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Quest for the Right Poem: My Modernist Beginnings

By Wai-lim Yip

Wai-lim Yip

In “Quest for the Right Poem: My Modernist Beginnings,” Wai-lim Yip takes CLT readers back to his beginnings and explores the intercultural fusion of his influences, from his contemporaries Quanan Shum and Wucius Wong to literary and philosophical figures such as Flaubert, Pound, Baudelaire, and Poe. Yip distills these many influential voices into his own syntactic re-imagining of modern Chinese poetry that is nourished by classical Chinese as well as Western poetics.

The story of Qu Yuan of the third century BC is also my story, and the story of my fellow poets in the year of 1949:

Unjust, Imperial Heaven’s way:
How the commons were shocked and tried!
People scattered, separated, lost.
Middle of spring: eastward exodus began.
Away, hometown! Toward distant lands! . . .
Heart netted and knotted: no way to undo.
Thought all tangled: no release.[1]

Ours is greater exodus to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and foreign countries in Europe and America, a traumatic rift overnight that brutally separated parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends. Two factors aggravated the division. First, China terminated all traffic, including mail, between China and Hong Kong or Taiwan. Then, due to Cold War political maneuvering, Taiwan was further isolated when the US Seventh Fleet began patrols of the Taiwan Strait on the pretext of protecting Taiwan, which meant, to the new settlers’ dismay, that the KMT government was not allowed to cross the Strait to “counter-attack and recapture the mainland.” Their hope of returning home was doomed. The frustration weighed them down like a heavy coffin lid. While the poets in Hong Kong and in Taiwan shared the same frustration, the modernist writings that emerged from this frustration have different permutations. Hong Kong poets faced radicalized crisis of cultural identity and the concomitant cul- ture industry that came with British colonization, whereas their Taiwan counterparts wrestled with the rule of the Kuomintang during a period that became known as the White Terror. Both discovered language strategies from Euro-American modernism and modified them through the lens of classical and contemporary Chinese poetry. I began in Hong Kong and matured in Taiwan.


One night in 1949, my family and I were uprooted, and thrown into the dark hole of existence in the British colony of Hong Kong, where “white” Chinese oppressed “yellow” Chinese, where

any eye contact is burning perspiration,
convulsed stupefaction, and anxiety
penetrating through all organs, veins, pores and finger-tips . . .
We remember prison darkness, iron-gated windows
plank floor, fleas,
and the feel of funeral parlor
We can only envy or stroll around mansions:
rising piano notes, signs of “PRIVATE: NO TRESPASSING,”

To a twelve-year-old country boy, this sister-city of London, Paris, New York, and Chicago was too much of a shock: blandness in the faces, suspicion in the eyes, indifference, social isolation, and outright coldness, all shot through with criminal activities, poverty-induced restlessness, and other social problems. Ironically, it was the angst and loneliness amid the vast hurrying specter-like indifferent crowds that would drive me toward a quest for some kind of raison d’etre in an imaginative flight from which a budding poet was slowly formed. It was a divine accident that in the midst of my vast melancholy I met the now-famous painter Wucius Wong 王無邪 in a gathering for students sponsored by The Chinese Student Weekly. Wong was my Virgil, in a sense, the one who led me into the paradise of poetry. I was hardly a writer then, let alone a poet, and yet through his warm persuasion, I took the first steps. Further encouragement came from his close friend Quanan Shum 岑崑南. Within a year, the three of us, all educated in bilingual English high schools (called colleges as opposed to the Chinese, often monolingual, high schools), launched a short-lived but important—at least for my development as a poet—magazine called Poetry Blossoms. We perused hundreds of foreign poets to select examples for translation, resurrected important 1930s and 1940s poets who were marginalized by the Nationalist-Communist internecine war and whose work was barred in both mainland China and Taiwan, and critiqued the current poetic scene. The goal of colonial education, such as we received, is to produce humans who are mere service instruments void of national or cultural identity, whose sole life purpose, as it were, is to emulate the lifestyle of their colonizer. By tailoring traditional and new cultural activities through reification and commodification to accommodate consumers’ needs, including the elevation of commercialism to an acutely high degree, any residual self-conscious interventionist impulse was wiped out; all high literary and art forms were replaced by some form of “soft” consumerist literature, soft-porn sensationalism, surface-scratching lyricism, or outright tabloidism. The search for, and formative wrestling with, cultural identity suddenly became a life-or-death issue, about which Quanan Shum and Wucius Wong were most vocal. Shum severely criticized Hong Kong citizens for constantly craving commodities at the expense of culture; they had become consumers who, to use one of my meta- phors, “when looking at a tree, see not a tree as tree, but only lumber,” not humans as (w)holistic beings, but only their productive potentials. Still in our tender age and oblivious to the works of Adorno or Max Weber, we were painfully aware of the hard facts of the culture industry that had been forcefully planted in Hong Kong. [3]

