I wanted a nice poem about summertime—something lighter than a lot of the fare I’ve offered in recent weeks. I’m gearing up for some WWI poetry in the weeks ahead, since we’re a few days from the centennial anniversaries of battles and death and such things, and I really thought I needed a little break myself (and perhaps you did too) before taking such a plunge. When you need a reliably cheerful poet—not a humorous poet like Ogden Nash or a silly poet like Edward Lear, but a truly optimistic, look on the bright side, life is good poet—where do you turn? I’m reminded of something Garrison Keillor once said (in a musical context) about the composer Johannes Brahms, one of Keillor’s favorites. He contrasts Brahms to a lot of other composers by noting that he’s not a dark, tortured artist—instead, Keillor says (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing, since I can’t find the quote) that Brahms is the kind of guy who thinks life feels good, and he just wants you to feel good too. For me, that kind of description could apply to a poet or two that I think of as reliable in their defense of the goodness of life, and probably chief among them is the classical Chinese poet, Li Bai (or Li Po), who more than twelve hundred years ago wrote the poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day” (this is the 1919 translation by Arthur Waley):
“Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.”
Bai, at least in translation, isn’t too interested in clever turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors, that sort of thing. He’s not out to plumb great depths or lay his soul bare. He wants you to slow down and breath deep. Here, he is in the mountains and that’s all he wants to capture for us. The stillness of the air that would cling to him a little if not for his gentle fanning. The very simple sense of surroundings—the wood is “green” but we see little else; the day must be warm enough for an open shirt and a removed cap but we feel little else—and of a man letting himself be for a while. There is a wind that “trickles”, which is an odd turn of phrase that I assume is Bai’s but of course may be the translator…even so, it’s not all that bizarre an image and I know the feeling, that suddenly cold breeze that does feel almost like a drop of ice water crawling along you. And that’s all.
There are probably dimensions we miss here either by not being able to read the original, or by not totally understanding the cultural context of life in eighth century China. But truthfully I don’t expect we miss all that much. Bai intends this to be a broadly identifiable human experience, I think, and certainly many of his other poems follow in that vein. On a hot day in the mountains, he knows that we would be like him—overcome enough by heat to enjoy some rest, fan ourselves, loosen our clothing, hot enough that our attention and our consciousness doesn’t ever really reach too far beyond the boundaries of our bodies. To read Li Bai is to become more mindful of everything there is on and in yourself, and less interested in the world too far out there. Your gaze travels to your immediate surroundings and not a distant horizon. If you’re in the wrong mood, he feels banal, naive, unambitious. But read him in the right mood, and he has a way of centering you, making you glad about life’s smallest wonders, like the pleasure of a feather fan or the subtle scent of pine in the air. Whether or not you need him this weekend, he’s here for you—and if you don’t need him today, he will be here for you tomorrow. Li Bai knows the foundation of the simplest human joys, after all, and he will wait there quite happily until you return.