Below are notes from my introduction to Xi Chuan’s poetry reading at Seattle Public Library:
Xi Chuan is an important poet, influential in a way that defies understanding by people who have not lived in a place like China. I don’t mean to suggest China is really such an exceptional country/culture (although some may argue this). I refer instead to the emergence of China on the contemporary world stage, at once construction site and laboratory for experimenting with massive socio/economic and yes even political change over the past three decades. These are the same three decades, roughly speaking, during which Xi Chuan has been active as a poet.
To be influential in this context means more than finding a way to cause other poets to follow one’s example in style or substance. It is a matter of literally finding a viable language in which to speak. Viability in terms of poetry relates to some form of authenticity, which means some form of” truth,” a fact which separates literature generally but poetry in particular from other realms of linguistic experience. Think politics, where the opposite is the case—Chinese politics in particular (though recent debates in the United States makes one think of this country as well): here we experience language not as something predicated on viability (it needs no such bolstering) or authenticity. Political language in China is not truth to power, it is power to truth.
Journalism, regrettably, is similarly ensconced in something un-viable, at least in terms of what is printed (virtually and non) in China. And this corruption of language is not restricted to Chinese case, as in outside journalism (by which I mean that written by authors in sites beyond China’s borders) we find the same problem. In Western-press writing about China we find language suffering less from calculated or otherwise strategized intent to mislead, and more from the unwitting and unfortunate failure to grasp what is really happening.
Finally we have what we might conveniently call “Market Language,” one predicated on advertisement, and one obviously not concerned with the “viable” per se (though “authentic,” however phony, is a typical rhetorical thrust).
If we try to understand these three examples in concert, we could do worse than turn to the political slogan, popular in China during the past few decades, meaning simply “Look to the future”
This, in an almost Rick Perry-esque “oops” comes out perfectly homophonously as “Look to money”.
Both have been true of China in the last 30 years, and both are bad news for poetic language.
Thus, appreciating the word “important” where Xi Chuan is concerned should follow from a more general appreciation of the importance of poetry itself. For this we can return to something pithy, Ezra Poundian:
“poetry is news that stays news”
and amend it to simply:
[Xi Chuan’s] poetry is news [about China] that stays news
Of course, we should be careful not to make Xi Chuan into mere news reporter for Chinese realities. He is more than that. He is a poet.