Recite and Refuse:
Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry

By Nick Admussen

Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2018)

Nick Admussen, Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016. V-viii, 219 pp. ISBN-13: 9780824856526. Hardback: $65.00

Nick Admussen’s book Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry can be characterized in the same terms as the poetry he describes: concentrated and condensed. The book’s modest size (some 165 pages plus an appended 10-page translation) relative to its scope, however, makes it no less effective because Admussen’s prose is lucid and his arguments almost uniformly intriguing. The essential argument of the work—that prose poetry is more process than product of creation and that authors of prose poetry so identified should be understood in the context of the entire social field giving rise to their works—is comprehensively addressed. In the Afterword, which serves as something of an artistic treatise, he summarizes as follows: “Creation becomes the creation not of a product but a set of connections: the power of creation is not then ownership or mastery, but definition, consensus, the ability to fix the shape of a structure” (164).

Finding the “shape of a structure” begins in this book with an attempt at fitting prose poetry into something like a definition. The project is hopeless, but no less interesting for being so. Admussen is an excellent guide as we, in his words, “travel with the poem, not to the poem” (2). From the first chapter, “What Is a Chinese Prose Poem?”, which begins the same as the other four—with a poem (or poems) serving as illustrations for the analysis that follows—Admussen opens with a simple question: “how can we start—by reading the poem through the genre, which we do not yet understand, or by reading the genre through the poem, even though we have no proof that the poem fits the genre?” (10). That question leads to a brief review of the general problem of categorization, as handled by Derrida and other critics, as well as brief exploration of the scholarship on prose poetry as a literary form. The effort to establish a working definition of a Chinese prose poem involves inevitably the critical establishment (literary historians) who gave rise to the literary category to begin with, so chapter 2 takes up the question of the “tradition” of prose poetry in China. From there Admussen moves into the main part of his analysis, devoting a chapter each to the “orthodox,” “semi-orthodox,” and “unorthodox” varieties of prose poetry in contemporary China. Following the short afterword, the book concludes with a notable appendix, a translation of Ouyang Jianghe’s 欧阳江河 6200-character poem “Hanging Coffin” (悬棺).

In the definition stage, the “prose” of prose poetry is dispatched with easily enough as “writing that allows the insertion of white, non-text space only once at the end of each paragraph, as opposed to poetry, which allows it to be inserted before or after any word, and sometimes even inside words.” (11) Predictably, it is the definition of “poetry” that is the problem. The first notion that is showcased is that of brevity or ‘nongsuo’ 浓缩 (condensation), as advocated by Ke Lan 柯蓝 (b. 1920), one of the major critics responsible for establishing prose poetry as a genre in Chinese, the other being Guo Feng 郭风 (b. 1917). Admussen reviews Ke’s thoughts on the subject, but observes that brevity is nearly meaningless if we don’t have a basis for comparison. Ke himself has in his writings offered a wide range for determining how brief “brief” actually is, varying from 300 to 500 and up to a 1000 characters (13). Thus, we turn away from the possibility of normative value using simple character count. The notion of brevity is still important and operative, reconceived not as attribute but as process, as in the “process of nongsuo” (14). Understood this way, brevity moves from a formal consideration to a concept of content  wherein prose poems are “about a version of life that has had this intensifying, miniaturizing process applied to it” (14). Admussen proposes that understanding prose poems in this manner allows us to read them more effectively, focusing more on the process of creation rather than its final product. As example, he provides three poems: “On Wang Ximeng’s Blue-Green Landscape Scroll, A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains” (2008) by Xi Chuan 西川; “We Pledge our Lives to Defend You” by an anonymous author; and, “Firewood Seller” by Zhang Jiawen. Xi Chuan is a major figure of the avant-garde poetry scene in China, the anonymous poem appeared in Tiananmen Square shortly after the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976, and Zhang Jiawen is a newspaper reporter for a Yunnan paper whose poem was published in 1994. The three poems, taken collectively, are designed to identify “generic cohesions and boundaries” (22). As Admussen leads us on our travels with the poem, we also arrive, somewhat belatedly, at a more fleshed-out definition of “prose poems” and explanation of the title of the book:

We will take prose poems as pieces of prose that have undergone a process of condensation similar to that found in poetry. We will ask if they recite a previous piece of prose, recreating it, performing it once again in the present, and then refuse that previous text, both in the sense that they eschew the previous resolution, conclusion, aesthetic ideology, or narrative path of the recited prose, and in the sense that they recombine the elements of the prior text with new elements in order to make a new and independent work of art. . . . Recitation and refusal are not the point or meaning of individual prose poems: they are our starting point, our supposition about prose poetry’s internal structure, its process, its shared technē” (34-35)

With this definition cum process, we are equipped to follow Admussen in his readings of prose poetry, whether or not we will ever arrive at the elusive final definition of what constitutes the genre itself.

