About the poems of Li Po (701–762), there’s really not much new to say. Poetry in Chinese can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate, as the characters in which it is written have echoes and nuances that cannot be captured in anything resembling English poetry. An essay would be needed, but the essay form just isn’t a poem. So we’re stuck with translations that at least have a whiff of the spare particularities of the Chinese verse — translations such as today’s Poem of the Day, “In the Mountains on a Summer Day,” translated by Arthur Waley in 1919.
Li Po — whose name has been Romanized with such variants as Li Bo and Li Pai, although Li Bai seems to be the preferred form at present — lived in the Tang dynasty (c. 618–907) and was the central figure in what is often called the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.” He has an unassailable place in world literature, with around a thousand of his poems extant.
His translator, Arthur Waley (1889–1966), is a more curious figure, for those who study the tides of English poetry. He poured out translations and commentaries on whatever Asian works caught his eye, having a major influence on the likes of Ezra Pound, who transmitted his appreciation of Waley to innumerable other English poets.
Waley’s most-read works were probably “A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems” (1918), “Japanese Poetry: The Uta” (1919), “The Tale of Genji” (1926), and “Monkey” (1942), an abridged translation of the classic Chinese story, “Journey to the West.” By the 1950s, Waley was famous enough to be showered with awards, taken as a central figure of the literary world. Until gradually he wasn’t. Newer translations appeared, criticisms seemed costless to make, and a sneer at him as old-fashioned and imprecise took hold. Eventually, Waley seemed not much worth even mentioning.
Which is a shame, for he was a not untalented English poet, introducing his fellow English poets to an alien sensibility as successfully as Arthur Symons had introduced William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and many more to a new range of French poets with “The Symbolist Movement in Literature” (1899). In his 1919 translation of “In the Mountains on a Summer Day,” for example, Waley gave his readers a genuine sense of the juxtaposed observations that build a scene in Li Po’s poetry.
In the Mountains on a Summer Day
by Li Po (translated by Arthur Waley)
Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.
With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.