Straight from the Heavens: Li Bai's Poetry in Retrospect

Written by: Gerald Marchewka

Some may argue that Chinese poet Li Bai is beyond compare. With words that seem to fall straight from the heavens, he, perhaps like no other poet can make us both feel the earth and touch the sky.

Born during China's illustrious Tang Dynasty, Li Bai could in modern day terms be described as an eccentric outcast. A renowned member of the fringe of Chinese society, his poetry would subsequently show that as an extraordinary artist, he lived his life far beyond the range of any ordinary human experience.

As a composer of a large body of work that includes contemplations on the nature of human existence, the natural unity of the cosmos and the sheer exaltation of the human spirit his writing, is no doubt, characterized by a set of emotions that are responsible for, none other than, some of the worlds' most exquisite art.

An intricate set of emotions

Distinguished not only by picturesque landscapes, unique personalities and highly imaginative descriptions of the universe, his poetry often contains an underlying conflict that contrasts his natural tendency to revel in the grand glories of nature with profound feelings of both loneliness and despair.

With striking heartfelt images, Li Bai combines allusion, innuendo and sublime subtlety to create a dark depressing underworld that appears to lie just below the surface of his conscious thought. These images provide the texts with a texture and complexity that is rarely found in any other work. And at the same time they continue to intrigue an impressive number of people who are captivated by the nature of his unwonted, unparalleled bliss.

In "Alone Drinking under the Moon" for example, this fascinating dichotomy reaches a great climactic crescendo. In a conflicted, debauched state of drunkenness, Li Bai writes " I am alone...for the moon cannot drink...and my shadow goes emptily along with me...never saying a word.

On loneliness and despair

In just a few short lines, Li Bai, a great master of mystic revelry has created a unique poetic vision whereby we as readers are encouraged to experience both his abundant joy as well as his agonizing sorrow.

In a drunken state of merriment we can quite literally feel the great waves of pleasure pulsating through his veins. Yet at the same time he encourages us to yearn for something more.

Caught in a cross-fire between his own licentious behavior and a desire for spiritual transcendence, he describes a condition that few of us may ever really come to know.

Highly engrossed in the natural spirit of his own material existence, Li Bai can make us quiver with unequivocal bliss. Yet far removed from a prolonged state of euphoria, he is deeply entrenched in an empty bottomless pit.

In this classic poem Li Bai writes...

Amongst the flowers I am alone with my pot of wine drinking by myself;
then lifting my cup I asked the moon to drink with me,
its reflection and mine in the wine cup, just the three of us;
then I sigh for the moon cannot drink,
and my shadow goes emptily along with me never saying a word;
with no other friends here, I can but use these two for company;
in this time of happiness, I too must be happy with all around me;
then if I dance it is my shadow that dances along with me, while still not drunk,
I am glad to make the moon and shadow into friends,
but then when I have drunk too much we all part.
Yet these are friends I can count on,
these who have no emotion whatsoever;
I hope that one day we three will meet again, deep in the milky way.

A natural state of elation

To provide some perspective upon a mind that was often in a natural state of elation while it created poetry with a melancholic form of discontent, it is important to realize that Li Bai was no ordinary person.

Like a true Taoist priest he chose to concern himself with the natural beauty of the vast Chinese countryside. Away from the city and all that it represents, Li Bai created a personal philosophy that bordered upon religious fervor. And at the core of this philosophy was a profound appreciation for the natural world and all of the magical qualities that it seemed to possess.

Purportedly born upon the steppe in nearby Central Asia, Li Bai's family fled China to escape political persecution at the hands of Li Yun, the first emperor of the legendary Tang dynasty.

Upon resettling in Sichuan province years later, he began traveling the countryside producing a tremendous body of poetry. Tragically however, after living quite an exciting and adventurous life, he died as a result of the effects of chronic long term alcoholism. Folk stories even claim that in a highly demented state he drowned attempting to scoop the moon from the Yangtze river.

On rapture and revelry

While it would be easy to consider Li Bai's death a great calamity, his enormous talent and lasting legacy may certainly serve as some compensation for an untimely, and arguably, an unnecessary death. Often described as a great romantic poet, his style precedes the classic writers of th English genre by approximately one thousand years. And like other romantic poets that include Blake, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, Li Bai's work is characterized by an independent spirit that defies convention and expands the limits of human freedom.

Clearly influenced by Taoist conceptions of the universe as well as the flourishing art and culture of the highly celebrated Tang dynasty, Li Bai immersed himself in the spectacular scenery that surrounded him. Known for his unrestrained emotional style, his greatest attribute may have been his extraordinary ability to accentuate the natural beauty in his own native environment. In an era that preceded the development of modern technologies by centuries, Li Bai created lasting images so striking and colorful his place in Chinese art and culture can never be denied.

So we must ask ourselves how did this legendary figure become such a creative force? How did he come to write such celebrated words? And how did he develop into such an outstanding talent?

"Alone Drinking under the Moon", one of his most famous works certainly provides us with some important clues.

Reflections from a dark moonlit sky

With images that often linger deep within the human mind, Li Bai has introduced many important aspects of traditional Chinese culture within this fabled poem. The moon for example, in stark contrast to frequent representations in western literary traditions is often a symbol of hope, not an image of gloom and doom.

In Chinese culture, and in particular in numerous images in Li Bai's work, the moon provides light in the midst of darkness. In other Chinese literary representations it has been known to provide an aura of hope when the sky seems quite ominous and foreboding.

