Here’s a let-down of a travelogue: Irish poet Harry Clifton went to China and wrote about it for The Irish Times. At the invitation of Bao Huyi 包慧怡, and also led around by Zhai Yongming 翟永明, he nevertheless manages not to be able to write anything of particular insight into contemporary Chinese poetry–despite the article’s tag being about how “Harry Clifton was bowled over by nation’s teeming life on trip through its poetic heartland,” despite being in the company of two of China’s most interesting poets.
This wonderfully preposterous event, involving Chinese professors, university students, joint-smoking hill-tribe poets and illiterates off the street, left me with an abiding conviction – that there is such a thing as inspired misunderstanding between peoples of goodwill comically ignorant of each other, which creates an energy that never would otherwise have existed. Beneath the flashing lights and projected texts on the walls, with Ms Zhai in her feisty hat puffing away in front of me, I realised something as old as the transfer of Zoroastrian texts up the Silk Road was happening, and with roughly the same level of comprehension.
Yes, there is “inspired misunderstanding,” but there’s also just not really connecting. I hope the next time an English-language newspaper commissions a poet to write something about a trip to China, the paper can be sure that the poet will do the appropriate research to make some sense of what goes on during the trip.
Disappointed with W.H. Auden’s Chinese sonnets, which he calls “all gigantism and moralising abstraction, with the human reality lost in its shadow,” Clifton promises “to write [his] own Chinese sonnets, with the life of the place inside them.” 加油!
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