STEEP TEA: Li Qingzhao

I read the poems of Li Qingzhao in the translation by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Li (1084 - c.1151) is "universally considered to be China's greatest woman poet," according to Lin Chung. "Her life was colorful and versatile: other than a great poet, she was a scholar of history and classics, a literary critic, an art collector, a specialist in bronze and stone inscriptions, a painter, a calligrapher and a political commentator." She is reputed to be "the greatest writer of t'zu poetry, a lyric verse form written to the popular tunes of the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279)."

Li was born into a well-known family of scholars and officials. Notably, her father was a member of Su Dongpo's literary circle. She was a precocious talent. When she was seventeen, she wrote two poems in competition with a poem by her father's friend. This female boldness was not acceptable to the society at large, but was encouraged by her father's unconventional friends. Living so close to political power, Li's life underwent ups and downs in accordance with the factional strife at court.

When she was eighteen, she married Zhao Mingcheng. They shared a happy married life that revolved around the study of the classics and the appreciation of poetry and fine art. When Zhao died of an illness, probably typhoid, on his way to a new official post, Li was heartbroken. Her t'zu poem "On Plum Blossoms," written to the tune "A Little Wild Goose," expresses her deeply felt grief. All is stale, cold and empty. "I have no words for my weary sorrow."

I hope some of the previous happiness and present grief comes through in my poem "Black Dragon Pool," written for a dear colleague who lost her daughter to a skiing accident. The title and the trope came from my first visit to China, when I first heard the awful news. The poem was one of the hardest ones that I have ever written. It was difficult to strike a balance between sympathy and presumption. Li's words - "I have no words for my weary sorrow" - were not only expressive of my colleague's state of mourning, but also indicative of the poverty of my poem.


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