When Taiwan was appropriated into the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s (although the Nationalist government labeled itself as “Free China” to counter the “authoritarian Communist China”), the leaders became so paranoid of the Communists that they lost sight of reality. They became suspicious of all residents as potential spies, and began a long period of suppression to eliminate “dissidents.” Because of the Cold War repressive mentality, which forbade outright expression by citizens of the nerve-wracking frustration and angst they endured, plus the KMT’s residual despotism, which censored anything resembling criticism of the party or government, most poetry had to be crouched in the language of plurisignifying metaphors and symbols via what I call “creative ambiguity.”

Pupils move behind the eyes
Toward directions people dare not talk about:
I am indeed a sawed-off bitter pear tree
On whose annual rings you can still hear winds and cicadas
(Luo Fu, “Death in a Stone Cell”)

I want to see the land of Lu
Mount Tortoise hides it
I have no axe and hatchet
To Mount Tortoise what can I do?
(Wai-lim Yip, “Fugue”)

Lei Zhen 雷震 (1897–1979), a political commentator, published an essay in 1957 in his Free China entitled “There Is No Hope to Counter-attack and Recapture the Mainland.” For this, he was put in jail for ten years. The suppression, or “white terror,” was so hauntingly pervasive that the whole cultural ambience was one of a spiritual cul-de-sac. Censorship, overt or self-imposed, had engendered a vast series of visible and invisible “prisons” reminiscent of Sartre’s “No Exit.” These poets were caught in a double sense of futility: their impotence to resurrect Chinese culture to match its glorious past, a task they picked up from their immediate predecessors, was compounded by their mind-churning hesitation with- in a spiritual limbo. Their poetry is brimming with hidden themes or motifs of nostalgia, exile, nightmarish war memories, haunting grips of tradition, anxiety, solitude, expectancy, fears, and doubts.

It was against this frustration that these poets reached out for the expressive tropes of Western modernist poetry since Baudelaire, modified by those of classical Chinese, to inscribe the angst and tattered sensibility, and form ways of raising their protest against their “entombment” with- out being persecuted, such as the above examples. What were they to make of this drastic change in feeling, destiny, life, and Chinese culture in the midst of metaphysical and physical exile?[4] Cut off from a center of coherence, getting lost in some abyss, they drifted in a diasporic space, a cultural vacuum, wandering in an odyssey for new knowledge through the act of creativity. They turned inward to seek for a new raison d’etre by attempting, through creativity, to come up with a world (even if it were only aesthetic!) of coherent values as a way to defy the disintegrating reality around them, to defy, in the words of Luo Fu, “their merciless destinies against which writing poetry is a form of revenge” (Preface to “Death of a Stone Cell”).

All along, we felt strongly that the only way to resurrect the vivid, vivacious, “untarnished,” sense of life was to create good poetry. The Western poets we read and from whom we appropriated strategies for building up our counter-discourse to the culture industry in Hong Kong and to the “White Terror” in Taiwan included: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Rilke, Valery, the poets of the fin-de-siecle, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, early Yeats, Eliot’s early poetry, including “The Hollow Men,” Auden’s “In Time of War” and “Nones,” D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Corso’s “Bomb,” Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Bréton, Eluard, Supervielle, Saint-John Perse, Henri Michaux, René Char, Paz, Borges, and Jorge Guillen. I later introduced some of these poets to the Taiwan audience in my And All the Trees Sing: Modernist Poetry from Europe and Latin America (1976). I also introduced surrealism through the essays of my friend, Wallace Fowlie. Among the strategies we employed, I was particularly obsessed with the operative dynamics of the lyric, not the lyric understood as merely a genre designation (often loosely defined as a “short poem used to express feelings,” to which most modern Chinese poems still belong), but as a special mode of poetry with certain structuring activities cut, arranged, and heightened elements as an organizing, constituting aesthetic core. This preferred mode originated with Poe, Bauderlaire, and Mallarmé through Pater and Symons to Pound and Eliot to the Chinese poets of the 1930s and 1940s, especially Bian Zhilin 卞之琳. It is apt for me to elaborate this first, because it offered me then a solution to the quandary I, and my fellow poets, had to face or at least to come to terms with.

