Lucas Klein’s dissertation, Foreign Echoes and Discerning the Soil: Dual Translation, Historiography, and World Literature in Chinese Poetry, is notable both for its ambition and its erudition. In seeking to answer how the “Chineseness” of Chinese poetry, its quality of being or seeming natively Chinese, is produced in and through acts of translation, Klein not only tackles Modernist-inspired poetry from the twentieth century, where “Chineseness” is a salient issue, but also the monolith of the Chinese literary tradition itself, including such ultra-canonical figures as Wang Wei 王維 (692-761) and Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770). In practical terms, this impressive breadth of scope results in a dissertation in two parts: the first featuring studies of modern poet Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910-2000) and contemporary poet Yang Lian 楊煉 (b. 1955), and the second reaching back to Tang Dynasty masters Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858). By avoiding the urge to arrange his chapters chronologically ― or, at least, by putting the modern before the pre-modern ― Klein refuses to allow “traditional China” or its poetic stand-in, Tang regulated verse, their place as the seat of pure Chineseness, untarnished by contact with the modern West; in fact, one of his goals is to situate the Tang Dynasty back into a global network of cultural interaction and exchange. The arrangement of chapters further serves to illustrate Klein’s methodology, which is to allow the insights of deconstruction, Marxist thought, translation studies, and contemporary avant-garde poetics to illuminate the distant past ― and vice-versa. Klein’s dissertation serves the larger goal of deconstructing the binaries tradition/modernity, native/foreign, textual analysis/high theory, and, most centrally, original/translation.
I’d like to draw your attention to a book published by Cosima Bruno and described below, entitled Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation. Bruno’s book makes a case for studying translations as a method of reading poetry. I’m mentioning the book here because I think it may be of interest to readers of this blog but may not otherwise enter into conversations within English-language poetry since it focuses on the work of Chinese poet Yang Lian––about whom I’ve also written in A Common Strangeness.
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.
Chinese poet and poetry critic Qin Xiaoyu invited the Proletarian to attend a meeting at Peking University last Friday on poetry in online media. The meeting was sponsored and chaired by Yang Erwen, founder of ArtsBj.com (北京文艺网), and Yang Lian, whom Yang Erwen has worked into some advisory position at the website. Having no prior knowledge of the event, the Proletarian thought it was just going to be another stereotypical academic meeting, where people made airy speeches over an audience checking their cell phones; who knew that the first item of news would be one of significant importance? …
Well-known critic Tang Xiaodu moderated the first half of the meeting, while Yang Lian (who sounds a lot more like Ge You than I could ever have imagined) chaired the second half. Also at the table were Zhai Yongming, Xi Chuan, Qin Xiaoyu, Zhang Qinghua, Leng Shuang, Lan Ye, Zang Di, Ou Ning, Yang Xiaobin, Shang Zhen, Jiang Tao and a few others …
Morse also mentions Xi Chuan’s “observations on poetry throughout Chinese history.” Click here for the whole piece.
The long poem “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” 大海停止之处 by Yang Lian 杨炼 and its transformation into the collaborative digital and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate an iterativeresponse to digital technologies and globalization. The iterative structure of Yang Lian’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change.
Cosima Bruno’s new book asks us to consider a deceptively simple question: what is the relationship between a poem and its translation? In the course of Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation(Brill, 2012), Bruno helps us imagine what an answer to that question might look like while guiding us through the sounds and spaces of contemporary Chinese poet Yang Lian. Between the Lines proposes an innovative way to read a poem through and with its translations, using a “triangular comparative analysis” that juxtaposes the original poem with a number of its translations to identify shifts in the lines of the poem that serve as landmarks in the conceptual and textual world of the poet. Bruno uses this translation-focused methodology of reading to reveal fascinating dimensions of time, space, and subjectivity in Yang Lian’s work, and to guide our attention to the performative importance of rhythm, blank space, punctuation, and sound in his verse. Readers who are interested in Chinese poetry will find much to absorb and transport them in these pages, and readers interested in the theory and practice of translation will find a clear articulation of a set of methodological tools that could potentially bear fruit when rendering texts across many different genres and languages. Enjoy!
Click the image above or listen here:
In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.
The video of my discussion of Xi Chuan and Yang Lian 楊煉 in terms of Ezra Pound, "Ideogrammic Methods: The Space of Writing and Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Long Poetry," from the Short Takes on Long Poems conference in honor of Rachel Blau DuPlessis last March in New Zealand, has finally been posted online. Click the image above to link to the video.
Yang was nominated by UC Davis professor Michelle Yeh, co-translator with Lawrence R. Smith of Yang’s collection No Trace of the Gardener (another volume, translated by Joseph Allen, was published as Forbidden Games & Video Poems: The Poetry of Lo Chʻing [羅青]). The other nominees were Hsia Yü 夏宇, Yang Lian 杨炼, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, nominated by Jennifer Feeley (U. Iowa, USA), Michel Hockx (U. London SOAS, UK), Wolfgang Kubin (Bonn U., Germany), and Zhang Qinghua 张清华 (BNU, PRC), respectively.
Rare for contemporary Chinese poetry, all nominated poets have single-author collections available in English translation. Coincidentally, three of the nominees–Hsia, Zhai, and Ouyang–have had their only books in English published by Zephyr Press.
Nicholas Reid has reviewed Jacob Edmond’s study of world literature & contemporary Chinese, Russian, and American poetry, A Common Strangeness. Here’s how it begins:
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?