Book Reviews - Winter 1993


Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry

Translated by Sam Hamill
Weatherhill: New York, 1993. 134 pp., $7.95 (paper).

J. P. Seaton

Palace Museum Collection, TaichungSAM HAMILL'S new book of translations of selected poems of China's two greatest poets, Endless River, pairs forty-five poems by Li Po with forty-five by his younger contemporary, Tu Fu. Hamill does more than simply paint paired portraits of these partners in a legendary friendship, however. With the same deft poetic touch that has brightened his previous Chinese translations (and recent translations from Japanese and Ancient Greek) he has brought to life two poets whose responses to the tumultuous world ofT'ang China may serve as a guide and a consolation for readers in this very similar world of ours.

As the subtitle of Hamill's book, A Friendship in Poetry, hints, the poems translated here can be read not only as a dialogue between the two poets but also as an exposition of the friendship offered to every human being by each of the poets, and by the translator himself. Both Li Po and Tu Fu see and say quite clearly that life is suffering. Both seek paths toward cessation of that suffering. That Li Po's path is strewn with wine jars and discarded lovers may make it a problematic one for some. Tu Fu's commitment to social justice and his passionate attachment to wife and family may be problematic for others. (A few wine jars are scattered there too.) The paradox of the friendship of Li Po and Tu Fu may be resolved in human terms with a few platitudes: opposites attract, younger men look to older men for mentoring or patronage, and sometimes find friendship instead or as well. But such a resolution demeans the men. Hamill's translations, uncluttered, graceful, always lucid and more than occasionally luminous, let the poets speak for themselves, and certainly for Hamill as well. The "irresponsible" Li Po is accepted as the spirit of poetry incarnate, while the earthbound Tu Fu is appreciated as the greatest (even perhaps the greatest possible) "human" poet. If you crave a conundrum, or a koan, after reading these poems consider whether Li Po is yin to Tu Fu's yang, or vice versa. The message they transmit across twelve centuries is one of an uncommonly full and balanced humanity.

As Hamill states in his introduction, the two poets spent very little time together, and among the extant poems of each there are more written to other poets than to each other. While highlighting a few pairs of poems written by one for the other, Hamill actually creates a dialogue by choosing pairs of poems that share themes and imagery. Moonlight—or is it Buddha-nature?—links "Mountain Drinking Song" to "Moonlit Night," while different approaches to social and political problems pair "Old-style Poem" and "The Thatched Hut." Reading the translator's mind to find the source of other linkages provides an additional source of enjoyment for the reader.

Hamill has chosen poems that come cleanly into English without notes. He has clearly identified as his target audience the increasing number of readers who are not entering totally new territory when they approach an Asian work of art. His efforts are truly free, in the best of senses, making poems in American English from the poems in the Chinese by judicious pruning and often inspired approximation. His rendering of Li Po's "Old Dust," which retains obvious allusions, is simply brilliant. In the same poet's "Seeing Off a Friend," where the essence of the poem is far more accessible without its allusions, Hamill simply deletes them. The latter poem is a delight in the original, but for a variety of technical reasons a real monster to render into American English. A version of the poem translated by this reviewer can be found in Francois Cheng's Chinese Poetic Writing. I prefer Hamill's.

There are other ways of handling both Li Po and Tu Fu in translation. David Hinton's Tu Fu (New Directions, 1989) might very well startle the reader who has seen the poet only through Hamill's eyes. James Cryer's Li Po, supported in its often gnomic sparsity by the extraordinary calligraphy of Mo Ji-yu (in Bright Moon, Perching Bird, Wesleyan, 1987), shows an aspect of Li Po's art that Hamill strives only occasionally to capture. For the reader who comes to Li Po and Tu Fu first through Endless River, the translator generously points toward those and other sources of further reading. Finally, and not least, Weatherhill's Inklings edition is a beautifully designed little book that includes a number of surprisingly high-quality reproductions of Chinese paintings. The price of the book seems to indicate that the publisher, too, is to be counted among the friends of these poets.

J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has published several volumes of Chinese poetry in translation.

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