The Rupture engendered crises of physical and metaphysical displacements. A whole range of agonies resulted over the centralization of alien cultures and the marginalization of indigenous traditions in the form of antagonistic symbioses. One thing is clear: the intensities, solitudes, hesitations, doubts, nostalgia, expectancy, exile, and dreams of our works rarely came from an insulated private space; they are at once intensely inward-personal and outward-historical, because they cannot help but be dialectical transfigurations from tensions and agonies of acculturation under the visible and invisible forces of colonizing activities. The Rupture also resulted in a drastic change to our sense of time and space. We found ourselves standing between a past where historical and cultural memories might be forever lost, and a future that was at best nebulous, if not outright impossible to imagine. This engendered a sense of time in our consciousness invaded by multiple lines of memories, real and imagined, coming from different spaces, distances and times—a sense of time converging with that of Western modernists, yet caused by a totally different trajectory of events. My “Fugue,” along with Ya Xian’s “Abyss,” Luo Fu’s “Death in a Stone Cell,” and Shum’s “Symphony of Grief” are but a few of the many poems that find the poet’s conscious- ness moving constantly in and out of vast space and time.

Against this background, it was something of great excitement when between 1954 and 1955, I came across a Chinese book entitled New Literary and Art Movement in fin-de-siecle England (Shijimo yingguo xin wenyi yundong 世紀末英國新文藝運動, 1930) by Xiao Shijun 蕭石君 in Wong’s library, a book that highlights the works of Arthur Symons and his coterie as influenced by Walter Pater, in particular, by the Conclusion to his Studies in the Renaissance. I was particularly taken by his quotation from, and comment on a sentence by Victor Hugo: “We are all under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows no more,” which vibrates so closely to the condition we had been forced into. Pater argues that modern thought cultivates the “relative” spirit in place of the “absolute.” “Nothing is, or can be rightly known except relatively and under conditions.” Such is it that “every hour in his life is unique, changed altogether by a stray word, or glance, or touch. It is the truth of these relations that experience gives us, not the truth of eternal outlines [logos, God] ascertained once for all, but a world of gradations.”[5] Thus, in the conclusion of his Renaissance, Pater says to be successful in life is “to maintain the ecstasy, to dwell in every intense moment . . . in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. . . Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. . . To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

“A loaded interval” means the “aesthetic of the moment,” a phrase Pater reformulated from Baudelaire and Mallarmé. This I must do. My meditation started with the refinement and tightening of the baihua 白話 (“vernacular”), used as a medium for poetry in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategies I gathered from them include “inner echoes of images” (yixiang neizai de huying 意象 內在的呼應), “advancing through changing of scenes in place of narration” (changjing buduan de tuiyi bianhuan daiti xushu 場景不斷的推移變換代替敘述), “keeping an immediate presencing of things and events” ( jingchang baochi shiwu de xianzai fasheng xing 」經常保持事物 的「現在發生性」), and “the close linking of words via rhythmic cuts and turns of events” (tongguo shijian yinyun de zhuanzhe ba yu zi lianjie 通過事件音韻的轉折 把語字連結).[6] The poetry of Bian Zhilin, especially his later poems like “Fragment,” “White Shell,” “The Composition of Distances,” whose expressive tropes include words and images that yield multiple readings, evoked much discussion, and, naturally, the discussion turned to the carving of language, because every word in Bian Zhilin’s poetry demands full attention, not only to the cuts and turns of its movement, but also to its radiating, plurisignicative clusters of meanings. The steps taken to refine the baihua, however, should not begin by reverting to the classical Chinese language, but by re-appropriating it through a process of tensional modifications with the baihua format and with the poetics of the West. The tensional modifications, begun in 1930s, have taken several directions: new combinations of wenyan 文言 (“classical Chinese”) phraseology with baihua phraseology to refine and tighten the still overly discursive and loose baihua of the 1920s; rhythmic interplay such as Dai Wangshu’s “The Alley in the Rain” (“Yu xiang” 雨巷), in which he synthesizes the musicality of Song Ci 宋詞 with that of Verlaine’s “Chanson d’Autumne”; the buildup of atmosphere (Dai and Xin Di, whose baihua lines are often as powerful as those of Xie Lingyun [385—433] and Xie Tiao [464-499]); the deployment of events via the immediacy of their dramatic acting-out (Ai Qing, Bian Zhilin); the art of attention (Feng Zhi, Zheng Min); and structural dialogue (Bian Zhilin).

