Translation Editor Lucas Klein‘s note: Brian Holton’s translations of Li Bai are new in at least three senses: he completed them recently; they will be new to readers familiar only with the Tang poet’s “greatest hits” or anthology pieces; and they embody a translational style that is new and energetic and vivacious in addition to being accurate and erudite.
Li Bai, as Holton points out in his note that begins this chapbook, is known in Chinese for his swashbuckling persona and his extensive knowledge of Daoism—yet in English he has been defined by quieter pieces about the moon, the stillness of looking at a mountain, a girl so shy she was called to a thousand times but never looked back, and a court lady who complained while uttering no direct reproach. In these poems, though, Li Bai is a hard-traveling man alert to the pangs of separation who has scoured his mental encyclopaedias to evoke the awe of mythical birds in flight.
And the translations? Enough has been written about translating premodern Chinese poetry as if there are only two ways to do it, the literary or the scholarly. Yes, many scholars’ versions are dull, and yes, many literary versions are full of mistakes and misrepresentations. Is either satisfying? With Holton we have someone with expert knowledge of classical Chinese—and thorough annotations, for the curious—who can also match the music of his range of reading in poetry for its own sake. With Holton’s Li Bai the bravado and the intellect both emerge as one.
In the rhapsody that ends this selection, the Seldom-Seen Bird says to the Great Roc, “I tread across the mountainous arteries of the earth, / I circle all around the starry net of the heavens. / Obscurity is my nest, / The void my arena. / I call on you to travel, / To soar with me.” Holton has said the same to Li Bai. And now we can soar with them.
by Brian Holton
Li Bai (701–762) is, by common consent, China’s best-loved poet.
He wrote with great bravura and, while not a great innovator in form or metre, is still much loved for his wit, his roguish charm, his swashbuckling, hard-drinking persona, his humorous fantasy, and his wide knowledge and deep understanding of Daoist esoterica, which he gained through years of study with the masters of his time.
We know little about the details of his life, but he was probably born in the north-west of China and was likely of Turkic origin, as his poems occasionally hint. It is possible his family were Silk Road merchants, and may have been quite well off, since he never seemed to have lacked money for drinking and roistering on his many travels. He also claimed to have been a travelling swordsman (wuxia 武俠, a kind of knight errant) in his youth.
Li Bai and his younger friend Du Fu stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries—and indeed most of the numerous poets who succeeded them—in the artless and spontaneous ease with which they disguise their vast technical skill in poetic composition. Just as Shakespeare and his contemporaries took the Italian sonnet and made it central to English language versification, Li Bai and Du Fu took shi (詩) poetry, a form previously used for occasional verse, and made of it a form that was malleable, musical, and capable of great grandeur and elegance. In doing so, they helped create a poetic genre that took its place at the very heart of imperial Chinese culture, a genre that remains vital and important to this day.
The work of Li Bai and Du Fu radically changed Chinese culture, and, unlike Du Fu, the value of whose magisterial and beautiful poetry was not recognised until long after his death, Li Bai’s work was not only popular within his lifetime, but has remained so ever since.
Thanks to Thomas Mazanec for discussing these poems and their translations with me.
Brian Holton 霍布恩 translates poetry and prose from modern and classical Chinese into English and Scots. He has published almost twenty books of Yang Lian’s work, most recently, Anniversary Snow (Shearsman Books, 2019), Venice Elegy (Edizioni Damocle, 2019), and Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe Books, 2017). His collection of classical poems in Scots, Staunin Ma Lane, was published by Shearsman Books in 2016, and his Hard Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds: Li Bai an Du Fu in Scots is forthcoming in Autumn 2021. Anniversary Snow won the inaugural Sarah Maguire Poetry Translation Prize in March 2021 and Hard Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds: Li Bai an Du Fu in Scots has been awarded a Scots Language Publication Grant 2021.
Holton regularly appears at conferences and literary festivals, and has lectured at universities in the UK, Europe, the USA, New Zealand, China, and elsewhere. He has also won prizes for his translations, and for his own original poetry. He sings and plays the music of the Scottish Borders, where he was born and still lives.