I’ve read a lot of Li Po (increasingly now spelled as Li Bai), the great Tang-era (8th-century) Chinese poet, famous in the West for inspiring translations by Pound that are seen as central to the latter poet’s forging of Imagism. For me, Sam Hamill’s translations are still the best, and I’ve also read versions by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley, Red Pine, Witter Bynner, James Cryer, and probably others here and there, and I should credit John Balaban for introducing me to Li Po in a serious way. Just now, I’ve read J. P. Seaton’s Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po (Shambhala, 2012). With translation, I do think it’s always a good idea to explore a variety of different visions of the original poet. I do not read Classical Chinese, so I have to rely on many others in order to get some “real” (or at least more approximate) sense of the primary texts. Seaton’s vision, it seems to me, is idiosyncratic but interesting.
Where I appreciate Hamill for trying to approximate Li Po’s
form in a serious way (stripped-down, formal, haiku-like short lines, quatrains
for the most part, à la many of the originals), Seaton has added on numerous
extra lines in many of the poems in this volume, in order to pack in as many of
the different shades of meaning as he can.
He has clearly gone for content over form. I think this is worth noting because, in many respects,
on a basic level, Li Po’s form is inherently part of his meaning. But then, translation is always going to turn
it into something else anyway, and so Seaton has apparently decided why not
just forget about his form on the page (often, anyway) and do something different.
For an extreme example, in regard to his second version of
“Thoughts of a Quiet Night” (given in the Appendix, in which he details his
translation process), Seaton writes, “There are plenty of Chinese poems that
are practically photographic: these translate beautifully almost word for word.
. . . But there are other kinds of poems . . . that I believe require [his emphasis] a freer method to
become real poems in English. I hope
more translators will dare to try to make such translations when they find such
poems” (223). The resulting version is
nine lines, where the original is a mere four five-character lines. Granted, Chinese and English are vastly
differently, but here Seaton has seemingly opted not to make choices based on
form, and instead has included almost every possible reading of a given line or
character. I can’t say this is wrong or
bad, and in fact I’m glad for the opportunity for the increased multiplicity of meanings,
but I guess I’m saying that I also appreciate that photographic quality in much of
Li Po’s work. To be fair, Seaton’s first
version of the poem is closer to the original in that it too is four lines and
rather “imagistic” (though Seaton calls it a “compromise” — what translation
isn’t a compromise?).
The question of where to draw the line, to balance some kind
of formal approximation of the original with concern for getting the full
meaning in there no matter what, is of course part of the fun of translation. In often opting for the latter approach,
Seaton’s versions make for a unique take on Li Po. In many instances, he comes off as a
quasi-Beat poet, conversational, informal, overtly demotic. My understanding of the original work, though, is that
Li Po often worked in more traditional modes (many consciously composed in the
“old style”). But again, his formal
poetry was loaded with oblique references and subtle double-entendres that
often subverted the tradition that he took from.
So, I can appreciate a need for Seaton’s approach in order
to round out our view of Li Po. One
thing I found to be quite distracting, however, was Seaton’s propensity to employ
italics for emphasis in the poems, as if telling us exactly how the given poem
should sound, as if Li Po himself was
standing before us reading it out loud at an open-mic night. While I imagine that some of these poems would
have been read out loud, for the most part, however, given their obvious
orthographic nature, they more often seem (to me) to inhabit the page. Li Po is highly concerned with line length
and structural balance (his poems tend to create nice little calligraphic
squares), and many of the aforementioned shades of meaning are derived from the
visual qualities of the ideograms. While
his approach may be philosophically informed by a Taoist spontaneity, and of
course he loved his wine, I don’t see him as the primarily oral poet that we often
That said, I have nothing against open-mic nights — love
them in many ways, in fact, and have been part of many — and so while the Li Po
of this book sometimes departed from my own vision of him, I still liked reading it and engaging with Seaton’s.
On top of that, there were a number of poems here previously
untranslated into English that I was thus reading for the first time. I liked the foregrounding of Li Po’s own major
poetic influence, T’ao Ch’ien, whom the poet references in many of his works,
but discussion of whom is seemingly relatively rare. I also liked that Seaton included a couple of
Li Po’s longer, ecstatic, dream-vision poems.
Furthermore, I was willing to go along with his division of the work
into five themed sections: drinking, friendship, philosophy/spirituality,
political protest/commentary, and travel. Usually,
I would hope for a chronological approach, but since the dates of most of the
poems are unclear, this made sense. So,
Seaton’s volume is ultimately an enjoyable one, perhaps sometimes even more
enjoyable for the at-times arguable decisions he makes and which the
knowledgeable reader must grapple with.
In any case, Li Po’s voice, one clear strain of it, comes through inevitably