Of all the tensional modifications, the most sophisti- cated and most revealing by way of inter-reflection and/ or cross-fertilization is the poetry of Bian Zhilin 卞之琳, whose theory of translations and translation theory have exerted great influence on poets of the 1940s, in particular, on the “nine leaves” (jiu ye 九葉) poets: Xin Di 辛笛, Chen Jingrong 陳敬容, Du Yunxie 杜運爕, Hang Yuehe 杭 約赫, Zheng Min 鄭敏, Tang Qi 唐祈, Tang Shi 唐湜, Mu Dan 穆旦, and Yuan Kejia 袁可嘉. We will not be able to retrace all the aspects of Bian’s work here. Instead, we will point to the fact that his “Fragment,” a short poem of four lines, as well as “White Shell,” and “The Composition of Distances,” have been examined by and argued over by many talented scholars. I, for one, have benefited much from the writings of Li Guangtian 李廣田 (The Art of Poetry [Shi de yishu 詩的藝術]); Liu Xiwei 劉西渭 (pen name of Li Jianwu李建吾) (“Relishing Flowers” [“Ju Hua Ji” 咀華集]); Zhu Ziqing 朱自清 (Rambling Essays on Poetry [Xinshi zatan 新詩雜談]); Ai Qing 艾青 (On Poetry [ Shi lun 詩論]), and from Bian’s own essays collected in Fish Eyes (Yu mu ji 魚目集). In these essays, much of the attention was directed to the carving of language. After the fashion of William Empson, Bian leaves no stone unturned.[7]

But the carving of language is a long tradition of classical Chinese poetry; the act of lianzi 練字 (“to cudgel one’s brains for the exact word”) and the concept of lianju 煉句 (“the alchemy of sentence”) together form the architecture of art in words. A highly regarded staple of classical poetry, it follows the spirit of Du Fu’s line: “I would risk death groping without rest until I find this startlingly eye-opening word.” It is also seen in the tradition of Flaubert and Pound’s “le mot juste,” “style is absolute,” “language calling attention to itself,” as well as Baudelaire’s emphasis on the rigorous architecture of words, such as when he quoted Edgar Allan Poe’s account on the making of his “Raven” as his testimony: “at no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” This last motto of Poe and Bauderlaire gives rise to Pound’s statement that “Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations . . . for human emotions.” Eliot reformulates this idea as “objective correlatives”: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which will be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Bian Zhilin’s “sensualization of deep thought” is a conglomeration of Eliot’s “emotional equivalence” and “felt thought.”

What was Edgar Allan Poe’s[8] project that inspired both Baudelaire and Mallarmé to call him master and teacher? Poe argued that in order for the reader to exercise a sustained attention in reading, a poem must be brief. All narrative poems, and especially epic poems, are nothing but a series of “poetic moments” linked together by prose. Only those moments that can arrest the reader’s full attention or even raise his consciousness to a trance dimension can be called poetry. One of the aims of good poetry is to create a vivid effect to be achieved, not by accident or intuition, but by letting the work proceed, as already quoted, “step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Poe believed that the so-called long poem does not exist; at least “one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived . . . of effect, . . . that pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is . . . found in the contemplation of the beautiful.”[9] He further explains that the contemplation of Truth (intellect, reason) and that of Passion (the excitement of the heart) must be distinguished from that of Beauty, which alone guarantees the elevation of the soul. “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.”[10] In this case, Poe is not only against the epic, but also against the heresy of the didactic and endorses what later becomes the motto of symbolism and modernism, namely “the poem per se” and “art for art’s sake.“ “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by poetic sentiment, it struggles—the creation of supernal Beauty.”[11] Poe goes on to demonstrate how he constructs his “Raven”: The choice of images and the atmosphere of darkness; the raven itself, its mysterious arrival, tapping and rapping, bordering on ghostliness, the dark night, the sombre rhythm, the rhyming with “lore,” “evermore,” and “nevermore,” all of which leave nothing accidental.[12] Baudelaire and Mallarmé’s endorsement of Poe’s ideas led to Pound, Eliot, and, most, if not all, modernist poets. It is not an accident that the appeals to effect, beauty, music, the intense moment, and anti- discursiveness form the core of the aesthetics of the symbolists and the modernists: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Pater, Pound, Eliot, Williams, Archibald MacLeish (“A poem does not mean/ But be,”), just to name a few.

