Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic

Article excerpt

Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic, by Paul Manfredi. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2014. Pp. 282. $109.99 (hardcover).

The first half of Paul Manfredi's book's title suggests that it covers "modern poetry in China." Yet readers will soon discover that Manfredi takes us well beyond the borders of both genre and nation. Aside from poems, Manfredi selectively analyzes a range of visual media, from painting and sculpture to sketches, typesetting, and calligraphy. As for being "in China," the six main chapters move among France, Taiwan, the United States, and mainland China. In so doing the author highlights a complex dialogue of global modernity that sits well with the book's inclusion in Cambria Press's Sinophone World Series, which encourages publications on "Siniticlanguage cultures and communities ... on the margins of geo-political nation-states all across the world." Perhaps most important, taken as a whole the analyses presented in the book generate a narrative that questions the notion of the "modern" in modern Chinese poetry, as the author concludes with the idea that poetry and the visual arts, areas previously conjoined in the traditional art of the Chinese literati, are apparently experiencing a neo-traditional convergence after being split in the early twentieth century by imported discourses of aesthetic modernity.

At its core, the book argues that "visuality" in the works of certain multi-talented poet-artists "has contributed significantly to the way in which Chinese poetry has quite literally taken shape in the past 100 years." A key phenomenon across that hundred-year span is "instability:" both in the lyrical subject as discernible in poetic text and visual art, and in "the image of the poetic text itself." This instability, in turn, has functioned dynamically, and creatively, in the formation of Chinese-language new poetry.

The work of the poets foregrounded in the book-Li Jinfa, Ji Xian, Luo Qing, Xia Yu, and Yan Li-do for the most part lend themselves to an emphasis on instability, especially in the sense of fragmentation, ambiguity, and even play. As a group, they also form a diachronic progression beginning from the vernacular poetry reform of the May Fourth period, with Li Jinfa. Ji Xian then bridges the Chinese poetry scene of the 1930s and 1940s with the Modernist poetry movement in Taiwan of the 1950s and 1960s. Luo Qing and Xia Yu represent verbal-visual experimentation based in contemporary Taiwan. The career of Yan Li, meanwhile, spans a wide swath of time and space, from the late-1970s post-Mao renaissance of poetry and art in mainland China down to the current, highly globalized poetry scene.

By tracing the interplay of the verbal and visual in the work of these five poets, as well as several more discussed who are more briefly, Modern Poetry in China gives us an interesting alternative narrative of Chinese poetic modernity, and one that is decidedly non-linear. Interpreting poems in terms of visual imagery is not particularly new, but the book offers insights in this more conventional respect. Getting poems to speak to images in the visual arts, and vice versa, however, is more of a challenge. And doing so in a way that speaks to topics like the lyrical subjectivity of a poet adds another level of difficulty. The book does provide the materials needed for this task. It includes the poems in Chinese and English translation, and appends color plates of relevant works of visual art to the end of each chapter. All the same, where the visual works are fully distinct from the poems, and not instances of calligraphic word-art or the like, the verbal-visual connections are not always convincing. This is the case with the chapters on Li Jinfa and Ji Xian. For the former, the author at certain points attempts to establish conversations between an actual painting by Li, Self-portrait in Rome Moonlight, and two poems: Shen Yinmo's frequently anthologized "Moonlit Night" (Yue ye) and Li Jinfa's own poetic "Selfportrait" (Ti zi hua xiang). …

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