Admussen’s examination of the Chinese prose poem tradition opens with another set of poems, most intriguingly Shen Yinmo’s 沈尹默 “Moonlit Night” (月夜; 1918)

A frosty wind whistles as it’s blowing.
the moonlight shining so brightly.
A towering tree and I stand side by side,
But without touching.

The poem is widely anthologized in discussions of modern Chinese poetry generally and prose poetry in particular. Wang Fuming’s 王幅明 1993 anthology (美丽的混血儿: 散文诗的技巧) cites Shen’s poem, and goes so far as to remove lineation, so that the poem reads as one, long rather odd sentence (40). That this could be a “prose poem” in any meaningful sense is a significant question, and Admussen explores that significance at length. Shen’s work clearly typifies May Fourth-era poetry in its single-minded effort to “strike out” against the classical tradition. Thus, a degree of “marked confusion” (42) was at play for writers and critics at the time who would have liked to positively identify styles if not whole genres of literary practice. Admussen reviews some of the famous examples, probably most notable of which is Zhou Zuoren’s 周作人 description of his own “Rivulet” (小河) as “this is a bit like” the prose poetry of Baudelaire and that “perhaps it doesn’t count as poetry, we’ll never know; but this is irrelevant” (42). Admussen concludes that the genre is at this point in China’s literary history marked mainly by a series of “slippages of ideas” (43), and not much more.

Contested understandings of a genre, though, are not to be taken as indication that a genre does not exist, and Admussen observes that a “tradition of Chinese prose poetry” clearly emerges in Chinese critical writing subsequent to the period when Chinese prose poetry ostensibly emerged. Explication of that process takes Admussen into relatively standard literary-historical writing, and a simple narrative emerges: tracing Liu Bannong’s translations of “short stories” later understood as prose poems around 1918, followed by the well-known dichotomy in Chinese poetry discussions over rhymed versus unrhymed (prose) works, and codification of the genre in the 1950s by poets who mostly needed a justification for their work on ideological grounds (e.g., Ke Lan and Guo Feng). A crucial moment in the development of the genre came in the 1980s, when a new-found culture of openness made it possible for century-spanning anthologies and histories of the genre to appear, generated by a group of critics who were in effect “creating rather than inheriting the mantle of prose poetry” (51). In other words, in Admussen’s estimation, the tradition of May Fourth prose poetry is a fictitious one, created for the purposes of the present. That said, Admussen is quick to note that “if a fictitious tradition influences the practices of those who believe it, then it is no less important than one that is scrupulously documented” (54).

Having reviewed definitions of the genre and its history, Admussen gets back to the question of what is really happening in the poems, the actual mechanisms of the recitals and refutations. This also brings us to the first in his tripartite orthodox/semi-orthodox/unorthodox progression. Orthodox prose poetry is exemplified for Admussen by the writings of Ke Lan and Guo Feng, semi-orthodox prose poetry by Liu Zaifu 刘再复 (b. 1941), and the works of Ouyang Jianghe (b. 1956 ) and Xi Chuan (b. 1963) represent the unorthodox tradition in Chinese prose poetry. A through line in Admussen’s identification and exploration of the three sub-genres is the critical question of voice, and the vocal attribute most essential to Admussen’s analysis is a kind of ventriloquism that characterizes the prose poetic voice. This ventriloquist feature best substantiates Admussen’s argument, because it is as compellingly present in leftist oriented work as it is in more ideologically independent or experimental poetry. Indeed, the entire question of ideological underpinning, other than being responsible for the relative scarcity of prose poetry from about 1963 through the late 1970s, is refreshingly recast in this book. Admussen’s description of Chinese prose poetry manages to rise above left/right, free/constrained dichotomies. Intriguingly, voice/persona is not only identified as a key feature of the Chinese prose poem, but also as the genre’s biggest problem, particularly for the orthodox prose poet in the PRC, where poetry attempts to

hold the simultaneous position as the voice of the party and a form privileged in its relationship to reality, then poetry masquerading as or ventriloquizing prose (in the form of news, party dictates, official speeches, communist theory, and realist or romantic realist fiction) as an impact on concepts of that reality. . . . A perfect identity between the poet’s position and the party’s, though, is impossible to maintain, and once prose poetry gained political legitimacy during the Deng period, the promise of that distance would open crucial spaces for independent-minded writers in the 1980s. (83)

Admussen’s methodology moves well beyond poetic and other textual study, particularly as he turns his attention to more recent examples. In order to draw a complete picture of the social and political context of PRC prose poetry, the author places himself at the center of his own work, chronicling and analyzing the workings of the PRC prose poetry field from the perspective gained during his time as an insider/participant (84). He leverages his considerable research into network theory, using ideas developed by Richard So and Hoyt Long, as well as Franco Moretti’s work on Dream of the Red Chamber. Admussen does not do so uncritically, though, noting for instance that network analysis “can’t represent the ways in which literary relationships are multiple: authors are, for example, simultaneously publishing and socializing” (87). Admussen responds to both of these sociological systems of analysis with his own experience-based augmentations, which allow the network theory paradigm to work more effectively. This segment of the book, while brief, is important for advancing Admussen’s discussion of prose poetry as a process.