From these understandings, I construct my own theory about the structure and operative dynamics of this lyric. One essential fact about all lyric poetry is that it does not emphasize sequential time. Often, in a lyric, the poet promotes the stimulus of an emotion or an experience of a scene at a certain heightened pitch. The motivation of action and the contour of linear development, as often found in a narrative poem, are ambiguous and not fully accounted for in a lyric (even in a story lyric such as “Edward, Edward”) or are submerged in the background (as in Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets). A lyric is the texture of the emotional stimulus pushed to the front. Quite often, a lyric is a moment of time arrested at its most pregnant instant—pregnant in the sense of suggesting the multiple lines of development that precede this instant and the possible lines of development that might follow. It is an instant, a point—not a period—of time, in which temporal sequence does not hold an important role. The linguistic sequence in the lyric is the spatial expansion of the interior of an instant. It is as if we could reach out from the center to the circumference, and move back and forth between the two. And in a lot of cases, the reader finds himself placed in the center of an instant radiating out toward various spaces and times. This moment is often a moment in crisis or “a moment in danger” as Walter Benjamin notes. Witness the brief interval in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: As Orpheus turned his head to see if Eurydice was indeed following him out of the underworld as promised—an act from which he was forbidden until he stepped out of hell’s gate—his head turned, a fearful cry, Eurydice died a second death and was lost forever.[13] It is at the tip of a crisis in a fleeting gap of this Orphic moment in which light (life) and darkness (death) engage in tensional battles, when all memories of all life, broken, linked-yet-separated, separated-yet-linked, surge up, hover like a constellation of luminous fragments, and shake us with a Benjaminian primal recognition.

Because it is an intensely excited or moving experience raised to a certain heightened pitch, a lyric often begins with a profound contact or consort with some essential reality: the sudden awareness of the primitive one-world vision, the witnessing of the great silent making of Nature, some mystical, religious communion with the supernatural, or the attack of some private ecstasy. In this kind of consort, there is a certain remove from the ordinary consciousness; we are thrown into a trancelike and even dreamlike condition in which images and symbols visible in unusual light and space play themselves out in a manner unrestricted by sequential time, as they are now cut off or hidden away from temporal logic, opening a space for the readers to move in and meet these objects as if for the first time and there reflect on them. The progression of the lyric often follows the incremental repetitions and variations of the musical structure, moving back and forth and in a circuitous manner. Its rhythm is associative, meditative, irregular, discontinuous, unpredictable, beyond the threshold of consciousness, relying on sound-links, ambiguous sense-links, or memory-links.[14] The readers are often arrested by some intense images or events without, at that instant, fully grasping their morphology, development, and levels of meaning. Led by a strong feeling, they must enter, and roam about in it before patterns of doubling, tripling voices and meanings emerge.

Most modernist poets of this disposition, including novelists,[15] follow the working dynamics of atmospheric buildup. Much like Poe’s account of atmospheric build-up, or Baudelaire’s inter-reinforcing images of “weighty lid of rain-clouds,” “prison-bars,” “spiderwebs working into the depth of the brain” in his “Spleen,” or Mallarmé’s incandescent sunlight, white swan caught in a cutting white glacier, my early poems attempt to emulate such an effect. The obsession with the lyric as a counterdiscourse to the instrumentalized use of language or as a gateway toward retrieving the uncluttered Nature and (w)holistic humanity was, and still is, very real to me.


However, as I said, I must resolve, or at least come to terms with a quandary we faced: the need to quest. The trope of questioning and quest requires us, like my predecessors in the 1920s, to use linear progression to unfold ideas and events, which is counter to the working dynamics of the aesthetic of a pregnant moment in a lyric.

