In the lives of poets, as in the lives of most other people, there has been a great change of consciousness worldwide over the last three or four decades. We have gone from a contest between capitalist West and communist East (with an ill-defined “third world” bending this way and that in the background); to the apparent dominance of capitalism and the market, even in officially “communist” China (with the rumblings of nationalist particularities in the background, especially in the Muslim world). We are also aware of how different cultural exchanges have become in the age of the internet, high-speed communication and a pervasive and internationally-marketed “pop culture”. With varying degrees of approval and disapproval, and with varying and competing definitions, terms like multiculturalism and globalism are now tossed around.
The debate over the “universality” of literature – including poetry – is not a new one, but it becomes more acute in this new global context. By definition, poetry is language, but languages are not universal. Traditionally, the universal was seen to be best expressed in the particular – hence, a poem “understood” worldwide was nevertheless rooted in a particular language and culture, and much of even the most “universal” poem was always untranslatable for those outside that particular language and culture.How are poets, especially avant-garde poets, responding when they are now – like nearly everybody else – also wired in to an international ‘global’ culture?
On his blog at Jacket2 Charles Bernstein has posted Yunte Huang’s 黃運特introduction to his 1997 book SHI: A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry. Huang has since become one of the foremost figures in Chinese – American literary studies, translating Ezra Pound and Michael Palmer into Chinese, and writing the scholarly books Transpacific Imaginations and Transpacific Displacement, as well as the recent Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History. Here’s how Huang’s intro to SHI begins:
This book is not an attempt to grasp the “essence” of Chinese poetry, nor is it an endeavor to produce an over-polished version of English that claims aesthetic superiority over other works in the same field. It grapples rather with the nature of translation and poetry, and explores poetic issues from the perspective of translation and translation issues from the perspective of poetry. Looking from such a vantage point, translation is no longer able to hide itself in our blind spot; instead, the often-invisible face of translation is being brought to the foreground of poetic texture and the traces of translation’s needle work are being exposed to the reader’s view. With its agenda hidden, translation is too often a handyman for the metaphysical, mystical, or universal notion of poetry. When emerging from obscurity, translation becomes an ally with poetic material and enacts the wordness of the words. And this book strives to strengthen the alliance between translation and poetry through various textual and conceptual means that I will discuss now.
Over at his Jacket2-hosted blog, Charles Bernstein has posted Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s commentary on Jerome Rothenberg‘s anthologies, particularly Technicians of the Sacred. I’ve offered my criticisms of anthologies, particularly anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry, but I wanted to post Livon-Grosman’s points about the place of translation in Rothenberg’s anthologies, as a way of pointing to what else might be possible with anthologies–and with translations–even when not dealing with broad samples selecting from many writers, but with single-author collections, such as for instance soemone like Xi Chuan:
For an anthology that recovers, makes visible, and associate texts that were never seen before together, Technicians is less concerned with the search for an origin or the construction of a genealogy than with a practice. It is the search for a “know how,” for the techné that is anticipated in the title, that would make possible to read multiple texts not only together but in conjunction by way of those hinges that Jerry created. It does so by reconnecting Dadaist and Maori poetry and bringing together for the first time poets such as Lorca and Klebnikov for whom translation is one more way of writing. In fact, translation is for this anthology the meeting point of theory and practice where the way we read the poems is also the way we write the anthology and by doing so it retrieves a use value without ever loosing its metaphysical value. This is crucial because it would be tempting to confuse collecting with accumulating but what prevents this from happening is precisely the techné that shows that the sacred is always material, that there is no separation. Translation is for this anthology what supports its view of poetry as synchronic coexistence that frees us in the reading of the poems, among other things, of national boundaries.
Poetry translator and scholar Jacob Edmond has a new blog to promote his forthcoming book, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (forthcoming from Fordham University Press). Using Walter Benjamin‘s take on Baudelaire and flânerie to take a new look at World Literature, Edmond reads Chinese poets Yang Lian 楊煉 and Bei Dao 北島, Russian poets Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Dmitri Prigov, and Americans Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian. The blog, and especially the book, both promise to be fascinating reads.
While Xi Chuan has less to do with exile, often central to critical discussions of Bei Dao and Yang Lian, I’m sure that Common Strangeness, and common strangenesses, will also be helpful in providing tools to understand both the Chinese and international aspects of the writing of Xi Chuan.
Writing from Wuhan 武汉, where we’ve just wrapped up the CAAP conference titled and celebration of Marjorie Perloff‘s 80th birthday, with keynote speakers Charles Bernstein, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Chung Ling 鍾玲 (who translated two books of classical Chinese poetry with Kenneth Rexroth in the ’70s).
I spoke on the sociology of Chinese poetry translation in English (here’s the outline of the program from Bernstein’s blog), but amidst all the impressive talks and presentations, the most valuable part of any conference will always the conversations and connections made in lobbies and over meals.