“A Wen Yiduo Poem Is Like a Jewel”

China Digital Times has interviewed Robert Hammond Dorsett about his newly released Wen Yiduo 聞一多 translations, Stagnant Water & Other Poems.

CDT: Wen himself worked within the tension between the classical Chinese of his education and the vernacular advocated by his contemporaries. Are there poems where one type of language wins over the other, or where one makes a conciliatory bow to the other?

RD: I believe after the beginning of the May Fourth Movement, Wen Yiduo was committed Robert Dorsett (with permission from BrightCity Books)almost entirely to the vernacular. After his return to China from the United States, he became a leading expert in classical Chinese literature but always sought to make that literature immediate and relevant. He resisted most of his contemporaries who urged the use of politically dominated free verse …  Wherever he found a conflict within himself, he didn’t resolve it, but used that conflict as a source of power. Only by the possession of the past and by its application to the present can a future be built: I believe this was his philosophy.

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Interview with Robert Hammond Dorsett on Wen Yiduo’s Stagnant Water

book cover: Stagnant Water and Other PoemsRobert Hammond Dorsett, translator of the newly released Stagnant Water & Other Poems by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 (1899 – 1946), agreed to answer a few of my questions by way of interview:

Can you describe how you got interested in Chinese / poetry / translation and in Wen Yiduo  in particular?

An undergraduate course, entitled Keats and His Circle, started my interest: I have read and written poems ever since. After my residency in pediatrics, my wife, daughter and I traveled to Hong Kong, where I studied at the Yale-in-China program at the Chinese University. It was there I was introduced to Wen Yiduo, and, from then till now, I have carried his poems about, making notes and deciding on interpretations. It was only after I left medicine, decades later, that I had enough time to prepare my poems and translations for publication.


Do you see any parallels between Wen Yiduo’s time and place and ours?

There are so many parallels, as well as differences, that it is difficult for me to answer simply; I’d rather say it is at the depth of the poems of Wen Yiduo that I encounter the same loss, regret, love, outrage at suffering and so forth that is common to humanity. It is from there, from the human realm, the poems emanate their immediacy. I can say I find a Wen Yiduo poem as fresh and current as any poem written now in English.


I find a tight condensation in your English, often more condensed than I find Wen Yiduo’s Chinese to be. Can you say something about the audience you have in mind for Stagnant Water, and what you imagine that audience’s expectations to be?

Condensation in poetry, that is condensation that does not hinder either rhythm or clarity of voice, is, for me, a desideratum. I try to approach translation much the same way a composer approaches transcription—as a reconstruction rather than a substitution. The key to Wen Yiduo, for me, is voice; I first decide who the speaker is, whether the voice is general or specific, and, if specific, who the speaker is, to whom she or he is speaking, under what conditions etc., and I try not to use any language that an ordinary person in that same situation wouldn’t use. I have attempted not to make the foreign sound strange. I made these translations for anyone who loves poetry.

Thanks to Robert Hammond Dorsett for his answers!

Click the image for ordering information on the book.

New Wen Yiduo Translations by Robert Hammond Dorsett

book cover: Stagnant Water and Other PoemsAnnouncing Stagnant Water & Other Poems by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 (1899 – 1946), translated by Robert Hammond Dorsett

This stagnant ditch is hopeless.
Clearly, not a place where beauty thrives.
Better cultivate its ugliness.
Perhaps its ugliness will create a world.


For more information including ordering information, click on the cover image above.

Inferno Tango on Dissertation Reviews

Dissertation Reviews has posted Dun Wang’s review of Meng Liansu‘s The Inferno Tango: Gender Politics and Modern Chinese Poetry, 1917-1980. Here’s how it begins:

The Inferno Tango analyzes the gender politics of modern Chinese intellectuals through examining modern Chinese poetry from the 1910s to the 1980s. The author focuses on selected poets and closely examines their figurations of gender that refract the construction of modern subjectivity in phases of China’s modernization. To this end, the author combines close readings of poetry with detailed analyses of the larger historical contexts, which include the poets’ biographical narratives and archival and first-hand materials that are excavated by other scholars and the author. Meng’s research focuses mainly on Guo Moruo, Wen Yiduo, and Chen Jingrong among the earlier generations, and more recent poets such as Bei Dao, Mang Ke, and Shu Ting who emerged from the literary activism of Today! in the late 1970s. The title’s central phrase, “the inferno tango,” is taken from female Chinese poet Chen Jingrong’s 1946 poem “Diyu de tangewu” (“The Inferno Tango”), vividly capturing the discursive tension between love and violence. Through sensitive and close readings, Meng fruitfully delineates manifold factors that have contributed to the Chinese poets’ construction of their gendered subjectivities in times of profound national crisis. Meng argues that the masculinity of the poetic canon in modern China was “naturalized and perpetuated by the discourses of love, marriage, nationalism, revolution and industrial progress as well as by the indigenous literati tradition” (p. ix).

Click here for the whole review.