Columbia UP’s Jennifer Crewe on Burton Watson

I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, told to me by someone who visited Burton’s Tokyo apartment and watched as he sat at his manual typewriter looking at whatever book he was translating and simply typing the translation as he read the original, without having to look up any words. As a nonspeaker of Chinese and Japanese, I rely on experts to tell me whether a transition is an accurate and faithful rendition of the original. But as a reader I rely on my ear. It was clear to me that Burton was an avid reader of American poetry—particularly of the Williams era. His translations, particularly of poetry, are concise, deceptively simple, and evocative. And they employ the language of everyday speech, which is why they are so successful with students. Burton’s translations opened up the world of East Asian culture to countless students and general readers. Over the years I would occasionally hear criticisms—Watson’s translations were not “scholarly” enough. Burton eschewed notes, and it was often difficult to coax even an introduction out of him. But his translations will last because of the simple beauty of his English idiom. Many “scholarly” translations do not display that inner beauty. Burton’s translations seem effortless. He strove for that.

Click the image above for the full remembrance.

Rothenberg on Pound & Yip

Jerome Rothenberg has posted his introduction to a collection of the poetry in English of Wai-lim Yip 葉維廉, forthcoming next year. Here’s an excerpt:

But what about [Ezra Pound’s] invention of China or of Chinese poetry?

What is left to say is that Pound set a style that came to typify early twentieth-century translations into English/American and that he later pointed (in Canto 49, say) toward other styles that were possibly closer to the classical Chinese … It fell to Wai-lim Yip – a poet first and foremost – to unearth all this for us – not to invent China over again but to explain and explore aspects of the traditional poetry that link to American works after and beyond Pound and William Carlos Williams.  From Yip’s work we get what we might call the montage principle based on both a knowledge and practice of Chinese poetry and an observation of the work of later American poets, including Pound himself in the Cantos.  (That Yip’s approach is not only that of a scholar but of a deeply involved poet is also something worth noting.)  In the course of doing this Yip has opened for us not only a sensible view of Chinese poetry but a profound understanding of the nature of translation and the possibilities of poetry as they emerge from an actual practice.

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Former People Interview with Lucas Klein on China and Literary Modernism

1280px-2004_0928_Nanjing_ZhongHuaGate_HorseRamp2C. Derick Varn of Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers interviewed me with a series of complex questions on modernity and modernism in and about China. And of course, I couldn’t resist talking about Xi Chuan and Chinese and international poetry. Here’s an excerpt:

So that’s the problem. But as I’ve argued in a piece that’s forthcoming, modernism in literature is postmodernist in its philosophical implications … And I don’t think I’ve ever believed in modernism so much as modernisms. An interesting observation is that modernist writers who come from countries that claim an ownership of tradition—modernists from France or Italy or Russia—are often the ones to say, like Marinetti, “Museums, cemeteries!” while the modernists from countries that cannot claim such ownership—Pound and Eliot from the US, Joyce from Ireland—are the ones who want to revivify the ancient amidst the machinations of the modern (this isn’t foolproof, of course: William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein stand against such generalizations). As for whether there’s a Chinese modernism, the interesting thing is that after the Cultural Revolution, you get both: those feeling like their country has too much a claim on tradition, and is overwhelmed and stifled by it, as well as those who feel like their country is too displaced from tradition, and needs to re-own it and re-define it. So at any given moment Bei Dao might read like a shrugging off of tradition, and Yang Lian might read like a refitting of it, and Xi Chuan a refitting of that refitting, but they’re also specific responses to the relationship between tradition and modernity as have played out in China in the past hundred years and more.

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Jonathan Stalling Reviews Jacob Edmond’s A Common Strangeness

200MCLC has published Jonathan Stalling’s review of Jacob Edmond’s A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature. Here’s how it begins:

To begin with, Jacob Edmond’s new book, A Common Strangeness, is anything but common and signals what I hope will be a new trend toward more ambitious studies of late-modernist to contemporary poetics on a global scale. While it might be premature to announce the arrival of a “global poetics,” there is a pressing need for a space to explore this genre specific cognate of World Literature, a space to reimagine what in China operates under the title: comparative poetics (比较诗学). This is a robust area of academic research in China, yet it tends to reduce poetry and poetics to the pre WWII traditional canon: Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus; Sidney, Pope, and Johnson; Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Emerson; Poe, Arnold, and Eliot; and perhaps Frost, Williams, Hughes, and, because it is China, Pound. In English literary criticism today, however, the term “poetics” often demarks poetry discourses consciously connected to avant-garde practice along the vectors of a more radical canon: Blake, Whitman, Stein, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, Mac Low/John Cage to Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian and others associated with the so-called LANGUAGE poets from the 1970s forward through neo-conceptual poetry, etc … One should also mention that scholars tracking trends in contemporary poetics in the West have remained problematically Anglophonocentric and have largely failed to attend to poetic shifts on a global scale unless such shifts are explicitly conversant in the idioms of innovative English-based poetics (including those within the Sinophone sphere). So while no single volume could ever hope to connect the multitudinous and heterogeneous threads of a “global poetics,” A Common Strangeness succeeds in moving in this direction in part by offering a critical lens (strangeness) through which to view poetry on a global scale.

Click the image above for the full review.

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.