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li po | drinking in the east

Drinking In the East


A.D. 701-762


Waking in the gallery
at dawn, and told it’s snowing,

I raise the blinds and gaze into pure good fortune. Courtyard steps a bright mirage of distance,

kitchen smoke trails light through flurried skies, and the cold hangs jewels among whitened grasses.

Must be heaven’s immortals in a drunken frenzy
grabbing cloud and grinding it into white dust.


Surely, if heaven didn’t love wine,
there would be no Wine Star in heaven,

and if earth didn’t love wine, surely
there would be no Wine Spring on earth.

Heaven and earth have always loved wine,
so how could loving wine shame heaven?

I hear clear wine called enlightenment,
and they say murky wine is like wisdom:

once you drink enlightenment and wisdom,
why go searching for gods and immortals?

Three cups and I’ve plumbed the great Way,
a jarful and I’ve merged with occurrence

appearing of itself. Wine’s view is lived:
you can’t preach doctrine to the sober.

It’s April in Ch’ang-an, these thousand
blossoms making a brocade of daylight.

Who can bear spring’s lonely sorrows,
who face it without wine? It’s the only way.
Success or failure, life long or short:
our fate’s given by Changemaker at birth.

But a single cup evens out life and death,
our ten thousand concerns unfathomed,

and once I’m drunk, all heaven and earth
vanish, leaving me suddenly alone in bed,

forgetting that person I am even exists.
Of all our joys, this must be the deepest.


Facing wine, I missed night coming on
and falling blossoms filling my robes.

Drunk, I rise and wade the midstream moon,
birds soon gone, and people scarcer still.

From the Introduction to THE SELECTED POEMS BY LI PO translated by David Hinton:

“In 762, a sick Li Po went to visit his “cousin” Li Yang-ping, one of the great T’ang calligraphers. It was the last in a lifetime of journeys. In the end, tzu-jan is the form of loss. Li Po arrived at Li Yang-ping’s home with a confusion of rough drafts which, being desperately ill, he asked Li Yang-ping to edit and preserve. He had managed to keep only a few hundred of the several thousand poems he’d written, and these were in turn soon lost. Another collection, of unknown origin, was discovered and edited by Li Po’s friend, Wei Hao, but it too was lost. Little is known about the history of these texts, or what transformations they underwent, until they were combined in a printed edition hundreds of years later. Meanwhile, poems and manuscripts scat¬tered around the country were collected and edited, and many of them were presumably included in the com¬bined edition, though no one knows how many were actually written by Li Po. Of the several thousand poems he is said to have written, the collection we now have contains only about 1100, and only a portion of these is authentic. So the large majority of Li Po’s work was apparently lost, especially that written during the difficult years of the rebellion. (Had this work survived, Li Po might look a little more politically engaged than he now does.) Combined with the dubious authenticity of so many surviving poems and the lack of biographi¬cal information, this loss makes Li Po as much unknown as known, as much legend as history. It may be just as well, for the legend Li Po made of himself is more consistent and compelling if he remains, like the moon, an enduring mystery. Whatever actually happened at Li Yang-ping’s house in the winter of 762, Li Po died as the legend says he died: out drunk in a boat, he fell into a river and drowned trying to embrace the moon. —D.H.

[All poems and text from THE SELECTED POEMS OF LI PO, Translated by David Hinton, A New Directions Book, 1996, winner of the 1997 Harold Morton Landon Award.]


  1. Jackie

    Great musings from Li Po. I recently read Du Fu, transl. by David Young and was moved by it as well. Thanks Norb.

  2. Sandra McPherson

    Virtue Study: Happy Hour

    Once, reading of blossoms and
    besottedness of great
    haiku poets, I accepted
    their empty sake
    casks, good

    for bringing my own lavender and yarrow in—
    for they admired rice, approved moon,
    boated and fanned,
    and never spoiled spring
    nights with anything—

    apart from words trying to ferment.
    Their images patched
    the rent silk of stomach,
    liver, head. No mother’s milk
    was ever sipped

    from such light syllables,
    nor falling on the stairs
    in such transportive verse.
    My idols’

    gazes rolled
    up like pear blossoms
    in March, tolled round
    and round like hail in April.
    They did write it pretty

    once, those poets
    before car keys.
    Hope this prints up with the proper line breaks. It’s in Expectation Days (Illinois, 2007)

  3. Sandra McPherson

    I want to thank you for giving us an opportunity to converse with the ancients and greats. And also for introducing those of us who didn’t know about Jackie to her writing.

  4. GE Wamser

    The norbert your insights are the best thing on the worldwide web…

    no sky at all
    no earth at all
    then snow flakes fall…

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