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Guy Davenport’s translation of Mao

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

In 1979, Guy Davenport’s second book of “stories” appeared: Da Vinci’s Bicycle. He was fifty-one. I put quotation marks around the word stories because almost nothing happens in any of them. When they’re good, they’re good for other reasons. 

Davenport was a disciple of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, and like everyone answering that description, he was a supreme crank. The main problem with all of these guys is that they vastly overestimate the value of literary allusion. And I know all about it, ’cuz I was ruined in my youth by these lizard-eating weirdos. Davenport certainly did his part.

They were all brilliant. They could write sentences that stick with you forever. Most people never write even one; these guys could practically cut them off by the yard. Yet, none of ’em knew when to stop. They always, always got carried away. My hypothesis is that too much of their motivation for writing was to enshrine their crankitudes. They were always trying to get away with something.

Zoom in on Davenport. Let me ask you: How much Chinese do you suppose he knew? I think the smart money is on “very little.” He probably knew about as much as I do—which is to say, as much as can be learned from one semester of study, augmented by the eager observation of one or two native speakers reciting a handful of classic poems. 

But a supreme crank knows how to exploit every little drop of whatever he or she knows. Davenport, who really did know all about poetic meter in English, must have listened very actively when he got somebody to recite Li Bai (or whomever) to him. Davenport knew what he was not hearing. Chinese meter was not about vowel quantity, nor stressed and unstressed syllables. What Chinese poetry almost certainly sounded like to him was clusters of five syllables, all of them stressed. That’s what mile after mile of Tang- and Song-Dynasty poetry sounds like to an English speaker.

Armed with this thought, he did a translation of a famous poem by Mao Zedong. The form of his translation is unique in American letters: The text is set up as quatrains (that’s normal enough), but the individual lines have only three syllables each. Davenport knew that this did not accurately reflect the original Chinese, but—and this is where the brilliance comes in—it does get across (like nothing else available in English) the collapsed syntax and staccato pacing of classical shi poetry.

Read more at the Paris Review link here


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Chinese Rhymes


the Chinese language—with all its dialects, creoles, sister languages, and God knows what all—has changed a great deal in the last, oh, three thousand years. We have quite a bit of Chinese poetry from way back in there, and if I understand things correctly, the Chinese still like it. A generalization, but I’ll venture it. And indeed, there were centuries wherein one could not even pretend to be educated unless one could recognize at a glance any reference to any of the 305 poems in the oldest Chinese poetry anthology, the Shijing. This, despite the fact that what came out of your mouth when you recited the poems was quite drastically different from what the stuff sounded like when it was composed, a thousand, two thousand years before you got a hold of it. And here we come to the heart of the matter.

You would think that what I’m going to call “rhyme spoilage” would be a constant threat to classical Chinese poetry—and you’d be right. Those examples I gave of rhyme spoilage in English? The oldest specimen up there is about four hundred years old. What would happen if we looked at samples of English rhyming that were five times as old as that? (Which, of course, is impossible, since both the English language and rhyming poetry did not exist in Europe two thousand years ago.) You might think all Zhou dynasty rhymes would have been obliterated by now. But you’re in for a surprise. We’ll just look at one example.

Here is an English translation (by Burton Watson) of one of the most famous poems from the Shijing:

Peach tree young and fresh,
bright bright its blossoms:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her home.

Peach tree young and fresh,
plump are its fruits:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her rooms.

Peach tree young and fresh,
its leaves lush and full:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do right by her people

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2017 set to be landmark year for Chinese poetry

By Wen Zongduo/Li Wenfang

Many Chinese poets say that this year will be special for them, a view echoed by Wang Guoqin, a poet and critic who said “poetry is the light ahead in the dark tunnel of my life”, after receiving the Creation Award of the Year at the Third Spring Festival Poetry Gala for his book Talking About Poetry From Zhishi Studio.

The gala in Beijing organized over Jan 13-14 by the Qu Yuan Society of China brought together poetry enthusiasts from Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, Kaifeng and Shenyang.

Coincidentally, just over 100 years ago, Chinese poetry underwent a drastic change with poetry collections being published in new styles, free in rhythm and lines, com-pared with traditional verses often preset with tones, rhymes and the numbers of characters.

But questions still abound a century later.

At an event in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, on Jan 8 in the presence of guests from the province, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, Qiu Shuhong, whose latest honor is the World Chinese Poetry Award’s gold prize, proposed that 2017 be made the Year of Chinese Poetry to celebrate the birth of “new poems”. Read more

Source: China Daily

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The poetry of pain defines author’s new collection: Zhao Lihong

By Xing Yi


While Zhao Lihong is defined by his prose in China, the writer says poetry is what drives him.

In November, Zhao released a collection of his poems that delve into an eternal literary theme – agony and pain.

