A Pathlight To New Poetry: Canaan Morse on the evolution of Chinese literature
I know next to nothing about poetry. This is a recent development; it hasn’t always been this way. On the very week in early September that I officially signed up as a poetry editor for the magazine Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, my father, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease,passed away before I expected. This sudden disappearance of the man who taught me poetry awakened me to the fact that my poetic aesthetic was fundamentally his, and that I had but few truly independent opinions. Yet it was at this juncture I made an acquaintance who seemed to be on the same path as I, and whom I hope will continue to walk with me in the future. I share this relationship temporarily with Chinese poetry.
My father the poet was an American Modernist. He admired structure, but only in the service of the meter-making argument. He memorized Yeats (as did I, eventually), admired Ezra Pound’s prose but hated the Cantos, adored W.H. Auden. Ferlinghetti was spotty at best, and Ginsberg absolute anathema. An English teacher before he was a farmer, he taught me poetry out of a textbook called Sound and Sense, by Laurence Perrine. It’s a very well-done book, yet only five months ago, as I was taking stock of the poems I knew well, I discovered that all the pieces I could recite in full came from there, while the poets I had sought out over the years were sort of cut from the same cloth. As for the poetry I wrote, well, my father had been my most consistent source of criticism all along, so there was even less to say.
I’m certainly not trying to refute any of my father’s poetic principles, which he gleaned through years of writing and waiting, or to demean their importance, but only to suggest that no matter how significant the father’s ideas be, the son still has to form his own.
I think a lot of new Chinese poems betray the same sort of pressure.
We take for granted that bending and subverting ideology is something all poems do by definition. Yet I see Chinese poetry distancing itself also from two outwardly positive traditions, the ponderous canon of ancient Chinese poetry on one hand and contemporary English-language poetry, which slid into Chinese poetry as the Chinese language was Anglicized, on the other.
The Body and History
By Xi Chuan, translation Lucas Klein
Double corneas, earlobes hanging past the shoulders, arms surpassing the knees,
and occipital bones protruding from the back of the head—
people who suffer such are bound to be buried. History is not theirs to decide.
Instead they have to show off their intelligence and usefulness by currying favor
with people of more conventional appearance.
Covered in spurs, webbed fingers and toes, the triple-headed and six-armed, third
eye wide open—
people who suffer such hurry past, never living up to the hopes of those with more
After death they choose to follow behind those of conventional appearance,
stepping in silence to make sure they have food and drink.
History disguises itself as a storyteller to obsequiously flatter those people with
But in the end it doesn’t give a damn about them, as if they were just earwax or eye
History disguises itself as a person I know (name withheld); this person both
fetishizes novelty and has conventional tastes.
Published in Pathlight #1 and Notes on the Mosquito
Obscure to a Western reader, “double corneas” and heavy earlobes are references to Xiang Yu and Liu Bei, two of the great heroic figures of early Chinese history. In fact, all of the described abnormalities are references to specific mythicized figures. They are characters whom historical and poetic narrations have always served, never satirized.
This English translation, the careful work of Lucas Klein, also transmits another distinct characteristic of Xi Chuan’s work: its intentional arrhythmia. If one look at the poem closely, one will find the constant meter of regular human speech frequently interfered with. Bei Dao and Yang Lian have done this before, too, though not always so consistently. Now, this is a supposition, but I expect Xi Chuan and many of his contemporaries are as sick as I am of having to hear about Tang poetry. The lovely square poems of Du Fu, which are marvels of introspection and craftsmanship, are still ancient history.
Another influence I see being battled in Chinese poetry is the tendency to sound American. I have read a number of poems in Chinese that feel like translated contemporary American poetry. On a linguistic level, this is in a limited sense unavoidable, as the Chinese language has been Westernized so drastically over the past hundred years, and the speed never slowing. As Xi Chuan once pointed out, Chinese was originally a short-sentence language, and it was the coming of the works of Marx and Lenin in Chinese that made it into a long-sentence language. In the 1920’s, poets like Xu Zhimo and Bian Zhilin tried writing sonnets and other forms of English formal poetry using Chinese; in the 80’s and 90’s a large amount of work was produced in imitation of Beat poetry. Not to oversimplify; those were both times of wholesale importation of Western ideas, which were valuable because they were new. Now, I see Chinese poets trying to leave that alone—not with the bombastic, jingoistic language of their “literary officials,” but with unpretentious expression:
Prayer-Poem on Mt. Jinuo
By Lei Pingyang, translation Eleanor Goodman
Oh spirits, thank you for
letting us catch a small deer today
please let us catch a big deer tomorrow
Oh spirits, thank you for
letting us catch a deer today
please let us catch two deer tomorrow.
Published in Pathlight #1
By Shen Wei, translation Eleanor Goodman
Village in a valley. The hillside is a graveyard
Year by year the village shrinks, day by day the graveyard grows
The village is below, in the deep shadow
The graveyard is above, under the intense sun
In the vineyard the villagers pick fruit, bustle about
When they raise their heads, they gain from the dead
an angle from which to look down at themselves, a pair of eyes
Published in Pathlight #2
Lei Pingyang and Shen Wei can get a little too affectedly “ethnic” at times. How about one from Zhai Yongming:
By Zhai Yongming, translation Andrea Lingenfelter
In springtime, when a treeful of artificial flowers blooms like a face flushed with wine
I long for tradition Those real mountains
real waters realistic paintings of real birds and flowers
Those colors that gave young girls beautiful complexions
were derived from plants Their beauty
came from life
Sleeping in the mountains also became a tradition
like the practice of a yogi
Thinking of that Master in the mountains
waking washing training
born to poverty
disconnected from all dynasties
meeting up in poems
in lotus leaves or among schools of fish
Nursing a sense of antiquity I can’t shake off
I use a brush: broken brushwork, dry brushwork
Splintered brushwork, parched brushwork
can’t prop up this inner lethargy
When paper and ink turn in towards the heart
they fly onto a section of landscape
Published in Pathlight #2
I like this poem because it makes good use of the interpretive space that exists between Chinese characters in logical progression. This is due to a phenomenon in the Chinese language called parataxis, which I’ll leave you to look up on dictionary.com.
If you trust these are all good translations, you’ll see what I mean about the poems feeling influenced by contemporary American poetic language, in terms of how their voices are shaped. At the same time, you can also detect an attempt to put that influence down. As for what will come of that—well, if I knew that, I might be said to know something about poetry.
Canaan Morse began translating literature in the fall of 2006, when he translated and prefaced Wang Shuo’s novella The Stewardess for his senior thesis at Colby College in Maine. Immediately after graduation, he returned to Beijing to spend another year in school-two semesters of intensive Chinese at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Studies at Tsinghua, where he first seriously took up Classical Chinese and May Fourth literature as subjects for appreciation, study and translation. He currently resides in Beijing, China.