In my case, I tried to reduce the needed discursiveness to the minimum and use pregnant images or clusters of images as leitmotifs in a flow in that played out the pulses and impulses from a not-fully-narrated event or drama of my predicament. This is essentially the architectonic structure of my “Fugue” (1958-59), which is symphonic (a Western mode) in form; the images and abbreviated, highly suggestive events are captured in a transformed baihua that has the distinctive ring of classical Chinese (wenyan) (particularly in the original Chinese) in various montage layouts, which, through their seemingly disorganized elements, evoke the devastation of war (ancient China, recent past, in history and in myth) in tensional dialogue with the West. The poem contains three sections, which come to the reader like three movements in music, ending with an unfulfilled quest and questioning. The choice of musical tropes was inspired by the fact that music, as a medium, is not built up by meaning-discharging functions (as a medium, musical notes basically cannot do what words are empowered to do) but rather by the loosening and tightening of tones and timbres, both spatially and temporally, both diachronic (melodic) and synchronic (chordal) to emulate the morphology of feeling. Like my “Fugue,” my “Crossing” consists of five moments, or five viewpoints of the forced exodus, each a lyric of a pregnant moment with radiating meaning or meaning-clusters or trembling, tremulous chords of feeling that interweave with those in the other four such moments to form a tapestry of the destinies of the exilic condition of my fellow countrymen. This is my lyrical treatment of an event of epical dimension. Diasporic conditions, including oblique references to human-induced tragedies, are embedded in the atmospheric space and time and advanced or orchestrated by the pulses and impulses of musical phrasing and phas- ing. In many ways, my “Descending” was also structured as five events of quest, including exile or banishment from different times and spaces; it begins with expedition and ends with a call for return to a monolithic cultural past. The third quest event, for example, begins with the hardship one finds in the Seafarer (which I read in Anglo-saxon) and the fourth is the projection of the last scene in Andre Gide’s The Prodigal Son. Hopefully, the reader will not reduce the poem to these themes, but, instead, will roam in the interwebbing terrains of my (Chinese) modern destinies.

One of the leading critics of modern Taiwanese literature, Yan Yuanshu 顏元叔 singles out the first few lines of my “Descending” and brands it as the working dynamics of my poetry, characterizing it as “directional piling of images / visual, aural, and ideational echoes” (ding xiang die ying 定向疊景) that form the main drive and organic structure of the poem.” To facilitate easier reading, I have transferred his discussion points by using the following insertions: The letters within the bold brackets represent the kinds of echoes throughout with s=sound, c=color, l=light, and m=metal.

The sail of silk-tearing [s] afternoon swells
With the ringing luster of bronze [s, c/l, m]. Everything is ready now.
Pursue to where our desire reaches. The open thoroughfare
Tapering into a sword-sun [m,l] yields
To the rising of our dust-laden feet. The gentle gold sand
Of the aquatic radiating star [m,l] yields
To the barbaric gong [m,s]. Clouds of trees
Spread the high sky into a thick line, drowning
The ticktocks we counted night after night.
The grains of youth rain from the sieve of a winnowing-machine,
The bolts of jubilee [m,s (uplifting sword-sun; silk-tearing afternoon)] shoot [s]
From the gazing apple-faces [echoes clouds of trees] of children, glistening [l,m].
In their falling the other boys and girls run to welcome.
The swelling of silk-tearing afternoon opens[16]

The multiple layers of interweaving experiences crushing into our psyche during this period, namely the 1950s and 1960s, demand an almost impossible all-inclusive representation. How can we embrace an encyclopedic vision of many moments of reality arrested in their dynamic ordering, moments of feverish inner debate like that of a Hamlet or an agonized Macbeth, with which we are deeply involved, crushed as we are by the traumatic breakup of the Chinese worldview, a nightmarish, mutilated reality around which everything is fearfully absurd? Like those driven into a place of extremity, in cut-off isolation, the poet’s consciousness edges into a condition bordering schizophrenia, hearing cries in a strange blue midnight, being crushed by oppressive silences, constantly feeling the terrifying darkness seeping through the four walls, seeing sky as a wide-open mouth of sharp teeth or a face without eyes or eyes with- out face. All of our images are those of hypersensitivity.

One way to give coherence to the images and events that now are often not linked together in a narrative thread is to energize them as self-contained. A self-contained image may be defined as one capable of giving forth a poetic vigor without the rest of the context. A good self-contained image or phase of perception can, in fact, be considered a poem in itself that carries the force of an entire situation. Witness these examples from my early work: “Noon is a ready arrow/On the bow”; “[T]he sea blooms in the rocking chair of the earth”; “How much chastity of the world can a lotus hold?” (“Epiphany of Summer”); “Flowers burst forth from broken wall and I stretch/As only stretching is godly and I stretch/Toward ten miles, a million miles/Ten miles, a million miles of fear (“Looking Up: A Song”); “Clouds come, a million mountains move” (“Dance”); “Are these the voices we have never heard, O you dumbfounded season/Voices of falling, voices of shining and blooming?” (“Are These the Voices . . .”); “You come out from the calyx, wading through pungent days” (“ The Warm, Warm Journey”). These images and events are moments of unique energy that, familiar yet unfamiliar, unfamiliar yet familiar, engender a sudden awareness of the inner workings of a moment, throw us into a trancelike and even dream-like condition where images and symbols, visible to us as if for the first time, in unusual light and space, play themselves out in an unrestricted manner, often with a spotlighting effects of the classical Chinese line. This is particularly true of my later poems that reappropriate classical Chinese landscape tropes, such as this example from my “Sky Meditations”:


