Lucas Klein translating Li Shangyin

Untitled (first of four)

I'll come is   empty talk   I'll go and then no trace
The moon slants   over the tower   the fifth clack of the bell

Dreams of   far separation   calls that are hard to recall
A letter rushed  through its writing   before the ink could be ground thick

The candle glow   half encircles   the golden halcyon
The musk wafts   partly permeating   embroidered hibiscuses

How Young Liu   resents   that Mount Penglai is so far
But I am cut off   by Mount Penglai   another ten thousand fold


Time to meet   is hard to find   and parting, too, is hard
The east wind   has no force   and a hundred flowers fail

Unless spring silkworms   reach their death   silk cannot be spun
When waxy candles   turn to ash   will tears begin to dry

In morning’s mirror   only worried   about her temples turning white
She recites at night   while I’m sure she feels   the chill glow of the moon

From this place   to Mount Penglai   is just a little road
Bluegreen bird   indulge me please   and spy a little glance


Yesterday   the Purple Maiden   Goddess went away
This morning   the bluegreen bird   should have come instead

But not allowed   any language   we are separate still
It is so rare   to be complete   it’s enough to sigh about

On the sixteenth   the wheel of the moon   and the toad’s shadow cracked
The ten and three   string pegs   a slanting line of geese

After the sound   of the morning bell   what else could there be?
With a smile she will lean   on the wall beside   the plum blossom tree

Translator Note: 

Li Shangyin is noted as being one of the most ambiguous and densely allusive poets in the Chinese tradition. In the words of one prominent American scholar of Chinese poetry, “much of his poetry is difficult, and some of it is impenetrably obscure.” As a result, he is one of the most written about poets in Chinese, but has only been graced with one monograph each in English and French.

In 1969, James Liu called Li Shangyin a Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet, but his difficulty means that he also fits translation into an aesthetic T. S. Eliot described as “more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”—especially because so much difficulty in contemporary poetry in English, from Ezra Pound to J. H. Prynne, can be tied to referencing China. And Chinese poets and readers since the eighties have cited Li Shangyin to defend contemporary writing against charges of being “obscure.”

But difficulty in poetry is not only linked to “the early years of the last century, when,” as Charles Bernstein put it, “a great deal of social dislocation precipitated the outbreak of 1912, one of the best-known epidemics of difficult poetry.” Stephen Owen notes that a “general distrust of poets and poetry seems to have increased in the second quarter of the ninth century,” leading to a period-style of difficulty and a sense that to “admire poetry, moreover, might be looked upon as a dangerous diversion from serious pursuits.” Li Shangyin’s poetry may not only stand in opposition to society today, in other words; it may have implied this opposition from something close to the beginning.

My translations aim to link the opposition to the social order that motivated these poems in the ninth century with an opposition to the social orders relevant to dense and allusive poetry today.

Li Shangyin 李商隱

Li Shangyin 李商隱 (c. 813 – 858) was a poet of the late Tang dynasty (618 – 907) whose work defined the period style as allusive, sensuous, and hermetic. New Directions will publish Derangements of My Contemporaries, a translation of his prose lists by Chloe Garcia Roberts, in 2014.

Lucas Klein

Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, CLEAR, and PMLA, as well as from Fordham, Black Widow, and New Directions presses. Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, his translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan 西川 won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry (see He is also translating seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.