Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Language of Poetry, the Language of the World: World Poetry and World Language

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Language of Poetry, the Language of the World: World Poetry and World Language

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

Il faut être absolument moderne!


Though poetry is often said to be dead, poetry festivals are still quite common in Germany and are well attended by the international public. Even small cities like Münster or Erlangen invite poets from all over the world to read their poetry in their mother tongues. Their German listeners might never have learnt any of the languages they are confronted with during all the recitals. Of course, translations are usually provided, but many in the auditorium do not need or even want a translation at all; they just wish to hear the sound of the poets, of their voices. They might close their eyes in order to listen to words they cannot understand in the slightest. It seems that in the spoken word there is something hidden from audiences that simply cannot be rescued by the translator.

I experienced this kind of "strange" listening personally when Zheng Chouyu ... read his poetry in Chinese language at the Exhibition Hall of Bonn in 2006. The late director of Bonn's House of Language and Literature, Karin Hempel-Soos, a poet who enjoyed collaborating with the Chinese poet Yang Lian -..., was present then and was overwhelmed by the poems of the Taiwanese poet. She was struck by his voice and by the music his poetry was set to; she had no understanding of Chinese and yet she was able to "understand" what she heard. Can we call this a true moment of world poetry? In some respect I think we can, because Chinese on that evening was able to transcend boundaries and speak to the heart of at least one listener. I should add that Hempel-Soos was not interested in my German translations of Old Zheng's poems at all. She preferred his Chinese voice and not my German tongue. This was hard for me, as I had strived to translate Zheng's poetry into a typical German poetic voice.

I. Is "Chinese" Poetry Possible?

Hempel-Soos might not be representative of connoisseurs of Chinese poetry. Usually, listeners do not want just to hear the sound of a poet, but rather they prefer to understand what he or she is saying. They prefer a semantic over an acoustic approach. They would perhaps complain about not being presented a translation, just as members of Feifeipai once did when I read my poetry in German during an event that took place outside of Peking in 2001. And they might even hope that in the case of Chinese poetry, they will get to learn something "Chinese." But what is "Chinese" poetry in the true sense of the word?

I remember Winfried Woesler, a German professor of German literature at Osnabrück University, who was head of the poetry festival of Münster in 1987. It was he who invited the first Chinese poet to Münster; he invited Gu Cheng ... and his wife Xie Ye ..., also a poet, with my help. But when he got to know their poetry through my translations, he complained: "So, what is Chinese about their poetry? Their poems are not Chinese at all!" I have no idea what he expected or what "Chinese" would have meant to him for that matter, but I can imagine he expected some kind of conventional-or shall we say traditional-Chinese poetry, filled with cultural tropes and worn images, the sort he was introduced to by LYuan ..., whom he worked with and whom he invited to Muster two years later in 1989.

I have to confess that I admire Lü Yuan for learning German in prison, but I am not a friend of his poetry or his poetical taste at all. To me, he represents that kind of conventional poetry that someone like Woesler might regard as "Chinese," but which in my eyes is totally out of time because it is not only Chinese, it is too Chinese. As it is not international, it does not belong to world literature according to my understanding of modern poetry.

If it is really still possible to write "Chinese" poetry, then it would be possible, too, to write "German" poetry. But German poetry in the true sense of the word would be as much outdated as any kind of Chinese poetry that wants to be truly Chinese. …

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