The Making of a Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Spender, and Yang Mu

By Wong, Lisa Lai-Ming | The Comparatist, May 2007 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Spender, and Yang Mu


Wong, Lisa Lai-Ming, The Comparatist


One of the formidable challenges for comparatists today is the reconfiguration of Goethe's term Weltliteratur (1827) in the age of globalization. In analyzing the making of world poetry, Stephen Owen raised a point about the negative effects of Western influence on modern Chinese poetry in his essay "The Anxiety of Global Influence: What Is World Poetry?" (1990). He suspected that Bei Dao had been selling "the state's brutality" and "the suffering of oppression" in China to the West in a highly translatable language (Owen, "Anxiety" 29). In so doing, the poet sacrificed poetry to his own self-interest. Owen's views about the loss of culture and the decline in contemporary poetry from mainland China aroused heated debates and were harshly criticized, most notably by Michelle Yeh and Rey Chow, as symptomatic of Orientalist bias (Yeh, "Chayi" 94-96; Chow, Writing 1-26). Yeh found Owen's accusations self-contradictory, as a result of his desire for difference. In insisting on the cultural difference derived from his expertise in classical Chinese poetry, Owen in fact gave rise to a suppression of internal differences within the Chinese lyric tradition (Yeh 95). She saw in Owen's criticism his worries about the disappearance of the difference that clearly marks out contemporary poetry in China from that produced in the rest of the world (Yeh 96). Rey Chow followed up on this point and argued that Owen actually suffers from "an anxiety over his own intellectual position" as a Sinologist (Chow, Writing 3). From these critics' points of view, Owen's essentialist notion of "Chineseness" in poetry is common in Westerners' Orientalist biases, which imprison "the other" in the static past. In retrospect, although Owen's reading of the high translatability of some modern poems as a sign of deculturation is problematic, he did nonetheless remind readers of the cultural hegemony of the West. Instead of celebrating an innocent synthesis of all literatures in the world, he warned them of the pitfalls of taking for granted a local (Anglo-European) tradition as the universal literary model for developing world poetry (Owen, "Anxiety" 28).

Bearing in mind the controversy caused by Owen's provocative question, David Damrosch put forward a possible answer to the question "What is world literature?" based on a study of the "world" circulation of literary texts via translation. According to Damrosch, all works begin in their original language, but "a work only has an effective life as world literature whenever, and wherever, it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture" (Damrosch 4). He indirectly endorses Susan Bassnett's suggestion that translation is "a major shaping force for change in the history of culture" because it enhances the mobility of a text (Bassnett 10). To approach an understanding of "world literature," the questions contemporary discourse needs to address are not only about the longevity of a work, but also about its evolution across cultures.

Doubtless, our rapidly globalizing world of the twenty-first century facilitates speedy travel of literary theory and practice. In "Traveling Theory" (1982), Edward Said explicates the ways theories are applied in any mature writing and iterates the importance of "critical recognition" (Said, World 226-247). He sees this in Raymond Williams's way of using theory "consciously to qualify, shape and refine his borrowings from Lukacs and Goldmann" (Said, World 241). In the manner of influence studies, Said traces how Lukacs's Theory of the Novel (1920) and History and Class Consciousness (1923) affected his European students and readers, the more prominent among them Lucien Goldmann in Paris and Raymond Williams in Cambridge. Adopted in another place and at a different time, the theory appeared to Said to have lost its original revolutionary vigor and sedimented into a kind of dogmatic orthodoxy. Years later, Said admitted the bias in his early formulation and revised his arguments in his 1994 essay "Traveling Theory Reconsidered" (Said, Reflections 436-452). …

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The Making of a Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Spender, and Yang Mu
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