Lit up from silence



Wrinkled by fast winds

There are, of course, still many transformations out of my intercultural dialogues with the West and with classical Chinese poetry and poetics that inform lines like these just above. My translations of work by Wang Wei and other classical Chinese poets in the anthology Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres have elicited a lot of attention within American poetry circles, and many poets and critics have remarked positively over my “reinvention” of English syntax used in that work. Pierre Ryckmans remarked that I “skillfully stretch English syntax to a point where it becomes a kind of equivalent of the syntax of Chinese classical poetry—it is remarkable, and it works”; Jerome Rothenberg, one of the founders of Ethnopoetics, has pointed to my place within transpacific poetics as “the linking figure between American modernism (in-the-line-of-Pound) and Chinese traditions and practices.” I think it is not going too far to state that my Chinese poems and my translations into English mirror the work I have done to translate the Euro-American world into Chinese. In my work in both Chinese and English, I have sought to unsettle existing aesthetics and syntactic conventions in particular.

All the ways in which I have incorporated Euro-American modernism should be thought of in light of the ways I have sought to bridge English and Chinese. Take my attempts to enlarge the relatively short Chinese sentence structure to produce the effect of the wave- like, continuous rolling movement of the long English sentences of Marlowe and Wordsworth, which were created out of qualifying phrases and clauses using linking words like “who,” “which,” “why,” and “what” (such as in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), a structure that is alien to Chinese syntactic habits. Since all adjective elements in Chinese must be placed before the noun, all the qualifying phrases and clauses that often follow English nouns must come before the Chinese noun and therefore form sentences that not only sound odd but are often difficult to read. This kind of sentence structure has been negatively referred to as Europeanization. When such long sentences are translated from English into another language, they are usually broken up and reassembled, but then, the continuous wavelike movement is lost. Translating this kind of language requires a great deal of negotiation and reinvention. Examples abound in both my own poems and translations. These, perhaps, must be seen as a new form of writing that results from the cross-fertilization of translation.

What brings these various cross-linguistic elements into a cohesive whole is a common lyrical core of densely interwoven lights and shades that pulse from within the works. Like the fine threads that are woven into a sheet of cotton, poetry can be defined as that which can only become present when its myriad sounds strike a common chord deep within the inner chambers of our existence. Here in this shared inner space, the unspeakable can be sung as “form beyond form” (xiang wai zhi xiang 象外之 象), “scene beyond scene” (jing wai zhi jing 景外之景), “taste beyond taste” (wei wai zhi wei 味外之味) or “the finest reaches of tonality tremble on the cliff of our mind/ heart.” “It is at the tip of a crisis in a fleeting gap of this Orphic moment, in which light (life) and darkness (death) engage in tensional battles, when all memories of all life, broken, linked-yet-separated, separated-yet-linked, surge up, hover like a constellation of luminous fragments and shake us with a Benjaminian primal recognition.”


1 Qu Yuan, “Lament for Ying.”

2 From my poem “We Can Only Wait for the Hour of Moonset” (1956). Please note: the mansions with warning signs often belonged to the colonizers or their emulators.

3 Witness Shum: “[A] volcano erupting”; “Time, startled, wakes up weeping bitterly” in the face of a culture of commercial bartering, “everything is salable: friendship, love”; “revolution, how? Where to find weapons?”; “Be complacent, be just a nut-and-bolt”, “a white-collar clerk . . . a mechanical life in which BREAD is the only -ism, ROSES [of the colonizer] the emblem to be emulated”; “please take off your clothes, just take off, to be naked, is adequate . . . fly out, fly out, soul.” Taking off the clothes to return to the naked, unclothed soul is to take off the frames of lumber mentality infiltrated into our mind via the Colonizer’s trope of desensitization.

