Review of Push Open the Window

Over at The Rumpus, Christopher Honey has a review of Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China. It’s not a perfect review, in my mind–he doesn’t acknowledge the translators by name–but he does raise some interesting issues and questions. Here are a few I found worth considering (which is not to say agreeing with):

From my own personal experience, I always wonder who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation. Am I reading Tu Fu or am I actually reading Rexroth?

The quality and sophistication of the poets seems to go up as the poets get younger and younger. The earliest poets have a sort of untutored enthusiasm – almost like naïve art – touched by the political.

I do not believe I am going out on a limb by saying that the more recent poets in Push Open the Window are much more fully connected to the larger literary world. As barriers to the rest of the world have dropped, poets have benefitted by cross pollination with other traditions.

The number of translators also led to another potential issue. A single translator would have enabled a more accurate understanding of the development and changes within Chinese poetry over the last fifty years. With so many different translators, how can one be sure that a perceived, new rhetorical addition to the bag of tricks available to Chinese poets isn’t just a tic of one translator as opposed to another?

It is hard to escape seeing it a sort of historical or sociological document on the evolution of literary schema rather than as a work of literature. What is more, with the variations in the quality of the poems, I find it hard to believe that historical thinking was not a factor in the selection process – that this book was intended to document the progress of literary evolution and not just to provide the best literary products.

2 thoughts on “Review of Push Open the Window

  1. Very good point about the multiple translators etc…. I guess no one person wants to translate a whole anthology and/or nobody would ever pay a reasonable rate for such an endeavor (my voluntary online sort-of-anthology being an exception than proves the rule, perhaps).
    I agree with him… especially as regards to those uni-lingual poetry lovers and how they may perceive and thus avoid collections of translated poetry.

  2. I don’t know, Michael… it’s an open question in my mind whether one translator can represent many styles better than many translators. Perhaps when filtered through the consciousness of a single translator what is unique about each style will remain unique, or perhaps all diverges will merge into the recognizable style of the translator. The best way to answer this question is not, I think, in the abstract, but rather to look at those multi-poet anthologies edited and translated by one person or team: Michelle Yeh’s Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry (Yale, 1994), Stephen Owen’s Anthology of Chinese Literature (Norton, 1997), Tony Prince & Naikan Tao’s Eight Contemporary Chinese Poets (Wild Peony, 2006), or David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry (FSG, 2008).

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