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Ten Maxims or Utterances Concerning Poetry

February 1, 2007
In a brief text written in 1995, Han Dong tried to sum up his ideas about poetry reading and writing in ten maxims.

1. The direction of poetry goes from bottom to top. Poetry is something dimly discernible in the sky which descends to the human world thanks to the productive force of the writer’s waiting and yearning. Poetry is not an excavation down into the depths; it is not coal. Writers are not labourers — they must set aside the attitude that writing poetry requires some form of exertion. 

2. Poetry is waiting [shige shi dengdai]. Any exhortation to poets to root themselves in the earth is a lie, regardless of whether this ‘earth’ is that of a national language or of life. There is no guarantee that an advocate of life experience or a rhetorician of the mother tongue could come up with a single line of that thing we call poetry. 

3. Poetry is distinct from knowledge: it is the province of those in whom innocence has not yet vanished. Writers and readers communicate on the basis of innocence, not knowledge. A good writer has no more right to speak about poetry than a good reader: the two are well-matched in terms of the quality of their feelings. A good reader is definitely superior to an inferior writer. 

4. If we are unable to feel anything for a particular poem, then either the poem is not a work endowed by nature [bingfei shi tianfu zhi zuo], or we have lost our innocence. The probability of either situation occurring is equally likely: works endowed by nature and the spirit of innocence are both hard to come by. What is more likely is the situation where there is neither work endowed by nature nor a spirit of innocence — a genuine case of “trying to go south by driving the chariot north” in which no one’s needs are satisfied or, if they are, the level of taste is a poor one. 

5. Bad poetry [zaogao de shi] is just as likely to excite people (both the writer of it and readers). Measuring the value of a poem in terms of the degree of excitement it generates is unreliable in the extreme. A good poem in the real sense of the word is an enduring thing: it shines in the dark without diminishing itself in the least. Poems that are depleted by intense emotion and thereby reduced in some way are highly suspect. 

6. What distinguishes a good poem? It is seen at a glance and discovered after neglect. Occasionally it appears in a very inconspicuous position, but when we find ourselves in the right frame of mind, we feel strongly attracted by it. The opposite scenario: we confront the poem directly with a fixed gaze, authorities direct our attention to it, it is put on the uppermost shelf (the cover of the book it is published in has embossed gold lettering), but when we are feeling deficient in spirit or require consolation it always strikes us as being suspect. 

7. The value of a good poem increases over time. A second-rate poem is consumed in one sitting: subsequent re-readings are never as good as the first. Our feelings possess a powerful capacity for the intake of nourishment — a second-rate poem is unable to withstand such a utilitarian intake. At the same time, taking in nourishment for the spirit cannot be the purpose of our reading. It is an error to read poetry for the purposes of diversion, entertainment, information or sympathy. 

8. Read a poem when your feelings are heightened but in no sense bottled-up, relaxed and yet not lethargic. 

9. Modern Chinese is a material different from the language of other nationalities: comparisons in terms of value can only be made when language has been turned into poetry. Often, what we are comparing is the material itself, and for this reason we arrive at appraisals that are either self-denigrating or inflated. This is plainly nonsensical. 

10. Modern Chinese has a greater extension (in terms of meaning) than Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese lives in and through Modern Chinese, and not the other way around. The relationship of modern poetry to classical poetry is not that of a degenerate princely descendant left over from the decline of a once mighty empire. The relationship of classical Chinese poetry to modern poetry is simply that of an illustrious beginning. These are two very different historical perspectives. Western sinologists are always happy to endorse the former viewpoint, whereas we Chinese are always happy to endorse the view of the sinologists. This state of affairs is, for us, doubly passive, as well as being both a misunderstanding and a source of humiliation.

Han Dong  (Translated by Simon Patton)


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