Titled Pain, the book contains 51 poems, most of which were written in the past three years.

“Writing poems is a very personal thing. When ideas come to my mind, I note them down,” Zhao said during a book tour in Beijing last month.

“Some ideas appear during my travels on planes and trains, and some come to me in my dreams.”

Zhao’s collection includes a poem from his unpublished writings of 1982, in which he writes: “Joy is the shell, but pain is the essence.”

Born in Shanghai in 1952, like many from his generation, Zhao experienced the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) when normal college education was interrupted in the country.

In those years, he was sent to work on the farmlands of Chongming, an island county on the Yangtze River. The work exhausted him and the lack of books or companions bored him. It was then that he started to write – both prose and poetry. Read more

Source: China Daily

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One American writer’s pilgrimage to discover China’s greatest poets


Debates over the necessity of educating Chinese youth in ancient poetry and prose are never-ending. Some question whether reading these sophisticated ancient works really help young people in a tangible way. That’s why an American writer’s passionate tribute to China’s ancient literary tradition has moved many Chinese readers.

Bill Porter, better known as Red Pine, spent four years tracing the steps of China’s 36 most important poets, ranging from China’s earliest poet Qu Yuan (340–278 BC) to prominent poets from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960—1279) Dynasties. Porter visited their graves, birthplaces, villages and cities where they once lived, as well as locations they immortalized in their poems.

One place Porter visited was a small village in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, where an old man guided him through a vast farmland replete with corn, eggplant, onions and green beans. Eventually Porter and his guide arrived at a large cave filled with garbage – the less-than-dignified final resting place of great poet Du Mu (803-852 AC) of the Tang Dynasty. Du Mu’s realistic poems shone during the most prosperous age of Chinese poetry. Read more

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China establishes database on classic Chinese literature

A database of Chinese poems and classics of literature will soon be open to viewers at home and abroad.

The database, still in its first phase, is made up of about 500 hours of video on the 100 most popular classic of Chinese poetry and short essays, said a press release from the People’s Education Press, the database’s publisher, on Wednesday.

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In China today, does poetry still matter?

From the University of Washington Post Blog

There’s a famous Chinese saying that “the misery of the state leads to the emergence of great poets” (guojia buxing shijia xing)–or more literally, “when the state is unfortunate, poets are fortunate.” These words come from a poem by the Qing dynasty historian Zhao Yi (1727–1814), observing the phenomenon in which classic works of poetry often appear during times of calamity: war, famine, dynastic downfall, and so on. Continue reading

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China: Awkward, diligent: Liu Xiaobo’s love poetry

Nick Admussen on the poetry of Liu Xiaobo, 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: The Boston Review

LiuXiabaoXiaobo’s poems to his wife, though, are the most illuminating to me. During some of his stays in prison, he was able to write and send hundreds of poems and letters to Xia. These poems waver between public documents and interpersonal contact. They wheedle playfully: “. . . think of me as a cigarette / now to light, now to rub out / go ahead, smoke!” They reach out: “One letter is enough / for me to transcend everything and face / you to speak.” They often seem, implicitly or explicitly, to apologize: “Beloved / my wife / in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity / why do you / choose me alone to endure.” But they remonstrate and mock, too: a poem on Kant is dedicated to “Xia, who has never read Kant.” Taken together, the poetry enacts a love in progress, a need, a selfless drive to care for and support the beloved that is deeply tied to a simultaneous, frightening urge to manipulate and transform him or her for self-serving purposes.

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Fiona Sze-Lorrain: I try to write as a witness to something concrete

Singaporean poet Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé interviews Fiona Sze-Lorrain on Bai Hua’s Wind Says

Fiona Sze-Lorrain PortraitThere’s something alluring about reading poetry in translation. Some words, and the particular meanings they are bound to, simply don’t exist in other languages. With translation comes the complex act of rendering such meaning, the translator’s work a kind of precious vocation that helps bridge stories and cultures and people. That a rare poet like Bai Hua has an accomplished poet like Fiona Sze-Lorrain to bring his work to an English-speaking audience is wonderful. The result is a beautiful collection that helps the reader understand a poet of such quiet restraint and largeness of heart. Of his new work, Sze-Lorrain writes: “With its mosaic of references and quotes in synchronic and diachronic modes, the materiality of the language fabric in Bai Hua’s recent work can only thicken. More than bearing mere emotional weight, it is as much a palimpsest as a collage of competing and superimposed textual intensities.”

It is with great anticipation that a reader approaches any new work by Bai Hua. Bai Hua, after all, penned a modest ninety poems over the last thirty years. Born in 1956, he is well-known as one of the more prominent of post-Misty poets in 1980s China, eventually receiving the Rougang Poetry Award and Anne Kao Poetry Prize. Continue reading