Influenced by ancient Chinese precepts that draw associations between entities with disparate qualities, the moon in conjunction with the sun provides natural harmony in a world that may, in the best of times, represent some sort of ideal cosmic design. Often portrayed as a feminine image, the moon is a celebrated icon that remains a focal point for not only Chinese conceptions of time, it is an important symbol for many other important traditions as well. Perhaps the most notable examples of this symbol are the many images that occur during Chinese New Year celebrations. During these festive times family ties are solidified and traditional ideas may be reinforced as well.

A unique poetic vision

With this in mind, it is quite fascinating to consider how this ancient symbol became such an important part of Li Bai's poetry. And perhaps even more interesting to consider how it became a part of the inner workings of his mind.

In the classic poem "Alone Drinking under the Moon" for example, the moon provides a light that shimmers across a dark forbidding sky. Below it however is the the pondering poet, highly immersed in his own deep reflection.

Then as he begins to sip his legendary wine, he catches a glimpse of himself the moon and his shadow. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of some sort of divine religious apparition, Li Bai appears to come to terms with both his spiritual side, as well as the ironic aspects of his own material existence.

In an assessment of his need for wholeness, harmony and friendship, he writes, "While still not drunk...I am glad to make the moon and shadow into friends...but when I have drunk too much we all part.

Champion for human freedom

To say that Li Bai, a man whose thoughts often seem marked by some sort of intense internal struggle, is a bit of an enigma, is certainly more than on the mark. Perhaps no other poet was so effective in creating such disparate emotion.

Drawn by his conflicting thoughts, readers of Li Bai are often intrigued by a blend of dissonance that creates a very unique poetic vision. And it is precisely this vision that has not only attracted readers for many centuries. It has caused them to examine the poet, his position and his extraordinary way of experiencing the world.

In an assessment of his extraordinary way of viewing the world, some may argue that it is the result of unconscious efforts to repress unwanted painful thoughts. Others may argue that the poet's art is merely the result of his failure to adjust to the mundane realities of an unhappy unfulfilled life.

When considering the nature and significance of Li Bai's poetry it may be helpful to acknowledge that while his writing often includes considerable fantasy, it is indeed true that beneath his words lies an artist with acute sensitivities to the nature of his everyday experiences. And it is with these acute sensitivities that he has created a transcendent reality that is based upon the sanctity of his own material existence.

Certainly a courageous poet and a bit of a political maverick as well, Li Bai's poetry often challenges various Chinese art forms that may be bound by the authoritarian roots of its' longstanding Confucian traditions. But like a modern-day rebel, he has forged his way into the annals of Chinese history by creating unparalleled poetry with a style and personality that is not only phenomenal, it is wild and wonderful as well.

Great romantic spirit

For those who are eager to delve into the depths of Li Bai's poetry such an endeavor will surely prove to be quite an adventurous trip. Embedded in his art is the soul of a lively free spirit with a writing style that seems to leap straight from the page.

Undoubtedly the product of a highly independent mind, Li Bai has taught us that while the parameters of human freedom may at times seem to be quite limited, creative alternatives are always available to those who place great faith in the natural spirit of their own physical sensations.

Admittedly a romantic point of view, which emphasizes the freedom of self expression, he has written in a style that is among the most captivating the world has ever known.

The unique elements within his texts include fascinating descriptions of the relationship between his internal and external world, as well as a true celebration of the great nobility of the common man. With a predilection for melancholy, and a profound interest in the remote, these stylistic features intensify the emotional content that is an essential part of the meaning of the poet's words.

It is for these reasons, and many others, that we, who appreciate the great significance of Li Bai's work, will continue to stand and applaud as it continues to send great ripples across our minds.

An uncommon character

Yet it is not only Li Bai's words that seem to have such a dramatic affect upon his readers, it is the unique character of his personality that always seems to shine right through. Biographers may argue that Li Bai's life upon the steppe may have shaped his burgeoning personality. Others may emphasize political factors, namely his family's persecution at the hands of Li Yun, the Tang dynasty's first emperor.

In any event, to the extent that Li Bai's poetry provides insight into the true nature of his personality, we find recurrent themes that color his most famous work. Among the most interesting of these themes is a passionate desire to achieve harmony in the form of warm comforting relationships. These relationships, sometimes sensual in nature, may at times, even include erotic overtones that stimulate the mind, adding strength, vitality and clarity to each of his legendary scenes.

Other images are quite abstract. Yet dripping with colorful hues and bright with fervid imagery, he can really reel you in. ---- Just think of the gleaming moon.

It resonates above us glowing in its perfect round symmetrical shape. Considered an object of beauty, stimulating ire joy and misery, he has created imagery that appeals to both our sense of aesthetics as well as our most base primal impulses.

Sipping deep red wine from a shining silver chalice, one can really begin to consider the joyful pleasure and endless possibilities that may be available to both woman and man.

The destiny and origin of a poet and his poetry

And like other divine work, we hope that much of Li Bai's poetry will arrive at its final destination, an unknown amorphous heaven.

For we, the chosen recipients of his illustrious words are truly grateful for his divine gifts and all that they have now come to represent.

And as great admirers of his poetry, we can only hope that more of us will begin to enjoy the profound meaning of his inspiration, as well as his heavenly heartfelt words.

To appreciate this poet, is to appreciate both Li Bai and the world. And at the risk of sounding quite callow, or perhaps even a bit naive---we must surely ask, is there any real reason to believe that anything, could possibly, begin to mean much more?

For Li Bai like no other can make us both feel the earth and touch the sky.

Gerald Marchewka is an American free lance writer currently living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Gerald Marchewka can be reached at geraldmarchewka@yahoo.com

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