Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry, by Nick Admussen. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. Pp. 230. US $65.00 (hardcover).

"Prose poetry" sounds like an oxymoron. What is it, and what are its meanings and connotations? Are they any different in the Chinese context, where it is known as sanwenshi ... These are the stakes of Nick Admussen's new monograph, which argues that Chinese prose poems "recite and reproduce their raw materials . . . not only to produce an independent piece of art that contains its own history, but to comment on and transform our understanding of prose" (1). Appropriately, Admussen's definition of the prose poem in China both recites and refuses certain aspects of the genre or subgenre as known in other languages.

A standard thumbnail history of prose poetry in the West is that it was developed, most famously by Charles Baudelaire, in the nineteenth century in the context of urban renovation projects such as Haussmann's renovation of Paris. Its anti-metric prosodies spread easily through translation, and by the twentieth century it had gained an association with internationalist avant-gardist poets in many languages, such as Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Victor Segalen, Georg Trakl, Edmond Jabes, Octavio Paz, John Ashbery, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Lyn Hejinian. Such an association, Admussen's book implies, has also governed the treatment of Chinese prose poetry. He cites (and critiques) Maghiel van Crevel's history of Chinese prose poetry, for instance, as it "claims that between the 1940s and the mid-1980s, only Taiwanese authors wrote prose poetry" (158). In mainland China, however, as Admussen details, the transnational and translational history of prose poetry turned out to give it an association in the People's Republic with the orthodoxy of the Chinese state.

The structure of Recite and Refuse moves it from theoretical inquiry to historical pursuit (concluding with an Afterword with further theoretical inquiry), and its main figures are Lu Xun ... (1881-1936), Bing Xin ... (1900-1999), Ke Lan M (b. 1920), Guo Feng (1917-2010), Liu Zaifu ... (b. 1941), Ouyang Jianghe (b. 1956), and Xi Chuan ... (b. 1963). The brief Introduction asks how "this book is also an instance of cross-cultural and cross-generic transformation" (1), then lays out the trajectory of the argument chapter by chapter. Chapter 1 is the most theoretical, moving "from the much-discussed insufficiency of categorical definitions of the genre to the need to describe prose poetry as the product of particular compositional processes, then determining] that we can describe those processes as the condensation of prose writing, the recitation of previous prose art, and the refusal to be identical to previous prose art" (6). Though Chapter 2 demonstrates that "works of prose poetry written before 1949 lack strong generic identity," and goes on to look specifically at Lu Xun's Wild Grass ... ... (1927), it was Bing Xin's 1955 translation of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali (1910, 1912) that was "the most stylistically influential text for many prose poets," with its "prosaic version of Tagore's sacral texts" producing the "plain speech with arching intent that [would] be a dominant mode in orthodox prose poetry" (6). The following chapters focus, in turn, on the orthodox (Ke Lan and Guo Feng in the fifties), the semiorthodox (Liu Zaifu in the eighties), and the unorthodox (Ouyang Jianghe and Xi Chuan from the eighties to today). Ke Lan and Guo Feng's cooperation with the Chinese state "deeply influences their ideas about prose poetry, ideas that have become central to the national experience of the genre" (6). "Liu Zaifu continued prose poetry's tradition of finding a place for the subjective and the aesthetic in the objective world of socialist prose" (7) in a way that matches Liu's semi-orthodox philosophy of trying to make room for the subjective and individualistic within the parameters of Chinese Marxism. …

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