4 More examples from Ya Xian, Zhang Mo, Xin Yu, Guan Guan, Da Huang, and Yu Guangzhong can be found in my Chinese essay, “Two Modernist Poetries in the Period between mid-1950s and mid-1970s in Taiwan” (“Taiwan wushiniandaimo dao qishinian- daichu liangzhong wenhuacuowei de xiandaishi” 臺灣五十年代 末到七十年代初兩種文化錯位的現代詩), NTU Studies in Taiwan Literature (Taiwan wenxue congkan 臺灣文學研究叢刊), no. 2 (Taipei: National Taiwan Univ. Press, 2006).

5 Walter Pater, “Coleridge,” in Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (London: Macmillam and Company, 1924), 66–68.

6 See my essay “My Indebtedness to the 1930s and 1940s” (“Wo yu sansishiniandai de xueyuan guanxi” 我與三四十年 代的血緣關係). See http://dcc.ndhu.edu.tw/poemroad/ya-wei- lian/2006/11/16/我和三、四十年代的血緣關係/ Accessed Jun 20, 2013.

7 The name William Empson of his famous Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) is evoked here, because I. A. Richards and William Empson were in China and had much influence on some of the critics of the 1930s, among them, Zhu Ziqing 朱自清. Two books that are of interests here are Cao Baohua 曹葆華, Xiandaishilun 曹葆華 現代詩論 (Selected Essays on Modern Poetry), Taiwan edition (Taipei: Taiwan Univ. Press, 1968, originally published in 1927), and Ivor Armstrong Richards 瑞恰慈, Science and Poetry Translated (Kexueyushi 科學與詩) (Beijing: Tsinghua Univ. Press, 1931). Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” was included in the publication first. Bian took the trouble of translating another version of this important essay. See myHuiyi naxie ke nan er fengman de rizi-huainian xiaji’an laoshi, taida bashi 回憶那些克 難而豐滿的日子 -懷念夏濟安老師, 台大八十 ( Remembering Those (Economically) Difficult but (Spiritually) Rich Days—Thinking of Our Teacher Tsi-an Hsia), ed. Ke Qingming 柯慶明 [Taipei City: National Taiwan University, Publishing Center] 2008). See also my discussion of “Fragment” in my Lyrics from Shelters: Modern Chinese Poetry 1930-1950 (New York and London: Garland Press, 1992), 39–41.

8 “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), 454.

9 Ibid.

10 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle,” in Essays: English and American. Vol. 28. The Harvard Classics. (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001), 470.

11 Ibid., 470.

12 Ibid., 460–463.

13 See Rilke’s “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.”

14 This sentence is adapted directly from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy

15 In Taiwan, stories and novels of Wang Wenxing 王文興, including his masterpiece Bei hai de ren 背海的人 (Backed Against the Sea), a dramatic monologue of epic dimension (extended interval that runs into two volumes), contains the most intricate use of the lyric in our sense. See Yip,Wang Wenxing yu xiandaizhuyi 王文興與現代主義 (Wang Wenxing and Modernism), DVD (National Taiwan University Publication), and “ Wang Wen-hsing: Novelist as Lyric Sculptor” in the appendix of the reissue of the 1969 edition of my New Faces of Modern Chinese Fiction (Taipei: National Taiwan Univ. Press, 2010).

16 See Yen Yuanshu 顏元叔,Tan Minzu Wenxue 谈民族文学 (On National Literature) (Taipei: Xuesheng shuju, 1973), 275.

Current Issue
March 2011 Issue

Volume 3, No. 1&2

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Table of Contents




Chinese Poets Writing in English

  • 35 Qiu Xiaolong
  • 38 Yun Wang
  • 40 Wai-lim Yip

Non-Chinese Poets Writing in Chinese

  • 43 Jami Proctor-Xu
  • 45 Denis Mair
  • 48 Afaa Michael Weaver




  • 95 Small Town by Yu Jian



  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review

ON THE COVER Chinatown Sunset, 2013, by Fong Qi Wei


  • Featured Essay
  • Introduction: Writerly Self-Knowledge, or When Authors Confess, by Alexa Huang
    Writing Chinese Literary History: A Tweet for Sore Eyes by Sabina Knight
  • Sheng Keyi, Northern Girls. Shelly Bryant, tr.
  • Petrus Liu, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History
  • Ba Jin, Ward Four: A Novel of Wartime China. Haili Kong and Howard Goldblatt, tr.
  • Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature
  • Michael Gibbs Hill, Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
  • Xi Chuan, A Bend in the Great River: Thoughts in Search of Poetic Possibility
  • Lai Hsiang-yin, Thereafter
  • Yu Jian, On the Long Journey. Tang Xiaodu, ed.
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Gu Mingdong, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism

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