by Siyun Fang
There are signs of a turnaround in the outlook for the development of poetry, but poetry will never be as popular as it was in the Tang dynasty
February 1917 was the first time that modern Chinese poetry came into the public view, when LA JEUNESSE Magazine decided to publish eight modern poems written by a revolutionary called Hu Shi. Although these eight poems were still written in rhythmical ancient form, they were actually separated from old-fashioned poetry, because all of them were written in Chinese vernacular. This event is thereby marked as a milestone in the history of Chinese poetry. Nowadays, Chinese modern poetry has been entering the stage of history for almost a century.
Thinking of the past, on the one hand, modern poetry, as a genre, it had always been tightly connected to the times and development of our society since it had been founded. Poets, or modern poets, they are all witnessing, singing, yelling and crying out for each crucial moment in Chinese history. On the other hand, modern poetry, as a budding literary genre, it also has been critiqued, questioned and challenged by the readers for almost a century.
To put it another way, modern poetry is moving forward in debates. Today, we invite a dedicated literary critic and modern poet, Youshun Xie, to discuss, sum up the past and look into the future of Chinese modern poetry with us together, to talk about in which way Chinese modern poetry would develop in future.
Section 1: Modern Poetry and its Source.
SF: As long as modern poetry is an innovative genre which abandons the concepts of rhythm, meter as well as the aesthetic spirit of Chinese ancient poetry, it in fact, is separating itself from tradition. As many people believe this kind of separation between innovation and tradition deserves careful thinking. What do you think?
YX: This separation here is a good thing. Because to me, ancient poetry, especially for those ancient syllabic poems, their use of language and rhythm are formatted, hackneyed, and many poems published in ancient era are obscurantist nonsense. For modern poetry, it not only breaks the rule of rhythm, but also more importantly, it resumes the use of modern lyric and phrases, which shows its attitude of being lifelike and brimming with youthful vigor and its expectations of human’s life.
SF: Some of the poets have mentioned that it is necessary for the literary world to continue to use Chinese ancient poetic form. Do you agree or disagree? What can modern poetry draw from ancient poetry?
YX: The spirit of Chinese ancient poetry is worth our time and attention, because it tells the story of the relationship between human and nature. However, it is also impossible for Chinese ancient poetry to be revived again, because it is unable to demonstrate the complexity and fantasy belonging to our modern life.
SF: Different people may have different thoughts on the use of meter in the process of writing modern poetry. Some people think that writers should “dance in shackle,” while others believe that we should completely break the rule of rhythm in ancient poems. Some critics say that “the reason that modern poetry is underdeveloped is all because it does not, or seldom uses rhythm.” What is your opinion?
YX: I don’t think so. The nature of poetry, as a literary genre, should not only focus on rhythm. Poetry shows humanity and human nature, and poetry also means the creative way to depict language. There were several poets and scholars attempting to balance ancient and modern poetry during the early stage of “Poetic Revolution” and seeking the possibility of synthesizing… I mean… ancient and modern poetry, which now seems that they failed. Syllabic poetry and modern poetry are different types of artistic forms. The gesture of pouring new wine in old bottle is futile.
Section 2: Modern Poetry and its Legality.
SF: The debate about modern poetry has been continued for several decades. Lots of people argue that the legality of modern poetry has not been settled yet. In your opinion, that’s because people are painstakingly ignoring modern poetry and its achievements, or it’s because modern poetry itself is a problematic genre?
YX: Modern poetry has been making a real achievement during these years—there are many, many wonderful poems and excellent poets emerging from the crowd. For ancient poetry, it would take a very long time for poets to work on it if they want to alter its form and content, for example, to change a classical poem which is composed of four five-character lines to a poem with four seven-character lines. However, in comparison with ancient poetry, modern poetry has already achieved its pinnacle, which is amazing. For people who question the validity of modern poetry, they just don’t understand their meaning.
SF: Scholar, and also the professor emeritus from Beijing University, Qian, Liqun, once said in his journal, “I almost know nothing about Chinese poetry. Honestly, I have not been reading and talking about Chinese modern poetry for about twenty years. The reason is simple: I am unable to understand those poems.” If what Prof. Qian said is true, what did he mean by that? I mean…modern poetry, as a genre, is confusing a literature professor?
YX: There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. First, those modern poems themselves are opaque and obscure; second, I think because the experience of life of people in the modern era is always complicated and intricate, so it is actually impossible for modern poets to write in simple and superficial vernacular Chinese. They need to think carefully before they write down their lines; therefore, in this case, it’s inevitable for them to come up with vague or ambiguous poems. Kafka’s novels are incomprehensible, as Picasso’s drawings are never clear at a glance. But their art works definitely mean a lot. We should consider and understand modern poetry in this way as well.
