Global Subjects of Poetry: Power and Discourse in Poetry

By Li, Xingbo | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2014 | Go to article overview

Global Subjects of Poetry: Power and Discourse in Poetry


Li, Xingbo, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


To argue for the utility of comparing poetic tropes across cultures, this essay takes up French and Chinese poems (by Baudelaire and Li Bai) using tropes of wine and inebriation. A critical analysis demonstrates how the base tropes are expressed in terms of their source cultures' power relations.

To be truthful, i.e. to use customary metaphors. --Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense"

In his 2001 American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) presidential address, Jonathan Culler proposes that studying poetry should involve comparing it not only with drama and narrative, but also with other poems (vii-xvii). (1) He claims that comparing or theorizing about poetry requires thinking about traditions other than one's own, however inadequate one's linguistic capacities. This essay follows this impetus in comparing wine poems from the Tang tradition (China, CE 618-907) with those from a landmark poet of the European traditions, Charles Baudelaire.

Conventionally, such poetry ranks within national corpuses of literary masterpieces, tightly wedded to their origin and resistant to both translation and to movement beyond their national boundaries. In the rare cases where "adequate" translators have brought these poems to new shores, they often count as canonical texts of "world literature," yet somehow unrelated to their origins, since every translation can be seen as a rewriting aimed principally at a new audience. (2) For the present purposes, that also implies that such texts can meet as translations--that they need to be seen not only as national, but also as presenting ideas across national lines in that space of world literature.

I chart here a different kind of "arrival" of poetry across national lines, taking translations as mutually enlightening for readers of world literature, despite their very different underlying world views. As such works meet in translation, their shared tropes and motifs illuminate their shared identities as lyric poetry, just as they add nuance to a target audience's vision as representations of common core concepts from very different source world views. Each time such a poem arrives on a reader's table, it presents something familiar (convention) and new (invention) at the same time.

The discussion that follows thus takes up Culler's challenge in one specific dimension: to ask what can be recovered from translations of poetry. Such a comparison cannot, by definition, claim to represent the poetics of national languages because translations serve a target audience, not their sources. Nor do I intend to critique translations. Instead, I want to illuminate here the continuing validity of working with canonical texts as representations of the lyric "I" of two different national poetic traditions within the horizon of expectation of contemporary U.S. readers of English. Each translation only conditionally represents its source text, but nonetheless provides evidence of language's tropical nature (how tropes can be variously constructed). Moreover, comparing two poems with similar base tropes opens up what Michel Foucault calls discourses of power--how they express very different versions of their lyrical I's will to power. (3) In a real sense, then, this poetry comparison highlights how poetic tropes reveal how their source cultures construct and analyze power relations.

My case studies are two well-known poems: "Bring in the Wine" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), written by Li Bai (CE 701-62), (4) one of the canonical immortals of classical Chinese poetry, and "Get Drunk" ("ENIVREZ-VOUS!") by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), often considered in Western histories of poetry as the first modern poet.

As noted, in this context we must ignore the many questions that scholars of poetics might pose about translations, such as those about the "fidelity" of the translations to the originals (a question long central to translation studies [see Venuti]).

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