What makes something a poem? What defines “poetry,” and how has that changed over space and time? Critics and Commentators: The ‘Book of Poems’ as Classic and Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012) considers such questions as they chart a path through literary studies in Chinese history. From the comparative poetics of a Han dynasty “critic in the borderlands” to the theories of May Fourth intellectuals, Bruce Rusk’s elegantly written and carefully argued new book traces the changing relationships between secular and canonical poetry over 25 centuries of verse in China. Rusk introduces readers to a cast of fascinating characters in the course of this journey, from a versifying “drive-by” poet to a gifted craftsman of textual forgeries. In the course of an analysis of the changing modes of inscribing relationships between classical studies and other fields in China, we learn about poems on stone and metal, literary time-travel, ploughing emperors, and how to excavate the first drafts of Zhu Xi. This is an exceptionally rich account that ranges from the history of literary anthologies to the circulation of interpretive tropes in poetic commentaries, and in doing so it transcends the disciplinary boundaries of historical and literary studies of China.
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What readers will find–and enjoy–in Over Autumn Rooftops is a poetry of considerable complexity. Hai Zi draws on a wide range of literary sources: from the Book of Odes and Qu Yuan to Homer and Greek mythology, from canonical works to folk literature. His early poetry suggests influences by his older contemporaries, such as Shu Ting and Duo Duo. His images exhibit a tendency toward the primal (water, fire, sky, earth, fish, bird, seasons) and the sublime (“the king,” God), and he often identifies with village, sun, prairie, and wheat (“beautiful, wounded wheat” , “wheat in despair”). His language is simple yet tinged with mysticism, effortlessly crossing the boundary between the inner and the external world.