"I call myself the Green Lotus Man;
I am a spirit exiled from the upper blue....."
This was Li Po (also transliterated as "Li Bai") speaking in verse "On Being Asked Who He Is (poem 41)", and as I first encountered this serene giant of Chinese poetry and culture who lived around thirteen hundred years ago and is ranked, at least among some Chinese, as one of the greatest poets of all time; I thought of the comparisons. By some historians, he is compared to English poetry greats such as Keats, and to the Chinese we are told he is known as one of the "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup". A man of diverse careers-at one time poet, Taoist, court poet, hunted outlaw, errant knight of Chinese chivalry, a frequenter of taverns, known to women, wishing to be better known to women, then wanderer, war refugee, exiled, given amnesty and allowed to return and pass away (in a variety of different ways according to legends).
As I read each translation, I wished my skill with the language itself were greater because here was a poet's verse that was the essence of his subject. The language itself is the essence of what it comes to represent through the pictographic relationships. Therefore, it is incredibly difficult to translate without oversimplification. The particular translation that I read was by Shigeyoshe Obata, first published in 1923 and now a part of the public domain. Mr. Obata made sure to state in his introduction that he had taken artistic liberties in the English translation due to these difficulties and the result is a magnificent rendering of verse usually unrhymed, and free verse oriented in its poetic explorations.
These poems are brief and depending on how they are viewed, several could fit to a page. Capturing the essence of the moment and the use of evocative imagery are traits given a high premium. Mr. Obata's translation does an excellent job of depicting for an English oriented audience the opportunity to partake in the spontaneous yet disciplined, control of Li Bai/Li Po's poetic achievements. Each poem has just the right balance of elements and so maintains itself perfectly even in translation. I look on Li Bai/Li Po's poems, as others look on gems, gold, or credit cards.