Long before Robbie Burns was “sing(ing) the juice Scotch,” the ancients were raising a glass and — again Burns’ words — “a fracas/Bout vines and wines, and drunken Bacchus.” Homer declared that no poem was ever writ by a drinker of mere water. The implication being that a poet takes inspiration from Dionysus as well as from Apollo. While for Burns, a barley field held the key to inspiration, for others it could be found in a vineyard.
For Li Po, it was found (over and over again) in a rice field. Praising mountain, moon and river with equal fervor, Li seems to have been more taken with his beloved wine than with anything else. In his case, drink was not just a way of channeling the muse. Drink was the muse. And for Li Po the drink was wine. As one scholar put it, others may have drunk more of it, but no one wrote more about it.
For satisfaction in this life
taste pleasure to the limit,
And never let a goblet of gold
face the bright moon empty.
In this short passage, excerpted from one of his longer poems, Bring in the Wine, we find two of Li’s pet motifs: wine (naturally) and the moon. Many of his shorter poems strike a harmonious balance somewhere between haiku and sonnet. Combining the abstract precision of the former and the meatier complexity of the latter, Li Po wields his gift with aplomb.
Ballad of Youth
A young man of Five Barrows suburb
east of the Golden Market,
Silver saddle and white horse
cross through wind of spring.
When fallen flowers are trampled all under,
where is it he will Roam?
With a laugh he enters the tavern
of a lovely Turkish wench.
His longer poems are given to wandering meditation, as was the poet himself, who took to the road often and for extended periods. Gaining a reputation as a wandering poet, he seems to have cleared a path for future wanderers in the trade, most notably, the Japanese haiku master, Basho, whose seminal opus, The Narrow Road of the Interior, is essentially a Zen-like travelogue, part poetry, part prose. More recently, and closer to home, such wanderer poets as Vachel Lindsay and Jack Kerouac seem to have taken up the torch passed on all those years ago from the other side of the world.
Born in a western province of China at the beginning of the eighth century, during the height of the T’ang Dynasty, Li Po grew up in humble circumstances. Though soon his prodigious talent landed him among the powers that be. As court poet for the emperor, he enjoyed flavor-of-the-day status until, losing favor with others, jealous of his stature (and irked by his prodigious drinking), he was banished, yet again, to the open road from whence he’d come. And while he seemed content enough in the company of nobility, likewise, he was at ease with the poor. Generous to a fault, he tended to bestow his new-found wealth upon those in need. Still, he managed always to keep enough cash for his dearest friend of all, wine.
No matter where his wanderings took him, his faithful companion was ever at his side, and, invariably, in his belly. And whether or not the wine is to blame, legend has it that one evening, while out on the Yangtze, Li Po drowned, attempting to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water.