SF: Zheng, Min, a poet of the “Nine Leaves” school of poetry, once mentioned that “For modern poetry, it neither carries on the fine traditions of ancient poetry, nor forms their own literary style and tradition.” Do you think modern poetry should have their specific tradition? In which way should modern poetry construct their poetic traditions?
YX: The word “tradition” is a relative concept. Modern poetry has already formed its tradition during this past several decades. For example, it has shown its respect for people and their daily life, which is what ancient poetry lacks.
Section 3: Modern Poetry and its Achievements.
SF: What is the greatest achievement of modern poetry in the past century? Who do you think is the most valuable poet and what is the most valuable collection as well as poetic theory in this past century?
YX: Of those achievements, perhaps none of them is more meaningful than the fact that modern poetry generates a kind of new language and artistic style, an artistic style which can be spread and communicated all around the world. A large number of outstanding poets have emerged from the masses, such as Xu, Zhimo, Bei Dao, Shu Ting, Mu Dan, etc. They are essential parts which can never be separated away from Chinese literature.
SF: What is modern poetry’s significance to Chinese literature and Chinese culture? How would you evaluate modern poetry?
YX: My comment is: taking a broad view of Chinese literature, modern fiction is a lively but bustling genre. Modern poetry is definitely the genre that has the highest achievement throughout the past century.
SF: Ancient people had made several arguments on poetry and its poetic function. Some people said that poetry is a platform for poets to demonstrate their emotion, while others believed that poetry is a mirror to reflect a specific era. According to your perspective, after all, what is the poetic function of poetry? What is the relationship between the poets and their era?
YX: The most important poetic function of poetry is that it makes us aware that the language itself can say more than it could say. If a person wants to understand the meaning of language and see its elegancy, simplicity, succinctness, complexity and fertility, the best way for him to do so is to read poetry. Poets is a group of people who have the most discerning mind during a specific era…they can represent an era, while they could also predict an era.
Section 4: Modern Poetry and its Future.
SF: Many people now think that modern poetry has been marginalized by culture, while some people say that there are signs of turnaround in poetry, and it’s totally possible to make poetry be the same popular as it was in the Tang dynasty. How do you feel, in facing this kind of polarized opinion?
YX: This is an indisputable fact that there is a turnaround in poetry, but it still also a
problematic argument—poetry has not flourished as it was in the Tang dynasty yet. However, the outlook for modern poetry is still promising.
SF: Here is another social phenomenon: nowadays, it looks like the only thing that could make people pay close attention to poetry is the scandals of poets. The way of how a poet gradually becomes popular and famous has nothing to do with his or her literary attainments—their use of literary techniques, their words and their language. Can you make a comment on that?
YX: This phenomenon is temporary and tentative. If a poet wants to be well-known and famous, he or she still needs to focus on his/her writing. It’s the most essential thing.
SF: What do you think about modern poetry and its future development?
YX: Poetry is an alchemy based on the use of language, it is also largely centered on our daily life. No matter in which way modern poetry would move forward in future, poetry writing must concentrate on two key words: “language” and “life.” Otherwise, poetry is just a pile of fleeting bubbles.
We have to admit the fact that modern Chinese poetry, as a genre generated by the Chinese new cultural movement, a genre that has experienced the baptism of time, is totally different from ancient Chinese poetry. However, we should also consider the truth that modern poetry is a legal, lawful heir to traditional culture. Although modern poetry is ideologically influence by Western culture, it still keeps its own cultural gene.
Poets may focus on incorporating and bringing in styles of Western literature during the early stage of development of modern poetry, nevertheless, they need to consider more about building up a bridge between ancient and modern poetry. That said, modern poets cannot totally rely on syllable and rhyme when they write poems—they need to break the conventional syllabic rules.
Lastly, one shortcoming that exists among Chinese modern poets is that they don’t know how to interact with the outside world. Poets have to pay attention to this world, society, and the change of society instead of being along by themselves. Otherwise, modern poetry would never truly enter into people’s life and their mind.
Siyun Fang is a poet and translator. A graduate of Centre College and New York University, she is currently attending The New School MFA Program this fall. Her poems have appeared in Rigorous, Tule Review, In Parentheses, Seven CirclePress, and among other journals and magazines. Her research interests include modern and contemporary poetry, poetic theories, theories of narrative, American fiction, as well as dramatic arts.
Artist: Jiang Shijie