By Peter Porter
Copyright MCLC Resource Center (May 2007)
There is a Chinese saying which must be interpreted in exactly opposite terms, “May you live in literary times.” Certainly Liu Hongbin would enjoy being able to take this statement seriously, though even so he might find that poets, academics and publishers can constitute a difficult phalanx of persons to find himself up against in any sort of society. But the intended reverse meaning of the original cynical remark is obvious: it is precisely the way literature has been politicised which has intruded so forcefully on his life and art.
Before outlining the circumstances which have made him an exile from his homeland, it is worth speculating what opposition a Western Poet might anticipate when he or she set out to write poetry and to make of it, somehow, if not exactly a career, at least a lifetime’s conviction. The classic account of difficulties of devoting your life to poetry is Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. In the US and Western Europe these almost all masquerade as forms of help – journalism, publishing, Academia, marriage, children (Connolly’s “pram in the hall”) and mercantile seduction from seriousness. There are plenty of more obvious hindrances, envy, neglect, and worst of all, the probability of being replaced by younger talents. But nowhere on the horizon can be glimpsed political directive, moral assertion presented as literary decorum or party venom working at a personal level. The Chinese Poet, even if he is a patriot, has had to face these last injunctions for many years.
Of course, nothing is simple in world political and artistic terms. We in the West have all read sighing articles apparently envying writers who have had to produce their works under direct censorship. At least, the state has sponsored the publications, usually in numbers far vaster than anyone but the most dumbed-down writers could expect in the West, given them praise and status – dachas, parties, conferences, and if they are trusted, travel throughout the world. What they do not have is freedom of subject and expression. Not all artists producing their work under such duress prefer freedom if it means reduced status and income.
Obviously, the writer forced to leave a coercive society will face difficulty when he or she seeks haven in a modern democracy. Firstly, the refugee must offer proper thanks to the host nation and be prepared in interview and through publication to praise his or her newfound freedom. It will be hard for such a person to keep up both the level of gratitude and to continue to satisfy the protecting country with full details of the suppression and tyranny endured. Who could blame anyone for upping the ante and piling on the detailed horror? Of recent years a new embarrassment has emerged. Western governments have chosen to revise their sanctions against former Communist countries. Ostensibly this is due to a relaxation of persecution in Russia and China, together with a change of emphasis – our enemies are now “terrorists,” and authoritarian regimes may seem to be as threatened by such phenomena as democratic ones. The world has changed radically since the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. To further this radical rearrangement of loyalties, the West has discovered, especially in the case of China, enormous trade advantages. Asylum seekers, once valued as emblems of the difference between authoritarian and democratic regimes, have become, within the ambience of the triumph of Capitalism, a new sort of enemy, rather than people we should help.
I’ve argued this sea-change in world affairs at such length because introducing the poetry of Liu Hongbin obliges me to cover a lot of ground, particularly in my main emphasis: namely that his poetry is the important thing about him and his expulsion from China and his resistance to persecution amounts to a terrible interference in the life of a real artist. He studied English in his native city of Qingdao (Tsingtao), and is well versed in the tradition of English Literature, especially poetry, and especially of the Twentieth Century. This is not to suggest that Liu’s original poetry derives in any way from English practice, only that being truthful verse sui generis it can be reborn in English. Translation may be an unconscious form of treachery but it instinctively reacts to good work by desiring to remake it in its own language at an equivalent intensity of commitment. I believe all the poems in this collection live vividly in their new clothes.
Liu Hongbin’s first poems after leaving China in 1989 were preoccupied, naturally enough, in presenting in rhetorical terms the outrageous conduct of China’s rulers. Even here, though, there is nothing overtly political at work. His tone is more that of the desperate Psalmist of the Bible. Bafflement combines with outrage, though a proper sense of historical perspective is always present. The long poem “A Day Within Days” is a kind of last look back, a version of Lot’s grief at the destruction of the Cities of the Plain. “China, you are my nightmare./ You lull the children with gunshots and a caterpillar of tanks.” Liu’s own father was gunned down by the military government during the Cultural Revolution in 1970. Just before that passage he states “How I long to go on writing poetry. / To make imagination thaw, / let me feel my cells swimming as fish again.” Throughout this poem–one of the most explicit of his reminiscences of his country – his feeling alternates between an Old Testament-cum-Whitmanesque exordium, and a gathering up of memories to shore against his ruins. It’s as if the prophetic utterance of Allen Ginsberg’s Howlwas being shaped by a real and not merely a symbolic terror. There are a number of poems in this collection which take up the theme of “A Day Within Days” and all possess the same sense of outrage and loss but yet remain loyal to the coordinates of art. Poems are made of words; they exert their meaning through the selection of images and skilful deployment of syntax. They are not pieces of evidence before a court. Liu Hongbin is always aware of what language can do and does not overestimate mere stories as so many hysterical poems from expatriates have seemed to do.
