Classical Chinese is an intrinsically interesting language. It refers to the written language of the premodern Chinese tradition and covers a period of some 2500 years (500 BCE~1920 CE) … It served as the shared language of the elites in premodern China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Knowledge of classical Chinese opens you up to new worlds. It represents the human experience of something like 1/5 of the people who ever walked the earth.More practically speaking, knowledge of classical Chinese will also greatly improve your modern Chinese. The two are distinct languages (at least, by any meaningful definition of “language”), but the modern Chinese languages grew out of their classical ancestor and still bear its imprint. Most of the set phrases (chengyu 成語) that mark one’s speech as refined in modern Chinese are summaries of or quotations from classical sources and therefore obey classical structures. Many of the puzzling usages in formal, written Mandarin (the kind used in newspapers) make perfect sense with a basic knowledge of classical Chinese.
Narrative Poem, Yang Lian’s most personal work to date, is built around a series of family photographs, the first of which was taken on the day when he was born, on 22 February 1955, and the last of which dates from the time he spent undergoing ‘re-education through labour’ – and digging graves – during the mid-1970s.
The poetry ranges backward and forward in time, covering his childhood and youth, his first period of exile in New Zealand, and his subsequent adventures and travels in and around Europe and elsewhere.
In ‘this unseen structure written by a ghost’ Yang Lian weaves together lived experience with meditations on time, consciousness, history, language, memory and desire, in a search for new/old ways of speaking, thinking and living.
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The tenth anniversary issue of Almost Island is now out, featuring sections of my translation of “Taj Mahal Tears” 泰姬陵之泪 by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河–alongside new work by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, John Robert Lee, Régis Bonvicino, and Valerie Mejer Caso. The editors write:
“Taj Mahal Tears” was produced from a visit by Chinese poets to India for the Almost Island Dialogues in 2009. The singular poet Ouyang Jianghe composes this poem from a confluence of streams – those of history, geography, primal emotion, and over all this the almost aerial gaze of a poet-philosopher.
Here is an excerpt:
The tears of 1632 still flow in 2009.
From a pillar of tears a Mughal prince
stands up, the form of a woman appearing in stone.
Tears flow into stone, chiseling through, reticulating,
still flowing. The mutable master of rivers and mountains, tears flow state coffers
empty, flow time itself to its terminus.
Weapons flow past with no sight of warriors.
Sitars flow past without sound of strings.
Dāru in hand, yet drunkenness flows away from the body of the drinker.
Gold, utensils, a dance of arsenic and antimony, flowing away all the same.
And memory and amnesia, and the body’s mixed emotions, nothing can suffer their flowing.
Click the image above to read the selection.
The Poetry Foundation has published “Bei Dao’s Beijing: The eminent Chinese poet on exile and his native city,” Julian Gewirtz’s review of City Gate, Open Up, the newly published memoirs of Bei Dao 北岛, translated by Jeffrey Yang. The review also weaves in decades of Bei Dao’s poetry, creating a compelling narrative of his development and longstanding interests. It ends:
Faced with the weight of history and the force of politics, Bei Dao’s struggle to “refute the Beijing of today” and “rebuild” his Beijing ultimately—perhaps inevitably—proves unattainable in either poetry or prose. He writes in his memoir, “This long-consuming task of rebuilding and reconstruction—I feel it’s almost impossible to achieve.” Yet this does not undermine the value of the attempt. In the 1994 interview, he elaborated on this point: “On the one hand poetry is useless. It can’t change the world materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human existence… [and] what makes human beings human.” His yearning for a lost Beijing might fit the same rubric: a desire at once “useless,” “impossible,” and intensely human. “Writing is a renaming of the world,” he has said, and his memoir, like his poetry, is fundamentally an act of “renaming.” In a recent poem, “Black Map” (translated by Weinberger), Bei Dao imagines a final salute to his lost city:
toast your lamplights
let my white hair lead
the way through the black map
as though a storm were taking you to fly
shuts: O the bright moon
I go home—reunions
are one less
fewer than goodbyes
Click the image above for the full review.
The current issue of Stand magazine features an interview with Chinese poetry translators Eleanor Goodman, Canaan Morse, and Heather Inwood–and the translations they’ve curated for the issue. In answer to the question “What kind of poetry translates best and is any simply ‘untranslatable’?” Morse writes:
CM: Let’s not wrongly ascribe agency here. Poetry doesn’t translate; translators translate. Inspired, dedicated translators translate best. No poetry is untranslatable as such, except for the mountain of government-sponsored, sycophantic screed that is literally too painful to translate.
Click the link above for the full interview.
Issue three of the literary journal Seedings, edited by Jerrold Shiroma, is now out, featuring sections of my translation of “Taj Mahal Tears” 泰姬陵之泪 by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河–alongside new work by Will Alexander, Marry Oppen, Matt Turner, Elizabeth Willis, Osip Mandelstam, Michael Palmer, and more!
