A Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Po (also known as Li Bai, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po, and Li T’ai-pai) was probably born in central Asia and grew up in Sichuan Province. He left home in 725 to wander through the Yangtze River Valley and write poetry. In 742 he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy by Emperor Xuanzong, though he was eventually expelled from court. He then served the Prince of Yun, who led a revolt after the An Lushan Rebellion of 755. Li Po was arrested for treason; after he was pardoned, he again wandered the Yangtze Valley. He was married four times and was friends with the poet Tu Fu.
Li Po wrote occasional verse and poems about his own life. His poetry is known for its clear imagery and conversational tone. His work influenced a number of 20th-century poets, including Ezra Pound and James Wright.
A Poem of Changgan
BY LI PO
My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch’ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.
…At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.
…Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch’u-t’ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.
…Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
BY LI PO
TRANSLATED BY EZRA POUND
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
Source: Personae (1990)
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
BY LI PO
TRANSLATED BY SAM HAMILL
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” translated by Sam Hamill from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., Rochester, New York.
Source: Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions Ltd., 2000)
Helene Johnson was born in Boston and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts. She never knew her father, and her mother was the child of former slaves. Johnson lived for a time at her grandfather’s house, as well as with two aunts, one of whom nicknamed her Helene. She attended Boston University and Columbia University. Her talents as a writer were noticed early when she won first prize in a short story contest sponsored by the Boston Chronicle. In the 1920s, she moved to New York City with her cousin Dorothy West, a novelist, and became part of the Harlem Renaissance. In his essay in the book The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Ronald Primeau described her work: “Helene Johnson … combines an expression of unquenchable desires with a realistic description of ghetto life and a discovery of the roots of her people.”
Johnson published many poems in small magazines during the 1920s and early 1930s, including the first and only issue of Fire!!, edited by Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent. Johnson’s work also appeared in journals such as Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and Vanity Fair and in later anthologies such as The Poetry of the Negro (1949), American Negro Poetry (1963), and Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (1976). Her last published poems appeared in the mid-1930s, in an issue of Challenge: A Literary Quarterly. Johnson married William Hubbell in 1933 and had one daughter, Abigail McGrath. Though Johnson continued to write, and her work appeared in anthologies, she never published original poetry again. She died in 1995.