Taking the Plunge with Li Bai: Tanka and Infinite Depth at the Surface

李白墓园 The Garment Tomb of Li Bai

Defeated by heat
We failed to reach your tombstone
West of Ma’anshan
We lacked your intense desire
To embrace the shining moon


The endless depth of both the natural world and the conscious mind meet in the images of the Tanka form, like a reflection of the moon on the surface of a dark lake that hints at both the depth of the sky and the water.

In his essay “Depth,” Tor Nørretranders writes: “It is not the informational surface of things but its informational depth that attracts our curiosity. It took a lot to bring it here before our eyes. It is not what is there but what used to be there that matters. Depth is about that.”

This honing down, crystallizing, is what poet John Mackenzie refers to as shoehorning—the process by which the poet forces his language to fit the self-imposed discipline of a particular form, in this case, Tanka: “I now had constraints coming from two directions–the tension between the syllable count and marrying of subject matter and image (which is further constrained by a tradition of using the image chosen to link the inner world of the poem’s speaker to an object or objects in the outer, so-called natural world…”

What is left is the orderly form of the poem, but as Nørretranders says, “Very orderly things like crystals are not complex. They are simple.” What initially catches our eye and ear in Tanka is the crystal clarity of its form, but it is the hidden depths, the process by which the crystal was produced that fascinates us.

Italo Calvino, in his essay entitled “Exactitude” from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, refers to the symbols of the crystal (self-organizing system) and the flame (order out of noise): “The contrasting images of flame and crystal are used to make visible the alternatives offered to biology, and from this pass on to the theories of language and the ability to learn.”

When the flame is refracted through the crystal, when the mind of poet succeeds in revealing itself through language and imagery, when the simple fossil of syllables hints at ancient life still evolving, it is only then that things begin to get interesting.

This is my one-hundredth post on this blog, the first one being a brief explanation of Tanka and why I write it.  One reader asked “Why explain? It sounds like an apology. Just say what you want to say,” but that is ranting, not poetry, and rants are all flame and no crystal. Lord knows I love a good rant as much as the next person, but it is the tension between simple surface and complex depth that attracts me as poet.

“Intellectual life is very much about the ability to distinguish between the shallow and the deep abstractions. You need to know if there is any depth before you make that headlong dive and jump into it,” says Nørretranders.

But depths can be dangerous and demand attention and dedication. In June of 2004, I was living in Nanjing, China. On a blisteringly hot Saturday morning we were up at 5:30 am to catch the 6:45 am bus to Ma’anshan, Anhui, about an hour or so Southwest of Nanjing.  Ma’anshan ‘s claim to fame is that it is close to the spot where Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai is believed to have died. Legend has it that he was drunk on a boat and, reaching out to touch the reflection of the moon on the water, he fell in and drowned. The body was never found, so the poet’s cap and cloak are buried on a mountainside just west of Ma’anshan as a memorial to him.

We were in Ma’anshan for the wedding of one of our classmates, a British lad, to a Chinese woman. The day got off to a rousing start. We were loaded into limos and driven to her parents’ house. Outside they were setting off roll after roll of firecrackers. We proceeded to pound on the door of the apartment, demanding that the bride be brought out. Inside they asked for money, which we slipped under the door in red envelopes. Much pounding, yelling and many red envelopes later, the front door was finally opened. But the bride was now locked in her own room and we had to repeat the whole process over again. Finally, that door was opened, thereupon he went in and, on bended knee, asked her to marry him.

Li Bai Garment Tomb Ma'anshan Anhui ChinaWe had several hours before the wedding banquet, to which over 550 guest were invited, so we decided to go see the Garment Tomb of Li Bai. Dressed in our formal wear we started up the hill in the 40+ degree weather. The whining soon started and we were forced to turn back, also being worried about being late for the banquet and insulting our host.

In the end we never saw the tomb, and the wedding of our classmate that began with such fanfare ended in divorce several years later. Unfulfilled goals, broken promises, memories, a cap and gown in an empty tomb, and a simple poem are all that remain. None of the back story is visible in the poem, not even Li Bai’s name, but the poem would not exist without both the legend and this personal history. That is what depth is all about.