Poetry does not have an identity of its own, its prajñā and insight
are polyphonic, beginning in two, exerted from other objects.
…………….The gods and the departed face off
like the narcissus, intoning the original poem’s splendor
and its fragrance. Tears extract themselves from polysemy,
elapsing and simultaneously creating their boundaries
……………. and plasticity,
because the tears of poetry’s minstrelsy flow from a statue,
within which flow the materials of consciousness,
e.g., the crystals in the nightingale’s throat,
…………….those tiny metals.
But in rural India, why is the peacock’s cry choked up,
why does the history of words again become a history of dust?
Click the image above to download the full .pdf of the issue.
In “A Poet Who Survived Mao,” Wenguang Huang reviews City Gate, Open Up 城门开, the new memoir by Bei Dao 北岛, for the Wall Street Journal. Huang writes:
In 18 essays, crafted with poetic precision and enriched by Jeffrey Yang’s assiduous translation, Bei Dao depicts a cast of memorable characters with humor and insight: a tenacious family nanny always on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities; a talented schoolmate who sneaked across the border to Burma to join guerrilla forces; and the author’s father, a former government propaganda official and a moody authoritarian at home. Bei Dao devotes a long chapter to the universal theme of a troubled father-son relationship.
“City Gate, Open Up” made me want to retrieve my old college journal filled with the poet’s quotable stanzas. When I called my family back in China, however, I found out that it had been tossed out long ago. “There’s no room for old stuff,” a family member said indifferently. That now seems to be the national slogan. It only makes Bei Dao’s book more poignant.
Click on the image for the full review.
Similar to the way the industrial revolution in England enforced a whole new concept of time as it severed workers from seasonal rhythms, so these poets speak of disrupted menstrual cycles, the blurring of night and day and the sense of unbelonging, where both countryside and city are rendered uninhabitable (several refer to themselves as “lame ducks,” maimed and unable to complete their journey back home). Of course, they are not the only ones concerned with the spiritual vacuum of China’s brutish capitalist economy or the devastating destruction of the environment, but what makes their eco-poetry so vital is that they are not writing from a distance, but at the coalface.
They work hellish hours without job security, drink water from rivers they see dumped with pollutants and chemicals, inhale air fouled by poisonous gases. They risk injury from merciless, vampiric machines that consume not only their youth, but their body parts (in 2005 there were an estimated 40,000 incidents of severed fingers each year alone in China’s southern economic zones). And they find the time outside of the 14-hour shifts and the space in their crowded dorm rooms to engage, to write about their lives and publish it online using a basic cell phone… This confluence of China’s industrialization with easy internet access has created an unprecedented opportunity in the history of working class literature.
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Red Pine (Bill Porter) speaks with Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer and author James Lenfestey about poetry, translation, and how he got his name.
In a piece titled “A Poem of Shame: In the Words of China’s Workers” published at Hyperallergic, Matt Turner gives his take on Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and translated by Eleanor Goodman. He explains,
In 1923, not long after returning from working as a correspondent in Moscow, becoming the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and translating “The Internationale” for the first time into Chinese, Qu Qiubai wrote the poem “Iron Flower” (which I’ve translated below). It was written at an odd moment in CCP history: a literati like Qu could accomplish all he did politically and write modernist poetry, as much about the revolution as about signifying a new kind of beauty.
I’m not of a soft and smooth nature,
I’m not in the midst of glam and grace;
inside this smoke-filled factory,
forging my iron flower, fire surges.
Iron flower not receiving the warmth of sunlight,
iron flower not getting the solace of moonlight;
the unifying gale of fire in the furnace,
it cracks to burst the pistils into flame.
That place’s sound of hammers is dull,
that place’s sound of metal is staccato;
like a copper pine whipping the hard wind,
I’ve fallen in love, and can’t bear desertion.
This isn’t a fan dance, lightly circling across the floor —
but wherever you look are callouses — strong hands.
The inextinguishable flame burns in the factory,
and shines on my resolute and bold chest.
I billow labor’s rage in the iron furnace,
I envision, envision the Great Community,
and drunkenly belt out a song… the masses!
Forging my iron flower, fire surges.
… A volume of similar indictments, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets. Their poetry ranges from lyrical, like the above piece, to experimental (exemplified by another of Xu’s poems, a verbatim listing of a peanut butter production slip).
Poems are in verse, prose, and combinations thereof. Some tell stories, some list facts, some offer only fragments. The formal variety is on par with what you would get from any major anthology in the US (excepting spoken-word poetry).
The authors are not members of literary coteries, either. Aside from being poets, all they have in common is that they are migrant laborers.
Click the image for the full review.