Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Hearing Xi Chuan for the First Time


American poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis attended last week’s discussion at the MLA between Xi Chuan and Chris Lupke. The following excellent essay is her take on the event:

A Note on hearing Xi Chuan for the First Time

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

The poet Xi Chuan appeared at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association in Seattle in January 2012, in a question and answer session curated by Professor Christopher Lupke of Washington State University, interspersed with a reading by the poet (in Chinese) and by his translator Lucas Klein (in English). The event was very striking to me. There are various “paths” one can pick at this bazaar-like humanities conference, but as part of the “county fair” or “state fair” array, the path that leads the attendee to new information certainly counts for something. The session on Xi Chuan, in a solemn hall, was attended by a number of scholars and teachers with an interest in Asian literature, and of these, there were many Chinese speakers. There were also a few spare poets and folks committed to poetic culture. Among those, me.

The most interesting phenomenon of the occasion, at least to this particular “spare poet,” was the very polite and quiet resistance of some members of the audience to what they saw in Xi Chuan’s work as—here’s what I would call it—non-poetic (or anti-poetic, or un-poetic). That is, people challenged his lexicon (range of words, some quite colloquial) as brought forward by the translator; they challenged why this material is classified as poetry; they wanted (politely, etc.) to suggest that perhaps the poet had missed that he was writing in prose, or making short fiction, or working in a hybrid genre, but that he wasn’t really writing what they would call (in somewhat hushed tones), “poetry.” Or perhaps with a capital “P”: “Poetry.”  “Why,” one person asked, “is poetry the most appropriate mode in which to articulate your cultural critique?”

This was (and remains) a very good question, but I suspected it was motivated by the questioner’s resistance to the fusion of poetry and critique rather than, as I’d think, an interest in how one can, may, and even should be able to propose and carry out this goal for poetry as a mode of practice. (By the way, I’d define poetry as a mode of writing in chosen rhythmic segments that are culturally read as poetry. Clearly, the issue of “cultural reading” was precisely at stake for some of the people hearing Xi Chuan.) Such a question also shows that a whole range of world poetries and poetics of the 20th and early 21st century were not being credited. In short, some of the members of the audience had a strong case of what I’d call “poetry ideology.” They not only preferred the focused lyric, the misty, “pure poetry,” and the “poetic” on principle, but they seemed to find this the only kind of writing worthy of the honorific “poetry.”  Some silvery aura of specialness shimmered around “poetry”; some sense that it should stay untainted by… well, by what? by words like “shithole” (country colloquialism for latrine) or by noticing some kids (“delinquents”) in a country town, acting up by dying their black hair yellow. Or by the general air of realist disjunction so well-honed that it passes into almost-surrealism. Or by a meta-commentary or sense of allegory that infuses some of the work. Or by the desire to record everyday life seen in such a light as it is both comic, observationally accurate, and endowed with a humane generosity and ethical melancholy within that notional intensity. “Dignity and shithole together” is how Xi Chuan characterized this move.

In short, the reading offered evidence of a cultural clash around issues fundamental to modern and contemporary poetry. Xi Chuan fed this clash and teased about it, stating that he did know how to write “good poems”—I assume this means poems conventional in this milieu, using or alluding to the appropriate formal and imagistic conventions of Chinese poetry, including stanza and rhyme. He said that he even had written such “good poems,” and that every once in a while he still did. He has loved the work of both Yeats and Valéry.  But generally, “I am trying to be a person writing texts.” That is, he has been touched by certain rhetorics and forms with which I am familiar from Western cultural traditions and would refer to via these names and practices—by the term “writing” for William Carlos Williams (see Spring and All), by the urban, suspicious and sometimes “crashed out” sensibility of Charles Baudelaire, by the prose poem tradition of, say, Robert Bly (whose work he read in his student days courtesy of a Peking University professor of English named Herbert Stone).

Xi Chuan’s personal/social history as it bears on his poems was quickly sketched in. The years around Tiannamen Square (when he was in his mid-twenties) were exciting and difficult; a friend died, another committed suicide; he was “lonely” and felt “crashed out.” (Xi Chuan’s English is excellent, and this verb—slightly unidiomatic—is notably expressive. All apparent citations here are what I heard.)  He could not write poetry for a couple of years; he wrote notes only, and then discovered that these fragments were the germ for a new kind of text. “History and reality gave me the way of writing.” The fusion of aesthetic and ethical concerns in his work is serious and generative.

Xi Chuan’s work in the English translation of Lucas Klein will be published by New Directions in April 2012 under the title Notes on the Mosquito.

Anthologies and Anthologies

By this point I expect most readers in the American poetry community have heard something of the Rita Dove-edited Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. I’ve made remarks about the need for a discussion on anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, but I wanted to make a point about anthologies of American poetry for American readers, which I think is pertinent to a discussion about anthologies of foreign language poetry, as well.

The Dove / Penguin anthology has been getting it from all sides (and when you criticize Dove and Penguin, you can hit two birds with one stone). You may have read Helen Vendler’s rightwing criticism of the anthology in the New York Review of Books (as well as Dove’s righteous riposte), but the first I heard of it was Robert Archambeau’s leftwing take on all the anthology’s sins of omission (to which Dove’s husband Fred Viebahn gave lengthy replies in the comments)—in part, at least, because of rival press HarperCollins’s demand for high fees for Penguin to reprint its authors. This cannot account for all that Dove left out, however; Clayton Eshleman, with whom I translated a collection of Bei Dao poems, wrote to me and several other writers and translators with a list, adapted from his 1990 essay “The Gospel According to Norton,” of a systematic absence in the anthology’s table of contents:

Just to let all of you know what a travesty it is, here are some of the most significant people whose work does not appear in it: Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Riding, Loy, Bronk, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Eigner, Dorn, Kerouac, Niedecker, Mac Low, Spicer, Plath, Blaser, Bernstein, Schwerner, Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Corman, Guest, Schuyler, Padgett, Towle, North, Rothenberg, Kelly, Eshleman, Antin, Lansing, Perelman, Armantrout, DuPlessis, Wieners, Tarn, Coolidge, Sobin, Sanders, Taggert, Bromige, Cortez, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Grahn, Kleinzahler, Waldman, Rexroth, Joron, Gander, Will Alexander, DiPrima, Notley, Equi.

