mode of her friend Lowell, her sense of place, her heartbreaking decorum, and her keen powers of observation gave her work a strong personal cast. In The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), James Merrill, previously a polished lyric poet, made his mandarin style the vehicle of a lighthearted personal epic, in which he, with the help of a Ouija board, called up the shades of all his dead friends, including the poet Auden. In a prolific career highlighted by such poems as Reflections on Espionage (1976), “Blue Wine” (1979), and Powers of Thirteen (1983), John Hollander, like Merrill, displayed enormous technical virtuosity. Richard Howard imagined witty monologues and dialogues for famous people of the past in poems collected in Untitled Subjects (1969) and Two-Part Inventions (1974).


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