Admussen’s fourth chapter addresses the transitional “semi-orthodox poetry” of essayist, critic, and one-time member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Liu Zaifu (b. 1941). Admussen observes that, in the years leading up to June 4, 1989, Liu wrote  a number of prose-poems while simultaneously making high-profile contributions to the cultural debates that took place throughout the 1980s. Liu was connected to the political power structure, but also advocated significant departures from the CCP agenda—namely, liberalization on a broad range of issues. In light of these contextual and biographical factors, Admussen situates Liu in this medial position of semi-orthodox prose poet, which Admussen once again interprets largely in terms of voice and the ways a poet situates his own subjectivity vis-à-vis previous artists (Guo Feng in particular). “Here,” as Admussen observes,  “the speaker’s role as subject is the point: the seizure of moral responsibility and individual power to make change is overt, the poem’s product rather than its process” (111).  The products in Liu’s case are poems that to a degree harken back to Lu Xun’s Wild Grass as well as other more recent works, but also point forward toward a more globalized and authentic form of writing, one that eschews falsity of any sort. Liu’s abiding theme, in Admussen’s  summation, is “the search for an authentic self that can receive accurate and trustworthy information about the world” (121).

While the previous chapters are full of insights and useful information, one feels that Admussen is really working up to his final chapter, which addresses the work of Ouyang Jianghe and Xi Chuan. Ouyang Jianghe’s “Hanging Coffin” is the focus of the first part of the chapter. “Hanging Coffin,” however, is too long to quote at the outset, as he does with the poems opening the other chapters. Instead—and most creatively and ambitiously—Admussen advances his own condensation of Ouyang’s massive work in a single sentence: “Hanging Coffin is an epic manifestation of the evacuation of history” (134). He then proceeds to unpack that sentence, word by word, until a full reading of Ouyang Jianghe’s poem emerges. That reading details the incredible sweep of Ouyang’s work, but also the ways in which the poet endeavors to close the door on his own chapter of prose-poetic composition. By contrast, shifting finally to Xi Chuan, Admussen arrives at a very compelling summary of some of his key concepts as manifested in Xi Chuan’s work:

This is a basically ventriloquistic and pluralist ideology, one that calls into question the position of the speaker as a maxim-producing creator of wisdom; the poem recasts that speaker as a channeller of wisdom, a collector whose task implicitly denies the existence of a single set of universal truths. (153)

Although at a mere five pages the “Afterword” is the most condensed component of Admussen’s book, it is expertly written, containing passages that rival some of the prose-poetry he discusses in the work. It is not so much a summary of what comes before, but a final fleshing out of the ways in which recitation and refusal as he has discussed them “take into themselves the languages of power” (164). By returning to the subject of those languages, or summonings, Admussen more firmly roots his study in the context of Chinese literary history. Citing Xi Chuan’s observations on the impossibility of a contemporary Chinese language that is not in some way linguistically or morally “’shaped by our experience of socialism,’” Admussen recapitulates his key terms and method: “Recitation, refusal, support and opposition all fight the fiction of the irrelevance and pastness of socialism in China today. . . . Recitation is not equal to obedience; refusal is not equal to subversion. Both acts shape systems, and in time, either can come to look like a revolution” (165).

It is hard to find fault with a work that is for the most part so illuminating and well-argued, but Recite and Refuse is not without its shortcomings. I wonder why the focus for most of the work is  “recitation” when “summoning,” which is what the author so lucidly deploys in the “Afterword,” seems to be a better choice. More important, and although I don’t think the brevity of the work is necessarily an issue, there are problematic omissions. The first of these bears obvious mention, namely the almost total lack of Chinese characters in the work. One can only assume that this was the author’s decision, but as a reader it is simply frustrating to try to sort through possibilities suggested by Romanized Chinese. There are two additional omissions that one can point two. The first is the degree of treatment of the secondary scholarship. Huang Yibing’s work, for instance, receives all of one sentence on page 107, and the work of Nicholas Kaldis on Chinese prose poetry receives barely more than that on pages 44 and 64, as well as a few notational mentions. Additionally, it seems odd that a discussion of prose poetry in Chinese could proceed without any mention of work produced in Taiwan by the likes of Shang Qin 商禽 (among others), who has arguably made the most significant contributions to the genre in the Chinese language. I expect the reason for the latter omission has to do with Admussen’s tripartite scheme and discussion of ideological underpinnings of the genre, not to mention the specific fieldwork-informed network analysis that comes from a socio-political context and literary field far removed from those encountered in Taiwan. Why a more thorough discussion of scholarship in English on the subject of Chinese prose poetry was not more prominent is harder to understand. Those concerns aside, Admussen’s work is a rare combination of breezy and substantive, and certainly well worth the read.

Paul Manfredi
Pacific Lutheran University