After I responded about Vendler’s review, he wrote back saying, “Thom Gunn and William Everson are also missing, as is Paul Violi. And Bukowski (who I do not care for at all, but he is certainly a much-read figure in 20th century poetry).” Later, he wrote to add “Penn Warren, Hollo, Ceravolo, Lauterbach, Hoover, Berssenbrugge, Scalapino, Harryman, David Shapiro, and Brenda Hillman.”

Part of the problem, I think, has to do with anthologizing in general, and our expectations as readers that what we consider good or important should also be considered good or important enough to be disseminated through anthologies. I think this is both right and wrong. I have no problem with Rita Dove or anyone coming up with a list of poets she thinks will stand the clichéd test of time, but once that comes out with the word Anthology on the cover—and under the imprimatur of Penguin, which has the institutional pull to put its books in classrooms—then questions of responsibility are in order.

And this is where, I think, the tension over who’s included and who’s excluded—if that’s the right word for it—comes from: will my view and ethics of poetry be taught, or will someone else’s view and ethics of poetry be taught? Vendler wants a limited, and limiting, view of American poetry (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”), whereas Dove presents herself as upholder of a view and ethics rooted in civil rights-style inclusiveness (faulting Vendler’s review for “its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism”; for more, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s post about the history of white denial of black poetry). But there are at least two wings on the left in American culture, hence the critique of Dove’s anthology for what it leaves out.

Considering this issue, one poster to the Buffalo Poetics List remarked:

Why worry about the nearly-unchecked perpetuation of bias for decades or who has been omitted from the canon / the publishing world down the years because of that bias (something Dove is cursorily addressing in the making of this anthology) when we can focus on the in’s and out’s of how Plath and Ginsberg have been left out in the cold ad nauseum…

There has been a lot of detailed, micro-discussion over why Plath and Ginsberg were omitted and how to remedy that, AT THE EXCLUSION OF the very appearance & existence of this anthology and how it’s a drop in the bucket towards addressing (remedying?) a publishing / canonical history that has excluded numerous writers who were never supported / encouraged and only peripherally published, if at all.

As I understand it, the point is that it’s easier for us to complain about Ginsberg and Plath being “excluded” because it keeps us from recognizing the canon’s denial of certain ethnic and gendered identities—and we have bigger ethical fish to fry. This is true, but I think aesthetic diversity is not only important, it plays a role in creating and maintaining social diversity, as well.

In other words, diversity is more than simply a matter of biological fact. It is better—from the p. o. v. of diversity as a good—for the only black Supreme Court Justice to be Thurgood Marshall than to be Clarence Thomas, and any number of non-black judges could do more than Thomas to support the cause of diversity and inclusiveness in the American body politic. I don’t want to deny Thomas his “blackness” (as this interview discusses); nevertheless, the question is about culture and mentality more than it’s about the skin we were born into.

Along those lines, while most of the writers that comprise the list above, from Louis Zukofsky to Elaine Equi and Brenda Hillman, are white (many are Jewish, which may complicate matters, and I think it’s a bit over 2 : 3 :: male : female), it presents an aesthetic diversity and vision and ethic of American poetic openness that stands in favor of inclusiveness and equality beyond the biological racial makeup of its members. Also, because it is an example of certain writers left out of the Dove / Penguin anthology, it does not exist as its own table of contents, but rather as an addendum to that list to push it towards greater inclusivity and a higher level of diversity. Here in the wilds of Hongkong, I haven’t had a chance to see Dove’s anthology firsthand, so I can’t make claims on how monolithic I find its aesthetic view to be—and I wouldn’t want a table of contents to represent aesthetic diversity while only presenting writers of one biological ethnicity, either—nevertheless, I want to emphasize that just as a black Supreme Court Justice such as Thomas can do damage to the American black community, white American poets such as Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Rosmarie Waldrop make American poetry more inclusive. They are on the side of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nathaniel Mackey, both of whom are in the Penguin anthology.

This is where the issue ties back to anthologies of poetry translation, and not only because so many of these poets have been involved with translation in the narrow sense, but also because they have been involved with expansion, diversity, and internationalism in the larger sense. Like Zukofsky, Rexroth, Corman, and Eshleman, translation expands the possibilities—and the vision, and ethics—of poetry in the language. An anthology of American poetry can legitimately leave translations out, but insofar as they are also a part of the history of American poetry, I would like to see an anthology that could consider them central, primary, and put translations in.

When I refer to the discussion we need to have about anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, I’m thinking along the lines of asking: granted, most of the anthologies that have been published so far have had some big problems, but will another anthology make up for these problems or just make the whole situation worse? But the underlying question, I think, has to do with the place of translation in the system of American poetry as a whole: do anthologies of Chinese poetry at this point expand the field of American poetry, or exist at a sequestered, even ghettoized, remove? This is, of course, a different question from whether a given anthology is sufficiently representative of the breadth of American poetry, but at a fundamental level, it is the same: how broad, or how narrow, are our vision and ethics of American poetry going to be?