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Monday, December 19, 2016

Spontaneous Verse - a poem for Yang Guifei

Part of the legend surrounding Li Bai, the Immortal Poet, is the way he often composed poems spontaneously,  sometimes when he was deep in his cups.  By some accounts, he ended up being expelled from the Tang court when one of his drunken compositions gave offense to the Emperor's favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.

But according to my friend Steve Zhang, Li Bai was not alone in this mode of composition - extemporaneous verse was an accepted part of Tang poetic practice; at their 8th century poetry slams, the Tang poets would routinely pass the bottle and take turns composing new stanzas of regulated verse. Whether some of their couplets had been composed previously and then merely recited later on is of course difficult if not impossible to say, then or now.  But in any event, the idea of spontaneous composition apparently represented something of an ideal in terms of the purity of self-expression that it enabled a poet to achieve, much as it still does today I might add, at least among free style rap artists and others (such as myself) inclined to the belief that the best poems are those that require the least revision.

A poem may write itself
Coming effortlessly
As in a dream unprompted or
Brought by wind and driving rain
Translating the entire world
Into its own pure stream

Or as a travel advisory
For Inauguration Day
La que esta en el medio -
Best look lively  
Ready to leap quickly
Out of the Wall Builder's way

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