He has been in exile in the West, chiefly in Britain, for almost two decades and, as with any poet of skill and ambition, his poetry has changed and developed during his stay. There has been a shift to personal themes and a willingness to chart the life of the intellectual in the Post-Modern Society. It has not been easy for him to honour his poetic creed. In “Learning a New Language” he notes that “Phonetic sounds leave a trace on the muscle” and “Language is a kind of action.” In “You Predicted My Destiny” he looks to personal relations rather than any Muse of History to explain his choice of profession. Throughout his poetry there is a strong sense of destiny – not of revolt from tyranny, but of fulfilment of a calling. In a different China he would have been an honoured poet. That country has always valued its poets and seen them as a species of superior courtier who loved both the land and its people. What communism in its Chinese form distorted was China’s poetic spirit. It has been Liu’s often unhappy fate to have to remain a Chinese poet in a society almost completely unable to judge his art in its native dress. It is essential to appreciate that he is a Chinese poet who is publishing Chinese poems in the best form his own command of English and the skill of his English-speaking collaborators can provide. He is determined that no translationese or good will should intrude.
It seems reasonable enough to refer Liu’s poems to models in English Poetry – not to identify any Europeaness, but to acclimatise them to the language in which his native tongue is now couched. His are in general visionary poems – poems of dream states and symbols. As with all well wrought symbols, the sharp edges of physical reality are present. Many of those poems belong to the Chinese traditions of journeying, of setting out, of pilgrimage and the wonders of discovery. If we find suggestions of (say) Rimbaud, Christopher Smart, Blake, Whitman, even of Empson, himself an Old China Hand (“Rubik’s Cube“), this is because we are more familiar with our literary tradition than we are with Liu’s. This is an attractive argumentative side to this poetry, a debate, a wrangling (Empson’s “argufying”), almost a Socratic bustle. And behind many of the poem is a sense of ritual, of an unscheduled liturgy. And there is an unapologetic Romanticism, as though Kubla Khan had landed in our midst – this despite his unswerving truth to the harshness of modernity and the consumer world it has created.
As one of the English-speaking poets who has worked with Liu in attempting to bring his verse to life in our tongue, I should confess, and perhaps apologise, for our practice. I cannot read a single Chinese character and I understand the tradition of Classical Chinese Poetry only through reading it in English verse. However, Liu himself bridges the essential gap between our cultures. He outlines the poem’s essential gift and portrays it in English. He speaks of its form in Chinese and he trusts us to find a manner of presentation which may include rhetorical parallels between the two languages. Thence on, it is his genius and our understanding of English Poetry which produces the poem. I once spoke to the Chairman of Chinese PEN, Mr. Ye at a conference in Cyprus, with Sir Stephen Spender in 1981, and he suggested that the English and Chinese sensibilities had much in common. He had recently emerged from isolation during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and he is not anyone’s soft liberal. The two countries are both devotees of a sense of humour, he said. The poetry of Liu Hongbin straddles the Chinese and the British sense of humour across a spectrum from the sardonic to the appalled. This poetry is not casual, but determined, and it speaks directly to the present-day sensibility.
Whatever connections have been proposed in this Introduction, none should be the last or even the first word. Here is a collection of poetry of prime and original force. You can hear it in Chinese if you listen to its author’s brilliant reading; but you can read it in English and hear it for yourself on the page.
Liu has returned to China to visit his family several times since leaving originally. Alas, he has been greeted still as an enemy of the state. He loves China and feels sensibly enough, that his poems written out of his inheritance, must, at least for the time being, speak to his readers in their assumed English accent.
. This is a much expanded version of the introduction that originally appeared in A Day Within Days (London: Ambit Books, 2006), p. ii. Sadly, the publisher imposed space constraints that did not allow for publication of this longer introduction.