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Commentary on
“Trees Grow Lively on Snowy Fields:
Poems from Contemporary China”

 (translated by Stephen Haven, Jin Zhong, Li Yongyi, and Wang Shouyi)

Based on the Preface by Stephen Haven

It may be hard for Americans to imagine the pervasive presence of poetry in Chinese culture.  Even in the modern era that presence persists, though modern Chinese poetry has had to survive the double onslaught of twentieth century communism and twenty-first century communist-capitalism. When I spent my first Fulbright year in Beijing, in 1990-1991, as a tribute to their foreign guest young children sometimes recited classical Chinese poems for me. 

The Chinese love of beauty infiltrates the culture as a whole—an aesthetic sensibility that has filtered down through the influence of thousands of years. Among educated people, poetry in China is still regarded as the highest art because it unifies other art forms. Poetry has musical effects, visual effects, the emotional range of drama, and draws also from religion, history and philosophy. My sense from conversations with cab drivers through the window of my broken Mandarin is that even the Chinese working class has regard for the words “poet” and “poetry.”  The twin spirits of poetry, bamboo and willows, are often planted together in many urban parks. The poets Li Bai and Du Fu lived for many years in Szechuan Province where bamboo and willows grow.

An assault on poetry took place after 1949 in Mao’s reformation of the Chinese language. New generations educated to read only Mao’s modern reformed Chinese were largely incapable of understanding classical literature in its original expression.  Meanwhile there was the muse’s other minor inhibition—the ideological correctness of all public poetry in the bloody, political hubris of the People’s Republic’s first decades, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Only after Mao’s death in 1976, in the midst of the Democracy Wall Movement, poets began to write with reckless disregard for state censorship. A revolution in Chinese poetry took place in 1978 when Bei Dao, Mang Ke, Duo Duo, and other Misty School poets began publishing their oblique, plaintive poems in the journal Jintian (Today). 

In April 2011, I had dinner in Beijing with poets Lan Lan, Duo Duo, and Wang Jiaxin. I asked Duo Duo what modern Chinese poet prior to 1977 made contributions to his generation.  “No one,” he said. “There is no Chinese poet like Wallace Stevens or Paul Celan.” In a beautiful restaurant near the American embassy, with caged songbirds and potted trees all around us, Lan Lan’s twins, and Wang Jiaxin’s wife and son, Duo Duo claimed through the Frost scholar, my old student Liu Ruiying, that modern Western poetry was his literary father, classical Chinese poetry his grandfather. In his complaint against the narrative orientation of much American poetry—that many American poets are satisfied merely “to tell the story”—he affirmed his affinity with the lyrical, non-narrative character of most classical Chinese poetry.

Having collaborated intermittently for 30 years on the translations in Trees Grow Lively on Snowy Fields, I can say without exaggeration that the experience of meeting and working with the writers in this collection, either in person or through an attempt to articulate their poems in my own native tongue, has been a life-long conversation that has enriched my understanding of the aesthetic possibilities for poetry. I hope the poems of this collection can speak to English lovers of poetry everywhere, offering a peephole, possibly a window, maybe even a portal into the sensibilities of twelve writers who have made and continue to make important contributions to the life of poetry in China.

Trees Grow Lively on Snowy Fields: Poems from Contemporary China is available from Twelve Winters in laminate hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions. The hardcover and paperback are dual-language editions with Mandarin and English on facing pages.

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Stephen Haven’s most recent book of poems, The Flight from Meaning, was among eleven finalists for the International Beverly Prize in Literature and is forthcoming from London’s Eyewear Publishing. His previous collections of poetry are The Last Sacred Place in North America, Dust and Bread, and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks. He is Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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